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

Inside the “exhibit think tank,” chaos reigns. Five desks are backed against each other to form a rectangle at one end, cardboard architectural models sit on a large table at the other, and papers are strewn everywhere. Photos have been haphazardly taped to the walls. A whiteboard covered in colored marker sketches and notes fills in any remaining space.

The six-person group is comprised of experts in industrial design, welding, architecture, engineering, even woodworking, and they’re churning out some of the most creative and innovative interactive spaces in the country. “We want to do something different,” exhibit design and development manager Ryan Hainault says, “something you aren’t going to see in a typical children’s or science exhibit.”

CMoD’s playscapes are designed to be developmentally appropriate for kids at various ages. (The museum’s core focus is birth through eight years old; the youngest visitors can explore the Center for the Young Child in a quieter, less chaotic area.) New exhibits start with a rough idea from the design team. Kinetics!, for example, began with the crew thinking about a ball pit. It’s the task of director of education Sarah Brenkert—a 38-year-old mother of two and a former teacher with a master’s degree in early childhood and elementary education—to figure out how to grow that seed and craft teachable playscapes. She taps resources such as Colorado’s academic standards, the S.T.E.M. (science, technology, engineering, and math) educational model, and published studies to hone in on what “big ideas” kids are being taught at different ages and to help brainstorm the types of exhibits the youngsters will enjoy exploring.

Once Brenkert and her team have created a design framework—an outline of the major concepts the playscape will impart—the think tank starts dreaming up ideas. They sketch, share suggestions, and seek inspiration in everything from fine art to nature to architecture. The team often employs conventional materials in unconventional ways. Once, when they realized they were using too much cardboard in the rocket-making section of 3, 2, 1…Blast Off!, they sought an alternative material and discovered a perfect replacement in cotton-candy cones.

Many of these pieces, along with entire playscapes like the 3, 2, 1 exhibit, are built by hand in a behind-the-scenes workshop. Low-tech exhibits such as the art studio lean heavily on modern tools, including 3-D computer imaging and an in-house die-cut machine that brings the ideas and sketches to life. The toughest part for the designers: remembering that they’re creating for little ones with still-developing motor and cognitive skills. As exhibit design and operations manager Chris Van Dyken says, “It doesn’t matter if it looks cool if it doesn’t work.”

Every element in an exhibit strictly adheres to a hierarchy of importance: safety, then functionality—including durability, because kids tend to break things—then aesthetics. If children can’t push, pull, or move a button or lever and stay safe while doing it, they aren’t learning the intended lesson. “We want them to have fun, but at some level they’re getting that science,” Van Dyken says. “It’s tangible, and somewhere down the road they’ll understand it.”

That’s why kids are so crucial to the creative process. Before most exhibits are launched, they go through prototyping—pint-size focus groups—in the WillitWorks room. Kids play with small-scale versions of planned exhibit parts, all under the watchful eye of the design and education crews. The process can take from two months to more than a year. The finished products welcome 300,000-plus visitors annually (10th among Denver-area cultural attractions, according to the Denver Business Journal), and CMoD has enjoyed a 30 percent increase in membership over the past year. In 2012, Forbes ranked CMoD one of the 12 best children’s museums in the country. “All the thought and care that goes into designing our exhibits,” Brenkert says, “is specifically and systematically designed to elicit the most creativity, the most brilliance from children themselves.”

At the moment, Luke Gottschall doesn’t care about any of that. The five-year-old’s wonder-filled, blue-gray eyes zero in on a TV showing space shuttle launches. (It’s one of the few obvious pieces of technology you’ll see in the museum.) He’s spent the last 30 minutes shooting his own rocket—he brought one he made weeks earlier, scribbled with red and blue crayon—in the launch area. The zone lets kids place their handmade rockets (index cards, stencils, and tape are all readily available) on a launcher, push a button, and watch them soar.

He sends his paper rocket flying a few times, running back and forth from the launch pad to retrieve it. He soon starts grabbing other leftover rockets from the end of the landing zone, realizing that those traveled the farthest. During a snack break, Luke explains his goal: “You try to get them through hoops of planets [paper images hanging above the launch area]. I’ve done that one time. It’s pretty hard.” It’s a game he invented himself, and it’s precisely what Yankovich is aiming for when he talks about kids owning their learning: encouraging children like Luke to experiment and embrace each experience—and to enjoy every minute of it.