"Daddy is smiling," said Kay Grant Martin after walking through the new Main Street Children's Museum during a sneak peek for donors on Wednesday.
Martin is the daughter of late local artist Vernon Grant, whose drawings and paintings inspired the setting of the new museum opening Friday on East Main Street in Rock Hill.
"Right now, there are girls running around in their costumes and having a marvelous time," Martin said. "And that's exactly what (the museum) is supposed to do."
A few leaders of national museum organizations who were guests at Wednesday's donor party agreed.
"In a facility like this, children have a chance to use their imagination and think creatively so they can construct the world around them," said Harold Closter, the director of the Smithsonian Affiliations, made up of 165 nationwide museums including York County's Culture and Heritage Museums.
The new museum has several play exhibits including a tree house, a baby pumpkin, little houses, a sailing ship, and a dress-up vault. There are toys in all of these settings.
Playing is learning, Closter and other museum leaders said.
"For children, play is their work," said Freda Nicholson, who formerly directed Discovery Place in Charlotte and chaired the American Association of Museums board.
While playing together, children are learning how to interact and technology doesn't always facilitate that kind of learning, Nicholson said.
"It's easy to plop your kids down in front of a TV or a computer," she said. "The problem with technology is you do that by yourself."
While some children's museums concentrate on science or technology, many of those are for older age groups. The new children's museum is focused on early learning, said Janet Rice Elman, the executive director of the Association of Children's Museums.
Children's museums are cropping up all over the nation as the fastest growing of all museum types even in the slow economy, she said.
Some York County Council members and commissioners overseeing the Culture and Heritage Museums have criticized building a new museum on Main Street in such tough economic times, wondering how it could be successful.
But Elman said the museum is part of a national trend of how a third of all children's museums get their start - 35 percent of children's museums are a part of revitalization projects, she said.
While Elman's organization doesn't track the economic impact of the museums on the areas they're trying to revitalize, anecdotal evidence shows they're doing all right and staying put, she said. "We don't see them leaving those locations."
"They're an anchor, something that draws families in," she said. "Now there's a reason for them to come" and eat and shop nearby.
Having local governments invest in such a project signals an investment in the community's children, she said.
But what makes the children's museum unique is "it's a keeper of (Grant's) legacy," she said.
Martin and her brother, Chip Grant, donated their father's artworks to the CHM. Then the museums started thinking about how they might use the imagery.
Children in a focus group responded to the scenery in Grant's illustrations, saying if they could they'd "sail the ship" and "climb the tree," said Owen Glendening, deputy director of interpretation for the museums.
"We took our cue from the children," he said.
After touring the building, Chip Grant proclaimed: "It's just like walking right into a Vernon Grant city."