“I can’t believe THIS is where I get to come to work everyday,” said Carter Arnot Polakoff, the new CEO and President of Port Discovery Children’s Museum, looking around in wonder at the museum’s lobby. Although she hates having her picture taken, she can’t hide the pure joy in her smile.

The delight is contagious — and is the embodiment of what Port Discovery is for so many families. It’s obvious that Carter is in her happy place.

You might say that she’s back in her happy place. Carter started her career as an intern and founding staff member at Port Discovery. She spent more than 20 years at the Baltimore School of the Arts, immersed in nonprofit arts management which allowed her to create deep relationships with civic organizations and nonprofits.

That experience has carried Carter home to port, ready to lead the museum’s next adventure: navigating post-pandemic waters and getting Baltimore back to play.

“I think Bryn (Parchman) deserve so much credit for leaving the museum in such a stable state – it’s a beautiful facility and in a place that will allow us to expand upon the amazing programming already in place.”

So what is next? Re-introducing Port Discovery to the community — and helping families make play an integral part of their daily lives.

As a children’s museum located next to Power Plant LIVE!, Port Discovery is often seen as a tourist destination and not the community hub that Carter envisions it to be. She doesn’t want families to have a special day when they come to the museum once per year; she wants them to be visiting weekly — maybe just for an hour or two — and really immersing themselves in everything the museum has to offer. Her vision includes expanded community programs, a broader offering of parent education resources, and an extensive renovation to the atrium space that will encourage families to connect with one another and to the Greater Baltimore community. Her goal: to make Port Discovery to be the place to be, not just the place to visit.

She wants to offer experiences that are unforgettable. She wants kids to excitedly remember painting the walls with shaving cream or making giant community art projects like murals and paper mache friendly monsters. Because is there really anything more fun than messy play? Especially when it’s not happening in your kitchen and you’re not in charge of clean-up?

Part of transitioning from “special occasion destination” to becoming part of a family’s weekly routine starts with the museum positioning itself as a parenting partner. Port Discovery plans to enhance how they support parents, whether it be through modeling how to play when families visit the museum (because, let’s be honest, after more than a year of being home with young children, adult imaginations may need a tune-up), or offering regular storytime and yoga programs where local parents can connect with one another.

While Chessie’s Grotto, the towering S.S. Friendship Boat in the Port exhibit, or the three-story slide might be what first comes to mind when you think of Port Discovery, much of what the museum provides for the community happens behind the “Staff Only” doors. It’s important to Carter that the community is just as much aware of that work as they are the physical museum space. Port Discovery has been working with local schools to provide supplemental hands-on art activities and educational experiences via video — materials included. They provide playpacks to area children through partnerships with Enoch Pratt Free Library, Howard County Rec and Parks, and Baltimore County Public Libraries. Earlier this year, Port Discovery launched a new Playmakers program that provides low-cost access to the museum for families with EBT and WIC cards (complete with an MDOT MTA CharmCard good for unlimited one-day travel to/from the museum via MDOT MTA Local Bus, Light Rail, and Metro Subway). Field trips may have been canceled, but play is not.

All of these initiatives buoy the museum’s commitment to providing universal access to play — and joy! If there was ever a resolution to make in 2022, it’s let’s get back to joy.

“Play is one of the most essential and important things for children to have access to. It allows them to use their creativity, develop their imaginations, and develop important social and emotional skills – plus lots more,” said Carter. “Kids need this sort of outlet now more than ever – they’ve been through an almost two year period where it’s been hard to play, to connect with others, and to learn. It’s been pretty traumatic for them – and for their families and caregivers. It’s important that Port Discovery is here and ready to provide kids and families with opportunities to play and have fun, to spend time together, to connect with others, and to rebuild important social skills. It’s also important that we give kids and families an outlet to express themselves and heal from all they’ve been through.”

There are several takeaways from operating during COVID that Carter plans to make standard for the museum moving forward. One is their new cleaning protocols. The museum has never been cleaner and she plans to keep it that way. A second is the new play session approach to scheduling, where families buy admission to a three-hour play session rather than admission for the day to the museum. She said that they’ve seen the benefit of smaller groups — especially for kids! — and doesn’t think that Port Discovery will ever be a place where you’ll see large crowds again. The play session model makes it fiscally feasible for the museum to operate while hosting a smaller number of families at any given time.

“I honestly didn’t think I would find a place as joyful to work as Baltimore School for The Arts,” said Carter. “And now I’m here. This place is magic.”

Editor’s Note: This article first appeared in our 2021 Charmed Holidays Guide and was created in partnership with Port Discovery Children’s Museum. Photos by Jen Snyder.