The KID Museum

The story behind Bethesda's newest attraction for children

Bethesda’s Cara Lesser co-founded the KID Museum so children could have a place to experiment and learn.

photo by Mike Olliver

In 2011, Bethesda resident Cara Lesser, now 47, was employed by the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services, overseeing a team that was working on the Affordable Care Act. She noticed that many of the people who were implementing the legislation lacked creativity.

At the same time, her kids were entering Bradley Hills Elementary School in Bethesda, leaving the hands-on environment of preschool to sit at a desk for six hours each day. She realized that there may be a link between the two. “There was just this mismatch between what we need in the work world and what we are giving our kids to prepare them for that world,” Lesser says.

Lesser spoke to Jill Chessen, a Bethesda attorney who has a passion for understanding other cultures, and David Goldberg, a Bethesda entrepreneur who was on the executive leadership team at Ticketmaster when the company went public in 1996. Soon after, the three set out to create a hands-on science center where kids could experiment and learn. Last October, the Kids International Discovery (KID) Museum opened in Bethesda’s Davis Library.

The 7,200-square-foot space features everything from laptops and printers to textiles and cardboard—all of which kids are encouraged to play with and touch. On a recent afternoon, a group of kids was building “drawbots”—robots made out of a plastic cup, markers, and a small motor that makes the markers scribble.

One girl looked intently at a vertical wind tunnel, watching to see if her small paper flying machine would make it out, before catching it midair and exclaiming, “I did it!”

Bethesda Magazine spoke with Lesser, the museum’s executive director, about how one of our area’s newest—and perhaps coolest—museums came to be.

HOW THE MUSEUM WAS DESIGNED: Lesser visited kids’ museums around the country including in Boston, New York, Pittsburgh, San Francisco and Portland, Oregon. Her children—Cayla, now 12, and Eliana, now 10—often tagged along, telling their mom what interested them and what didn’t. The girls enjoyed places that allowed them to make things, such as the “clay bar” at the Children’s Museum of the Arts in Manhattan. In the end, Lesser and Chessen fell in love with the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, which embraces the national “maker movement.” Says Lesser: “The maker movement is about combining the new and the old and getting people back in touch with the joy of making things, not just consuming things.”

WHO IT'S FOR: The target audience is elementary to middle school kids, whose lives, Lesser believes, have become too rigid and structured. “Even after school, it is 12 weeks of piano lessons or skating lessons and soccer games,” she says. “Where do our kids have that time to just explore and enjoy sort of finding what they want to learn, what their passion is?”

SEEING THE MUSEUM'S PHILOSOPHY IN ACTION: More than 15,000 people are expected to attend the KID Museum’s Maker Faire on Sept. 20 at the Silver Spring Civic Building and Veterans Plaza. At this event, kid inventors display their exhibits alongside astronauts and high school robotics teams, and attendees have plenty of opportunities to build creations of their own. Last year, the National Institutes of Health had an exhibit showcasing its 3-D printing technology. This year, there will be an area focused on coding and video game design. In addition, the museum will announce the finalists in its “Toy 2.0 Challenge,” a contest for kids to design their own toys. The winning toy will be produced by Innovation First International and sold across the country.

WHAT KIDS HAVE INVENTED: Alex Fisher, a 15-year-old student at Walter Johnson High School, is designing a toy called “Treasure Hunt” that uses electronic sensors to find hidden balls. As part of a six-week after-school program, a group of students from Parkland Middle School in Rockville made “Circuit City,” in which each student designed a house and produced it on a 3-D printer. The students also created lights and sound machines to complete a cityscape.

WHAT'S NEXT: Lesser is hoping to move the museum into a larger space in Montgomery County in about three years. The move would facilitate more cultural exhibits and community service programming. “The thing we hear over and over again is: ‘You know, it is easy to get here, it is just impossible to leave,’ ” Lesser says. “People just get sucked in.”

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