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Kids and companion free-for-all is a win-win

An even busier than average mom once told me she divided her parental responsibilities into three categories: must do, should do and want to do. The musts obviously took priority. Rarely did she get to the shoulds, however, because her secret as a successful parent was to skip straight to the want-to-dos. Her kids had a lot of good times.

Connecticut, courtesy of $15 million in COVID-19 recovery funding from the American Rescue Plan, is making it easier to ditch the shoulds and go for the fun stuff  this summer. The state is underwriting free admission for children under 18 and an accompanying adult at 90 museums, historic sites, zoos, aquariums and science and nature centers.

The free-for-all of Connecticut Summer at the Museum began Thursday and will continue until Sept. 2. Included are the big and famous — Mystic Seaport Museum and Mystic Aquarium — and best-kept-secret sorts of places like the New London Maritime Society and Leffingwell House Museum in Norwich. They are in every county, which makes this the perfect time to branch out and finally get to Hartford for the Mark Twain House or the Connecticut Science Center. Free! For once the old slogan is true: the more you go, the more you save. Paid admission to attractions can ordinarily run higher than a family might have to spare for items in the want-to category.

This is just the prescription for pandemic-weary families. The summer program's win-win is that it also financially supports institutions hurting from pandemic-related losses. For staff and volunteers it's not enough that they themselves love owls or oysters or origami. They want to share their enthusiasms and hear the oohs. They'd like nothing better than to afford to be open free all the time.

The program, first proposed by Governor Lamont in April, is designed as an immediate antidote to the Covid year, which is how it will do its most important work. However, it's not wishful thinking that the benefits could last a lifetime.

In the long run, this free summer will undoubtedly increase audiences by exposing kids to the cool and the intriguing. They will want to return. The Wadsworth Atheneum, Hartford's huge castle of an art museum, recognized decades ago that many loyal and generous supporters were people who loved attending its art classes as children. Love turned into loyalty. Museum professionals know that an even better way to inspire lifelong interest is for a child's first trips to be in the company of an enthusiastic adult. 

Unexpected things can also happen when people get in the door for free. Last summer, after closing for the pandemic spring, the Lyman Allyn Art Museum in New London went for the unexpected play. As a Lyman Allyn trustee, I can confirm that revenues were way down, but that was minor compared to the widespread problems of isolation and boredom. The museum prepared to swallow the loss and opened to the public for free, all summer.

Adults and children poured in. Many came for a bright, shiny sculpture exhibition of stop-sign-sized lollipops and other sweets that made them smile — and salivate. They had fun. They were not asked to pay a cent, but on their way out so many dropped donations into the box that at the end of the summer admissions revenue was almost normal. The museum is doing it again this summer, now with the help of the state grant.

I suspect that few of the 70 attractions that applied for the grants funding Connecticut Summer at the Museum knew what to expect. They had gotten used to sorry financial realities. This particular use of American Rescue Plan millions satisfies my personal criteria for chasing away people's blues after sitting around during the pandemic. Now I hope every kid will be invited by an adult to a fun day at a museum. Free!

Lisa McGinley is a member of The Day Editorial Board.

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