Power play: Spaces of wonder foster learning through application

While a child’s experience at a children’s museum or science center might appear to be just fun and games, facilities like these in Illinois are making it their mission to offer playtime with a higher purpose in mind. In exploring the interactive, hands-on exhibits found in these spaces, kids acquire practical knowledge they will carry with them throughout a lifetime of learning.

Several of these museums have certain themed exhibits in common, like the always popular water tables, art studios and stages, along with child-sized versions of markets, hospitals, pizzerias and auto shops. Areas where kids can experience agriculture and construction are also common. Unique offerings, however, can be found at each.

Take, for example, Decatur’s Children’s Museum of Illinois (located next to another popular kids’ destination, the Scoville Zoo). Its newly created Heroes Hall is an extensive interactive exhibit occupying a newly added space in the facility, where kids can get in a real police car (outside they have access to an actual fire truck and helicopter). Peppered throughout the exhibit are stations on uniforms, forensics, dispatch and even police dogs. Kids can create their own badges, examine evidence, draw police sketches and crack cases.

In the new outdoor Discovery Garden at the Edwardsville Children’s Museum, children can experience different plants through sight, sound, smell, taste and touch. They can create nature art, build and climb, and make music. The entire garden, which covers an expanse nearly twice the size of the museum itself, also plants seeds of environmental consciousness through its pollinator pathway project and its status as a monarch waystation.

“I love to watch families interacting together in the Discovery Garden. It’s a visual of our mission coming to life as you’re seeing children interacting with their caregivers,” says Director Kristen Fries. “When the caregiver is involved with the child, it’s easy to get to that next level of thinking because you can ask them questions, and they just start thinking. It gets creative really quickly.

“We also have our Phillips 66 STEM (science, technology, engineering and mathematics) forest, where you color a forest animal and then your artwork is projected into a forest theme on the wall — they literally come alive,” Fries adds. “Inside is a sensory-friendly room. It’s quiet with nature sounds playing, and we have a lot of soft stuffed forest animals.” Adjacent to the “forest” and above a play hospital nursery is a treehouse exhibit where kids can pretend to have picnics, make s’mores and use binoculars to birdwatch.

Rikki Parker, executive director of the children’s museum in Decatur, agrees that caregivers play an integral role in the learning process. “The kids who are getting the most benefit from the museum are the kids who have engaged parents who are playing with them, who are helping them understand what exactly the exhibit is trying to show them,” she says.

The Decatur museum will soon expand its water table through a grant from the Illinois Soybean Association. The new exhibit, which should be built by 2023, is designed to illustrate the entire watershed in and around Lake Decatur as well as demonstrate lock and dam systems.

Exhibits are not the only learning opportunities these centers offer. Some also offer camps, field trips, birthday parties and even a grownups’ night out (GUNO), like The Science Center in Carbondale. This particular facility has five field trip programs where anything from volcanoes to paper making or the museum’s live animals (including a box turtle, bearded dragon, gecko and dwarf rabbit) can be the focus. Birthday parties can center on any of 12 different hands-on activities, including those previously mentioned as well as catapults, oil and water painting, fossil casting, and spa science.

The scale of these offerings depends upon the space available. These museums and centers can range anywhere from 1,200 square feet to more than 20,000, but despite differences in size, the creative use of space (and funding) is key. Most are nonprofits and rely on donations. Admission and membership fees cannot alone support both building operations and the installation of new and maintenance of current exhibits.

“We have a lot of support for our exhibits, and we’re so grateful for that. It gives us the opportunity to continue to grow and to become better able to serve,” says Parker. “At the same time, we need folks to contribute to our daily operations costs.” She adds that Giving Tuesday is a great opportunity to invest in these community resources. “Think about your local children’s museums, because they’re providing this huge asset to your community, and it might not be something that’s at the top of your list of folks to think about on those days.”

Staff members at these museums and centers across Illinois contribute their creativity to funding as well as exhibits. Many partner with local businesses and community experts and educators to build the exhibits themselves and/or sponsor them. “We wouldn’t be able to exist without our business partners,” says Fries. “Every single exhibit is actually sponsored by a local business.”

Parker agrees. “It’s about rightsizing the ideas we have for a museum of our size and of our budget. We have a lot of wonderful assets in Decatur, with companies willing to donate labor and materials, and folks willing to lend their expertise.”

Directors of these centers say collaborative efforts augment more traditional methods of education, broadening children’s understanding of key concepts by encouraging them to learn through unstructured play. “When you think about what’s going on in the school systems and the requirements kids have on them now to spend a lot of time doing homework, having these places where kids can have more free-flowing opportunities to learn, see, touch and feel is incredibly important,” Parker says. “We want to inspire and spark passions in kids that will grow in them so they can become changemakers in our community.”

Connie Adams, the executive director of Carbondale’s Science Center, says kids learn in surprising ways. “We’ll see kids who run through the exhibit, and then they want to test things. They get theories, they make hypotheses. They want to test, and we encourage that,” she says. “We have a water table … and just the other day I saw a child get ping pong balls from another exhibit to see if the ping pong balls acted like the boats.”

She finds that many times the children themselves help administrators develop programs. “I find they lead me as much as I lead them,” she says. “Those are the lessons they’re going to remember because those are the lessons they designed.”

Giving children this room to learn in unconventional ways spurs their thirst for knowledge, according to Adams. “I always like to say, ‘Let them make a mess.’ Even if you take them outside to let them do it. If they want to spend the afternoon with food coloring and cups of water and mix colors, don’t worry about it. Just let them do it. Let them see what lives in that mud puddle. They’re washable,” she laughs. “Stomping in the mud puddle displaces the water and sends out ripples … that’s all exploration. It’s not them just getting messy. That’s learning.”

Ann Marie Walker, director of marketing at Discovery Center Museum in Rockford, believes this hands-on approach can aid in the comprehension of key concepts. “Lots of things you might read in a textbook may not be clicking for you,” she says. However, experiencing a concept will aid understanding.

“We’ve got an area on power and electricity, so everything from creating circuits to using your body to create energy. There are hand cranks, and you can see how much you need to crank to develop enough energy to turn on a radio, a hairdryer, a blender or a TV,” Walker explains. “We have an area on wind power and solar power. With wind power, [kids] can create little wind turbines. They build them and put them in our testing area, which is basically a long chamber with fans.”

She adds that the facility often takes science on the road, from classes on motion to planetarium shows and chemistry demonstrations. The programs adhere to Next Generation Science Standards, which aim to improve science education through three-dimensional learning.

There is no one way to learn, says Fries. “We think about every single component and aspect of the design, and we try to leave it to where kids can interact with the exhibits in different ways. … We put out things that can be mixed together and moved around. You see that so much, where kids take food from the market up to the tree house to have a picnic. You want to see that higher level of thinking. … They interact with the exhibits in ways we wouldn’t even think of or imagine.”

Current events also generate exhibits created to help kids process what’s going on in the world and develop healthy responses. The Children’s Discovery Museum in Normal did that very thing with its new “Healthy Me” exhibit — an idea brought to the table during the pandemic. While the museum’s doors were closed due to COVID-19 restrictions, the staff took advantage of that time to design and craft it, with vital help from local health experts and educators.

Before “Healthy Me,” it was the “Imagine Air” exhibit. For both, museum staff depended on input from experts, engineers and educators to construct effective learning spaces. That input was integral, says Director Beth Whisman, in helping kids understand the science behind concepts that apply to everyday life.

“By the time they’re in school, and they’re looking at physics and aerodynamics, they’re not strangers to the vocabulary. Maybe it was a few years ago, maybe it was in the back of their mind, and it was something fun,” says Whisman. “It’s not completely foreign. That means it’s less intimidating. They feel they’ve already got a little skin in the game.

“A lot of times, they don’t even know they’re learning. They’re playing, and they’re experimenting. They’re asking questions out of curiosity, and not necessarily out of a need to fulfill some educational goal. But eventually, it will,” she adds.

For those considering a trip in the future, museum staff members advise checking out facility websites and Facebook pages. Some host live events and offer discounts. Sometimes food is available onsite; some museums and centers encourage caregivers to pack a lunch and have either picnic areas or nearby parks. If special concessions are needed, visitors are encouraged to call ahead, because the staff will be more than happy to accommodate.

“It never hurts to check ahead,” Whisman says. “We can almost always work around and figure out a way we can create a comfortable space for all visitors.”

A list list of Illinois children’s museums and science centers can be found here.