Meet Thomas Sullivan: Executive Director of the Westchester Children’s Museum
The Westchester Children’s Museum is one of our family-friendly favorites in Westchester. Offering STEAM, art, building, permanent and rotating exhibits, and more, offering imaginative play and hands-on and interactive fun for kids.
The museum is also experiencing an exciting phase in its history with a recent infrastructural renovation with a beautiful open-airy 20,000-square-foot space as well as new programming and events in the works where families can spend hours creating and playing.
The museum also welcomed new leadership with Thomas Sullivan recently helmed as the new Executive Director. We had the pleasure to visit the museum, play, and speak with Thomas who shared more about his background, some of the exciting programs in the works, and highlights of the Westchester Children’s Museum.
Westchester Family: Tell us about your background and how you came to work at children’s museums?
Thomas Sullivan: I’ve been a storyteller from a very young age. As a young child all the way through into my undergraduate life, I was very involved in musical theater production. From performing on stage to set construction, I loved at all! While getting my bachelors in musical theater, I had the opportunity to be a preschool teacher’s aid in the university daycare as part of the work-study program.
I come from a family of educators, so it felt like a natural fit for one of my first jobs. During that time, I found so many wonderful connections between theater and early childhood educational pedagogy that after graduation and moving to NYC, I found a position as a Preschool Science Specialist in Greenwich Village. Being very honest, I found it much more fulfilling than the exhausting theater auditioning pursuits. It was the direct, authentic impact that I was seeking! After several years in that role, I wanted to expand the curriculum and experiences I had created, and found a graduate program at Bank Street College of Education focused on museums.
From there I began working in many different institutions including Liberty Science Center, the American Museum of Natural History, the New York Historical Society, and several others museums around the city to expand the reach of the content I had created. After several years of teaching in and designing/building exhibits for museums I found my first leadership role in the amazing DuPage Children’s Museum in Naperville, IL as the Director of Education and Programs.
Those lovely three years in the greater Chicago area ended when our young family sought to return to the NYC Metro area. We left in February of 2020, and had no idea what would happen next! During COVID I felt that it was crucial to return to the classroom where I worked at an independent elementary school in Stamford that was looking to build their STEM program. That experience was especially meaningful because I was able to be my own children’s first Science Teacher, an experience I will cherish forever. The launch of the national search for the ED role at Westchester Children’s Museum began right at the end of the last school year, with the interview process lasting through the summer. And here we are!
Westchester Family: You are entering an exciting phase at the Westchester Children’s Museum! What are some of the big picture and smaller things you hope you change/develop?
Thomas Sullivan: This is a particularly wonderful challenge! In the years prior to my arrival, the Museum went through a major infrastructural renovation, going from a 6,000-square-foot to a 20,000-square-foot space, with it all culminating in March of 2020. In many ways this was incredibly lucky to finish before the impending pandemic shut downs, but heartbreaking as it left the museum a big (but functional and beautiful) blank canvas for over two years now. Now comes the time to rally, as families in a community who absolutely deserve and incredibly engaging, unique, and one-of-a-kind hands-on family learning environment, to fill it with amazing exhibitry!
While I certainly have an expansive catalog of exhibit ideas that I’ve either directly worked on or seen successfully implemented in other Museums around the country, a Children’s Museum’s first job is to serve their surrounding community/region. Now comes the time to engage the community to help us design and build these exciting new exhibit experiences that make sense for, and are completely unique to us!
Westchester Family: Can you share some highlights from the museum for someone who has never been?
Thomas Sullivan: While we are definitely excited for the next few years of our growth, we are already a vibrant, humming space of play and creativity. With a wide variety hands-on STEAM experiences throughout our space, it is easy for a child and their family to spend several hours engulfed in joyful discovery. From the active build-your-own roller coasters and windtunnel flying machine design, to quiet corners in the book nook gallery and the ever-changing art workshop tables, there’s always something to do in our bright, sunny, open space.
We see amazing things being built by the big kids with our large scale construction kits, and love seeing crawlers and early walkers explore the soft cushioned Toddler Beach exhibit area. And being right on the boardwalk at Playland Park with a gorgeous beach view of Long Island sound ain’t bad either!
Westchester Family: What kind of events are you opening to host in the future at the Westchester Children’s Museum?
Thomas Sullivan: We are deep into planning a wide menu of new programmatic offerings! From daily free (with membership/admission) drop-in programs like StoryTime and Music & Movement sessions scattered throughout the day, to weekend-long special events celebrating seasons, holidays, or exciting STEAM themes, we are working hard behind the scenes to implement these new program experiences.
We have also been successfully serving our local schools for many years now, even before we had a building of our own, and are very excited to vastly expand and grow our school/district partnerships to offer more completely unique, museum-exclusive classroom experiences for the region’s students (and their teachers, too)!
Westchester Family: Why do you believe play/discovery is important for kids?
Thomas Sullivan: Thankfully, it has very little to do with what I, myself believe – the research is in! Pediatricians, early childhood development experts, and educators all agree: play is the way young children learn. The way we live our overscheduled lives today is not conducive to this vitally important exercise of unstructured, child-led free play time.
It sometimes seems strange to advocate for something as beautiful and beneficial as play. (I sometimes compare it to advocating for chocolate cake!) Play should be easy to rally around. But with descriptors like “frivolous” as a part of it’s definition, and the current overall cultural feeling that down-time itself feels like a “luxury,” its no wonder that play needs advocating for. Children’s Museums are often at the forefront of elevating the academic and intellectual importance of play; and play-as-learning is central to WCM’s mission, vision, and values.
Westchester Family: Anything else you’d like to add?
Thomas Sullivan: Every child, and every family should feel like this is their Museum. Their space to play and learn (same thing!) in. Their space to show off to visiting friends and family. Their space to protect, uplift, and advocate for. Their space to be a part of and celebrate its growth! A Children’s Museum is special. No other environment in a community can do what it does. There’s no other learning institutional model that designs for child-driven, family-integral play-as-learning environments like a Children’s Museum. And we are poised and ready, with the help from the community we serve, to grow Westchester Children’s Museum into something truly special.
Westchester Children’s Museum Details:
100 Playland Pkwy
Rye, NY 10580
Open Wednesday to Sunday from 10:00am – 4:00pm