Spring break this year promises to bring back a little bit of fun as entertainment venues reopen.
One of them is Pretend City Children’s Museum in Irvine. A destination for parents looking to entertain and educate young children, the nonprofit first opened in 2009. Like most museums, it was closed for much of the pandemic, reopening briefly in summer and fall when restrictions loosened.
The closures gave Leslie Perovich, the museum’s chief operating officer, and the Pretend City team time to “make lemons into lemonade” while adding exhibits and retrofitting the 28,000-square-foot facility to meet COVID-19 protocols. A lot of things, including the bathrooms, have been updated with safety in mind.
“Because parents and restrooms are a big deal,” Perovich said Thursday with a laugh.
The nonprofit opened in 2009 and features a collection of scaled-down, hands-on experiences that teach children how things work. Think bank, doctor’s office, Trader Joe’s, a police station, fire station, a local marina and even the historic Orange Plaza. The museum previously was funded primarily through ticket sales, but that all changed in the pandemic. Perovich says philanthropy, grants and the Paycheck Protection Program have kept it afloat in tough times.
Staffing, once at 42, sunk to 13 during lockdowns and now stands at 24 with onboarding still ongoing, she said.
The creative economy, or that which supports creative jobs, arts and entertainment, took a tremendous hit in 2020 as the pandemic shut down businesses. A study by the Otis College of Art and Design estimates $140 billion of the industry’s economic output was lost in California. More than 500,000 jobs were affected with $40 billion in income lost.
Southern California claims the largest share of the creative economy with 49% of California’s creative wage and salary employment and 52% of its contract employment, according to the study.
Pretend City’s third reopening in a year on Saturday, March 27 comes with two new exhibits, one with a pandemic twist that explores children’s wellness and state of mind, and the other a windfall from another museum’s demise.
We spoke with Perovich about changes at Pretend City and some of the lessons learned in the past year.
Q: With so many parents looking for family activities, how are you preparing for the pent-up demand?
A: The good news for us is we opened twice before, in June and October. We’ve done this before; we’ve got it down.
When we were getting ready to open, we realized we had an exhibit that never got funded, and it sat in the middle of the exhibition floor. We used it for storage. We realized we had an opportunity: What could we do that would resonate with families right now?
We knew that emotional well-being was going to be so important for kids, so we got rid of the storage and converted it to the Mind & Body studio. It has two sections: a way to talk to kids about their feelings and a yoga section.
Q: What’s changing at the museum with COVID-19 in mind?
A: During the shutdown, we’ve been retrofitting exhibits, and we changed a lot of how we do business. Now, we have timed admission sessions, and we close midday for deep cleaning.
Perovich said every exhibit has hand sanitation stations and new “prop buckets” for items that children put in their mouths or generally slobber. The buckets and their contents are cleaned during the midday closure. Staff members also rotate exhibits and sanitize surfaces as they exit. Another cleaning happens at the end of the day.
Q: Tell us how the museum pivoted during the closures.
A: Before the pandemic, we had a guide to play in the museum, so we switched that to a play-at-home guide. The guides help parents gauge their child’s emotional and gross motor skill development. We also did Town Halls, Facebook live videos on gross motor skills, and parenting webinars, helping our members learn how to parent under quarantine.
Q: Pretend City’s newest exhibition arrived courtesy of another museum closure. Tell us about it.
A: I read an article when the pandemic first hit that World of Speed was closing (in Oregon) and I thought to myself, ‘what can I get for our museum?’
They had what was a child’s area with an exhibit in it, and even though they said everything would go to nonprofits in Oregon, I told them, ‘I have this perfect home in Irvine.’ So, we worked together over a couple months, and ‘lo and behold, they awarded it to us; we were thrilled to get it.
We went up in November, packed it in a U-Haul and drove it down.”
The $65,000 exhibit was a gift, Perovich said. The only cost was moving it.
The slick exhibit called ‘Service Station’ comes with all the parts needed to overhaul a car. It even has sound, Perovich said. So kids can expect the ‘glug, glug, glug’ when they change the oil or the revving of an engine or a compressor whirring as tires are changed. Windshield wipers even swish.
Q: What will forever stay that the pandemic taught you?
A: How important a committed and dedicated staff and board are to the mission of our organization.
Five things about Leslie
- Favorite crave food? Dessert
- Any new pandemic habits? I’m becoming a Master Gardner through the UC system
- What have the children of Pretend City taught you? Children still need free-range, pretend play to help them build their minds and bodies.
- Favorite tip or piece of advice for new parents? Make time to play with your child because it’s how they learn. It’s the catalyst of healthy development.
- If you could pick one exhibit as a favorite one that fits your personality, which one is it? I usually say the ‘streets’ because they connect everything together.
If you go
Opening day: March 27
Address: 29 Hubble, Irvine
Safety measures: Cloth masks are a required part of all staff uniforms. Adult guests and children over the age of 2 also must wear masks that cover the nose and mouth.
Limited crowds: As the museum is reopening at 25% capacity, timed reservation are required. Guests can buy timed entry tickets online at Pretendcity.org.
Free ticket: Parents who fill out an “age and stages questionnaire” for children ages newborn through 5½ can get a free child’s ticket. Go to pretendcity.org/forms/asq/ to complete the form.