Department

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

5280.com 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.”

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.