Jan. 13, 2012 –
Rosemary Ponnekanti; The News Tribune
The Children’s Museum of Tacoma reopens Saturday. What will it be like?
Finding out was my assignment.
The personnel: A friend and I and our eight combined children, ages 3-17.
The location: The new 8,000-square-foot Children’s Museum space.
The mission: Test-drive the play space as only eight energetic kids can do.
The verdict: Tons of fun for any age – including parents.
They were still nailing up the curvy artist-made sign over the entrance as we waited in the new Children’s Museum lobby Tuesday afternoon. I’d asked my friend Kristy Rodney to bring her six kids to join my two for the ultimate test-drive of the museum’s new digs on Pacific Avenue. It’s been months in the making. Like racehorses at the starting gate, my kids pawed the ground, eager to go.
And then we were off.
First up was the forest. The museum has four play spaces, circling the central art studio: Adults can easily see from one area to the other, but kids still feel a sense of discovery. The tree-fort structure of Woods, the cascading surfaces of Water, the enormous climbing structure of Voyager, and the fascinating building toys of Invention are all constructed with natural materials – wood, fabric, metal, tile – or good plastic imitations, and the overall effect is calm and inviting.
But don’t let that fool you. These play spaces pack a powerful imaginative punch for kids of all ages.
Within minutes, my son Nicolo, 7, was passing toy squirrels up to Miriam Rodney, 6, on the upper level via a rope basket, and my daughter Bianca, 9, was scampering with Audrey Rodney, 11, along the rope bridge. Meghan Rodney, 3, was playing on the rope trampoline, conveniently at parent-eye-level, and Mathew Rodney, 8, had discovered the cave underneath, where you can write green glow-in-the-dark lines on the wall with LED pens.
“This totally rocks,” said Bianca. “I want to live here.”
“If I built a fort, this is what it would be,” added Audrey.
In the center of Woods is the Playful Tree, created by artist Kristin Tollefson and Grant Elementary students. Its aluminum branches sparkle with a revolving star-shaped spotlight, and its pendulous felt fruit dangle just out of reach. Scattered around are wooden sensory toys in fiber and wood baskets, and there’s a cute little woodpile section, complete with holes you can pass a toy through.
Then we discovered the phones: old-school wall-mounted handsets that connect to others around the museum.
“Come and see this, Mom!” called Miriam, holding out the receiver while Bianca waited on the other end below.
If you’ve been to the Olympia or Portland or Bellevue children’s museums, you might think you know what this is about. Now imagine something much bigger. Flanked by big, light-filled windows (and comfy window seats), the Water area has two sets of waterfall tables stocked with ducks, fish and building blocks, connected at the back by a towering wall of glass louvers. Water cascades from copper showerheads; you can operate the showers with floor-level faucets and the louvers with big levers to create your own waterfall. All of it flows into the two tables via a terrific pipe system full of outlets, plastic diverters and metal basins just waiting to be tinkered with.
As Mathew stocked up on pipes from the central supply trolley, Nicolo yelled with delight as the basin flooded the tables, and Meghan calmly piloted a fish upstream. Bianca and Audrey crawled underneath the tables to stare at the bubbles through the clear plastic bottom.
“You can see people’s faces, and it feels like you’re inside a fish tank,” Bianca said.
And while it’s fun to build dams and get wet, there’s also a still-water tank for special displays like huge melting ice blocks. There are plenty of kitchen utensils, toys, aprons and (parents rejoice) two hand-dryers at kid-level. The whole thing has a crazy-scientist, steampunk feel, and you can get a bird’s-eye view from the top platform of Woods.
A bird? A plane? A boat? The Voyager can be all three at the same time – or whatever you imagine. The 15-foot-tall metal construction is maybe the most unusual thing about this museum, and apart from being a terrific climbing toy, it immediately demonstrates the new focus of imaginative, rather than prescriptive, play.
As Miriam crawled through the rope “neck” to reach the “cockpit” and chat on the phone to Hannah, 15, below, Meghan was pedaling one child-size bike on the upper platform to power the rocket lights and Bianca was pedaling the other to make the 10-foot wings flap like a stately dragon. Nicolo, meanwhile, was dressed in a yellow jacket and life-vest to go fishing, while Mathew was exploring the old-style suitcases, cubbies and toys in the reading nook underneath. Soon Nathan, 17, was taking a turn down the slide from the nearby “control tower,” while the girls buried themselves in imitation autumn leaves in the cushioned leaf-pit below.
“I want to have my sweet 16th birthday party here,” Hannah said. “My friends would love it.”
“My favorite part is being in the head of the giant duck,” said Miriam, adding a new take on the whole structure.
This is the part of the museum that’ll be most familiar to visitors of the old space, or of other local children’s museums. There’s a magnetic wall with DIY tubing to direct balls, there are stacking blocks and pipes, and there’s an air-pipe wall with faucets to channel scarves and foam balls.
But it entrances kids with cool takes on the old: Audrey and Bianca giggled noisily as scarves rained down on them from the overhead chute, while Nicolo rocked on the giant plywood half-tubes like a skateboard and Nathan sat, immersed, at the light table, building a space-age apartment out of magnetic colored shapes.
Allow at least two hours to fully play in the museum and still have time to make art. The two central studios are open and inviting, with plenty of individual work space and supplies: paints, pencils, paper, mixed media, and a magnetic drawing wall.
In a second studio are sensory objects to explore: rocks, wood, moss, lichen, a cocoa-shell tub with scoops, a sand-table backlit to allow light drawing and with patterned rollers. High up are nature-based exhibits in warm wood shelves, and artist Brian Hutcheson has installed an interactive postcard project overhead.
Art around the rest of the museum gives the space an individual feel: Tollefson’s donor wall of colorful wire shapes; the handcrafted tile wall and chandelier by Joan Joachims and Rachel Dotson in the reflections area; the twisting steel ribbons in aqua, tangerine and lime by Jennifer Weddermann that loop along the outside wall. It all helps set the tone for helping kids explore their own imaginations.
While the museum is the kind of space you could happily spend hours in, our team found a few glitches.
No one knew the codes to open all of the suitcases. Some of the faucets didn’t seem to activate anything. The leaves were hard to brush off your clothes and to pick up afterwards (more netting, maybe?), and there could definitely be a few more bathrooms.
Nevertheless, the new Children’s Museum space is a hit for parents and kids of all ages.
“It’s fantastic, I wasn’t ready to leave,” Kristy Rodney summed up, adding that for special needs children like Mathew, who has autism and ADD, the calm, nature-based feel and spacing provides sensory fun without overload.
For adults, there are comfy seats, a full-service café, and a layout that, as Rodney said, is “small enough that you can see where the kids are, but big enough that they don’t all have to do the same thing.” Alarms and staffing at the doors ensure safety.
The new Pay As You Will entry is obviously a gift to everyone in the community, but at the same time there are options for membership that offer extras like parking, free programs, discounts and extra hours.
“The museum’s come a long way,” said Bianca. “Before, my brother would be fascinated but there was not much to interest me. Now, it’s amazing. You get the feeling you’re walking into this giant art gallery, except you can walk on it and touch it.”
“You’re never too old for the children’s museum,” added Hannah.