Under a stormy sky, the wind gusted as my son and I hurried through the streets of downtown Saint Paul, hoping to get inside before the rain began to fall. It was around 8:50 a.m. on Sunday, June 11th, and the Minnesota Children’s Museum had been reopened for exactly three days. We were excited to experience the magic.
Though it was still 10 minutes to opening, families crowded into the foyer of the museum, patiently (and, in the case of some extremely excited children, less patiently) awaiting the opening of the doors. As the skies outside opened up and more and more families arrived drenched and hassled, the staff of the museum opened the outer doors a little early to give us all a more comfortable space to wait in. At 9:00 a.m., the doors opened and another day of fun and delight truly began.
The reopening of the Minnesota Children’s Museum represents the fourth facelift since its original incarnation first opened its doors in 1981. According to the museum’s Wikipedia page, which references a now-defunct “History” section of the museum’s website, the museum moved from downtown Minneapolis in 1981 (where it was known as Minnesota’s AwareHouse), to Bandana Square in St. Paul in 1985, to its current location in downtown St. Paul in 1995. In December of 2016, the museum closed its doors to complete its most recent renovation, which is the incarnation children and their families can now visit.
Though my son is now three and a half, we had never visited the Minnesota Children’s Museum before we experienced it last weekend, and therefore are unable to do much comparing or contrasting. That being said, we did experience many of the newest features of the museum, and can attest to the fact that they’re pretty great.
Firstly, the exhibits are amazing and engaging. One of the first stations you encounter as you enter is a face-painting station, supplied with mirrors and paint-crayons so children can paint their own faces. Upon the museum’s opening that morning, the station was immediately crowded with children eager to decorate themselves, and everywhere one goes in the museum they are likely to encounter happy, painted faces. The face painting station is part of a section called “Creativity Jam,” which hosts another favorite of ours: a stop-motion video capture station where children can tell and capture their own stories, easily creating a stop-motion video and playing it back.
My son was the most engrossed in the section “Our World,” which has numerous opportunities for creative and imaginative play. He spent literal hours in this section of the museum, playing in the fire truck, sending packages up and down the mail chute in the post office section, and cooking pretend meals in the taqueria. We spent our first hour here, and then after we wandered and explored the rest of the museum, ended up here for another hour-plus until I finally convinced him to entertain the idea of leaving. This exhibit existed previously to the museum’s renovation, but it was still a clear favorite, even with so many newer additions to the experience.
According to Sara Kerr, content and communications director for the museum, one of the intents of the redesign was to create more opportunities for older children to play as well as younger children. Though my child was younger, I did notice one of these opportunities in the Scramble—a multistory play structure with a slide, climbing platformed towers, and a netted catwalk that favors the bold. Though the Scramble goes up to the top of the museum, you can only get in and out on the first story (though emergency exits exist on every level). Parents can follow along on stairwells, and there are museum staffers at every level in case there is a need for them. In addition to the Scramble, Super Awesome Adventures, and the Studio are also new exhibits that will appeal to older kids.
One of the primary focuses of the museum is “open-ended play,” which allows children to direct their own experiences, problem solve, and imagine creative outcomes to their play. I noticed this especially when I realized that none of the exhibits include instructions—they require the children to experiment and figure out how to play on their own. There was a section where I remember thinking to myself, “Well, that just doesn’t work very smoothly at all.” But as I watched my child encounter the issue and problem solve to work past it, I realized that a slick and perfectly functioning exhibit wouldn’t make a lasting impact—not like an exhibit that requires a small amount of problem solving and work (I say small amount because none of the exhibits are really “work,” and I promise you no child would ever refer to them as such unprompted). As an adult who was there with my child, it took effort to stand back and let him do his own thing, even if I could see it wasn’t working in the way that I felt it should. But in many cases, he discovered new ways to accomplish what he wanted to, or the act of figuring it out was far more educational that it would have been if I’d told him how to do it. In this way, the Minnesota Children’s Museum isn’t just giving kids an opportunity to play, it is also helping to teach them how to think.
Exhibits aren’t the only updates that can be found in the museum. It features new and updated amenities, including bathrooms on every floor, renovated party and group spaces, and a new café space that is appealing to both kids (check out the goodies case featuring mini pizzas and sandwiches cut into shapes, among other delicious treats) and their adults (the café also features a much-needed caffeine hookup in the form of a coffee shop).
When I was a child, I remember visiting the children’s museum in my hometown and being utterly charmed at the idea of a museum that was designed just for me to play in. No “Do not touch the exhibit” signs, no need to be quiet or keep my hands to myself, but free, unbridled playtime. The newest incarnation of the Minnesota Children’s Museum continues its 35-plus-year tradition of creative play spaces designed with our children in mind. It’s an example of a facelift done right, and its obvious that the minds behind the renovation put a lot of thought into what would excite, delight and inspire the imaginations of today and the creative thinkers of a new generation. There is zero doubt in my mind that the tradition of the Minnesota Children’s Museum will continue for another 35 years, and I’m looking forward to witnessing it as it continues to forge the much-needed creative minds of the future.