Building Blocks

As the Children’s Museum of Denver turns 40, its team of educators and engineers remains focused on prepping kids for the future—while always remembering to have some fun.

June 2013 Exclusives: Listen to six kids explain what they love about the museum and watch Ryan Hainault of the Children's Museum of Denver give us an inside look into what it took to build the 3, 2, 1...Blast Off! exhibit. 

Luke Gottschall has been repeating the same process for 10 minutes: He collects handfuls of hollow, plastic orange balls, shoves them into a tube, and gleefully watches the air machine blast them up, over a ramp, down another tube, and along a track back to where he eagerly waits to start the entire circuit again. 

“We can get this one going!” the five-year-old shouts to his friend, Oliver, who’s busy tracking down his own bundle of orange spheres. Back and forth they go until a Mouse Trap–like contraption grabs their attention. It sends those same balls rolling along tracks, darting through chutes, and bouncing between knobs that the kids set in motion by turning, jumping, and pushing. “Look, Mom,” Luke says. “I made a big thing happen!”

That big thing is exactly what the Children’s Museum of Denver (CMoD) was aiming for when it opened Kinetics! last October. Playscapes, as the museum calls its exhibits, are veritable playgrounds for kids, who—as they slide, push, and lift—learn such concepts as Newton’s laws of motion, how gravity works, or the science of bubbles.

Each playscape was explicitly designed to help kids learn and engage outside the classroom. It’s why Luke’s mom, Marie Adams, drives the preschooler here from Littleton at least twice a month. “He learns something, has fun, and gets some element of the unexpected,” Adams says. “It’s always fresh for him, even though we’ve been here so many times.”

When the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, the first of its kind, opened in 1899, it upended the hands-off seriousness of traditional learning institutions. Historically, these cultural champions and research havens weren’t well-suited for the learn-by-doing approach that we now know is so vital to kids’ cognitive growth. Brooklyn’s launch sparked a new trend in education, one that took hold gradually as our understanding of how children learn evolved. In 1975, there were fewer than 40 children’s museums in the United States; today, there are close to 300.

Forty years ago this month, CMoD, Denver’s lone children’s museum, was founded in a traveling bus. Its popularity soon caused it to outgrow the mobile space and, in 1984, steered it toward its current location on the banks of the South Platte River. During his nine years with CMoD, CEO and president Mike Yankovich has spearheaded campaigns to modernize every exhibit and fulfill the museum’s aim to be a true learning center for families. “We see ourselves as how children learn outside of what happens in a school environment,” Yankovich says. “We are preparing today’s generation to solve the seemingly unsolvable problems we all face as grown-ups.” That’s why he emphasizes “owning your learning.” Instead of kids looking at glass-encased rockets and reading placards that explain physics, for example, visitors craft launch-worthy rockets themselves. Says Yankovich: “It’s making learning relevant.”

Over its four-decade history, the museum’s emphasis has shifted from life sciences (it once housed live animals such as snakes and ferrets) to physical science and engineering. This includes programs like G.R.O.W. (Growing Respect by Observing Our World), which has been revamped to reflect the museum’s evolving focus and the changing requirements of schools. This partnership between CMoD, the Denver Botanic Gardens, and Westminster’s Butterfly Pavilion has each institution spend one year (for a total of three years) with DPS and Adams 12 students teaching science-related topics. “I see [CMoD] not just as a facility where parents can take their kids, but as an educational facility as well,” District 8 Councilman Albus Brooks says. “It’s critical to have dynamic cultural facilities. The Children’s Museum offers an incredible amount of resources. It’s so amazing to be able to laugh and have fun with your kids, and all the while, they’re being stimulated intellectually.”

The museum is growing, too. Though it’s not official yet, a possible site expansion may be in the works. Future plans include an even more focused approach to outdoor experiences, the arts, and children’s health issues—and room for more interactive, learn-by-doing playscapes. “Right now it’s primarily Denver’s baby,” Brooks says. “But the expansion is going to allow it to be a regional destination and have statewide implications.”