Giving kids 12,000 square-feet of water to play in, paper rockets to throw, a live beehive, and endless places to hide, crawl, and jump probably sounds like a recipe for disaster to most parents.
To Liz Conway, the Executive Director of Mt. Pleasant’s Discovery Museum, it sounds like a recipe for learning.
“We're trying to enhance the community by inspiring creativity, learning, and curiosity,” she says, “so we want kids to come in and touch things and explore. We want them to learn through play.”
Liz Conway, Executive Director of the Children's Discovery Museum
Since opening their doors in 2012, over 230,000 people have visited the museum to examine (and play with) it’s many hands-on, interactive exhibits, and it continues to attract around 40,000 people a year, with around 30% of the visitors being from Isabella County.
Conway says that idea for the museum started when three local women - Jennifer Fields, Heather Prout, and Shelly Smith - met at a mom’s group.
Their idea grew and eventually gained the support of the Morey Foundation, which gave $1 million dollars to help start the museum, as well as offered another $500,000 “dollar match” to encourage residents to donate to the museum as well.
Conway’s path into the museum also started with her being a mom.
“Five years ago, I brought my oldest child here and thought it absolutely amazing,” she says. “That first day I went and talked to the Director and asked about how I could help.”
Initially, Conway started off by helping the museum write grants from home, and then began doing some development work. “Then about two years ago, I came on as Executive Director,” she says.
To some, the large space might seem like little more than a big playground, but Conway says there is some serious learning going on here.
Brightly colored paper cranes hang inside the museum
Helping kids learn with help from kids
“Our exhibits are all aligned with academic standards for kindergarten through fifth grade, and include Head Start’s early learning framework, too,” she says. ”But beyond that, we know that play is so important to a child’s well-being, we’re helping just by getting them in here playing and moving, learning gross and fine motor skills, and interacting and building relationships with other kids."
The museum isn't just designed for kids though. It’s also designed by kids. Meeting monthly, members of the museum’s Youth Advisory Club are kids ages eight to 17 who help run events and fundraisers around the community, as well as give feedback on what the museum is doing.
“They tell us what they think is cool and what’s not, and that is super helpful,” Conway says. The museum works with KidZibits, Inc. to create exhibits. KidZibits is an exhibit design company based in Minnesota, who back in 2011, met with the museum as well as both adults and kids from the community to ask what they wanted to see in their museum.
The fruits of those conversations can be seen in the museum to this day. The Beemazium encourages both adults and kids to observe a live beehive and crawl and climb around a human-sized honeycomb. The One World exhibit offers a look at Mt. Pleasant’s sister city of Okaya, Japan by giving kids opportunities to learn Japanese, wear kimonos, and tour the city by pedaling a bike that powers a screen.
“We sent a GoPro to our friends in Okaya, and they recorded what it was like to ride a bike through their city. Our kids can hop on the bike here, power the screen with their pedaling, and share the same experience,” Conway says.
When they're done traveling the world and getting busy with the bees, other exhibits allow exploration through tactile activities and hands-on practice real life skills. The Water Works water table gives kids a chance to play with water pressure by controlling flow into tubes, slides, and wheels. A bank and farmer's market exhibits encourage realistic play.
“Kids love playing at the bank,” Conway says. “They’re counting the money, and the farmer’s market exhibit is right there, so you can watch them sell things at the farmer’s market and then take their money to the bank. They can see it’s all connected.”
A bank exhibit gives kids a hands-on way to learn about money
A new exhibit is about to blast off
One of the things kids wanted to see in the museum were exhibits featuring outer space...and they’re about to be able to see it in a whole new way.
“The Rocket Climber was something the founders wanted to happen, but was put on hold because of its location - it’s in the silo section of the museum, which is 19 feet wide and 30 feet straight up. So we had to do a lot of thinking about how to provide neat activities for everyone; kids who can’t or don’t want to climb up, and how to encourage adults to get up there with the kids, too.”
To design the Rocket Climber, the museum called KidZibits again to help with the process.
“We’re excited to be collaborating with the Mt. Pleasant Discovery Museum again after working with the museum in 2011 to design the original exhibits,” says Matthew Cox, a Senior Exhibit Developer at KidZibits. “The Rocket Climber is going to be an amazing opportunity for children, students, and families to explore a variety of science concepts while building large motor and communication skills. It’s great to work with a passionate group of people who care deeply about their community.”
Not only are kids helping design the museum, they’re also helping fund it, too.
“One of our Youth Advisory Club members heard about the founders wanting to do a Rocket Climber, so he saved up his allowance and had this gigantic piggy bank made to help collect money for the Rocket Climber.”
That piggy bank has been sitting in the front of the museum next to the entrance and has helped collect over $1000 towards the new exhibit, which Conway estimates will cost close to $150,000. She says they will be organizing a fundraising campaign to cover the rest of the cost.
Conway says she wants pieces of the Rocket Climber and the other exhibits to align with recently updated science standards. “What we really want to do,” she says, “is include inquiry-based pieces in this exhibit, and then extend that inquiry-based learning to older kids. We also want to tie things into a curriculum so that kids could come here for a field trip about pulleys and levers, for example. We could teach a lesson on that and then have them play and explore.”
Alice took a moment out of her play to tell us about her favorite exhibits
Of course, all the designing and planning a children’s museum can do doesn’t mean a thing without a kid’s stamp of approval, so I stopped to talk to Alice who was frantically trying to explore and play with everything in the museum...and pulling her dad along behind her.
“What do you think of this place, Alice?” I ask.
“I think the museum is really good!” she says.
“What’s your favorite part of this museum?”
“Since the ant hill got built, that’s been my favorite part, ever since then.”
“Do you think more kids should come here?”
“Uh huh! I think the museum’s really good...I love to play here and have fun!” she says.