Wednesday, June 25, 2014

You and Me in a Car: The Reviews are In

I'’ve visited at least 50 children’s museums over the last 25 years, probably more. And now I have to see them all again. With Amelia.  

If you follow this blog, you know that Amelia and I took a road trip last week. Just two girls in a car with a map. (and let’s be real – there were also snacks, a lot of DVD’s, markers, paper, Kleenex, books, toys in various stages of incomplete and broken - you get the idea.)  

We visited four North Carolina children’s museums. We’ve been visiting museums together since Amelia was a baby, but this time was different. First, she is EXACTLY the right age for a children’s museum. At 6 and ½, she's playful and full of imagination, she has the confidence and coordination to climb and independently explore, she’s unafraid of looking silly, and she can read signs by herself. She also knows what she likes. 

Visiting four museums back to back lends itself to comparison and pattern recognition—so naturally, Amelia wrote some reviews. That thing about kids always telling the truth? It makes them excellent critics. 

So, here are Amelia’s reviews of our Fab Four, followed by my observations. If you’re wondering about the peach ratings, well, it’s summertime in the South!  Five peaches is the best.

Isn't everything better with a water slide?

To be fair, there wasn't a gift shop, and I'm not sure what the bathroom problem was

A museum for all sizes!

The beanstalk climber, complete with surround staircase

My observations: This was my first visit to Winston-Salem, and I’ll definitely return. I loved  Kaleidoscape, an outdoor swinging, climb-through, oversized crocheted art installation. It was gorgeous, and like nothing I’d seen before. Amelia climbed through it a few times and then deemed it too “hot and scratchy” to make her top three list.  I also loved the Enchanted Forest, a neighborhood of dramatic play environments each inspired by a different story. Amelia recognized most of them and played in all of them. These “Story Rooms” got a mention in her review. The exhibits all had a spirit of imagination and creative storytelling to them, and this museum is on the brink of merging with a children’s theatre, so watch for even more of this.
More of Kaleidoscape. Check the museum's website for much better photos.
waiting for the donuts
The Enchanted Forest. We think - or  imagined -  the lighting changed from day to night while we were there.
She's right. This one had a particularly unwelcoming bathroom   
No giftshop, bad bathroom, and oddly I only remember pretend food.  Hmmm.


The garden.

My observations: Amelia got it right. Not the best we’ve seen, but we had fun there. Mostly because of the staff, who built forts out of big blue blocks with Amelia for an unexpectedly long period of time. I’ve seen these blocks in LOTS of museums lately and really never cared much about them until staff brought them to life here. Another standout in Greensboro is the Edible Schoolyard, an onsite farm-to-table cooking program complete with an extensive garden and  demonstration kitchen. Again, Amelia found the garden a little too hot. Did I mention that it’s summer in the South?

There's someone inside there, really earning her paycheck!
Putting on a show
Master of the balance beam
The big big car thing with a slide was actually a plane
Just a fraction of that gorgeous garden

Stop 3: Marbles
still with the big big big slide!

The clear winner! If only the mac and cheese were unseasoned...

Awww. And I love that she abbreviates "children's museum"

This is the undersea room, adjacent to a yellow submarine. And then a pirate ship, excellent for diving.

My observations: In the interests of full disclosure, I must admit that I know this museum very well. Twenty years ago I worked with the founders to open Exploris, and that experience remains one of my favorite projects. Exploris rebranded itself as Marbles several years ago, but much of Exploris is still there, and visiting is like going to see an old friend who is growing and thriving. The building is beautiful, the exhibits playful, and the spirit of reinvention and experimentation is palpable. I agree with Amelia – the only bad things she could think of were the pepper on her macaroni and cheese, and someone stepped on her foot while she was playing sock hockey. But come on, she was playing sock hockey!
She ran in, not to emerge for FIVE hours!
diving off the plank
under the sea
waiting - literally - for money to fall from the sky
sock hockey
the winning race car

Stop 4: Kidzu
all about the art room

in the temporary space, there isn't a gift shop or food...unless you count the ENTIRE MALL outside!

leave 'em wanting more!

Amelia in the art room

My observations: It’s not done yet. The museum is in a temporary location, raising money and awareness while planning for a permanent home. The exhibits are portable, and they are testing concepts. Amelia and I were both a little bit museum-weary by the time we arrived, but she still stayed happily in the art studio/maker space for over an hour. Maker spaces seem to be the latest rage in the museum world, and Kidzu had a clear explanation of the goal of this kind of experience right on the wall. Best endorsement? There was a coin-drop maze in the lobby, to raise money for the new museum, and Amelia put in her own money. The paper kind!
building a better boat
the maker space
plans for the future
a museum supporter!
There’s a lot more I could say about our road trip – Amelia had as much fun at the Holiday Inn’s swimming pool and buffet breakfast (“It’s better than Publix!”) as she did at any of the museums. It was all one big adventure for her, and a precious opportunity for us to have uninterrupted and unstructured time together. And as for the museums, seeing them through Amelia’s eyes reinforced for me the value of these places we build. She’s the target audience. Spending an hour chasing plastic donuts through the endless cycle of a pretend donut factory, or waiting for balls to drop from a giant piggy bank, or walking the plank of a pirate ship wearing diving gear may not be the behaviors the museum planners intended or expected, but that's the point. These are places that aren't complete without visitors and their imaginations. If the goal is to provide environments that facilitate learning through play, then kudos to all of us who build them – they’re working!
400 miles and 4 museums later, we're still smiling!
Where should we go next?
Want more Mess? Check out A Crafty Mess over at Charlotte Parent, or visit my Etsy store, Made by Mommy. Or better yet, leave a comment here - I'll reply!

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