If you’re reading this, then odds are I escaped the small intestines. Though for half an hour or so, that fate hardly seemed guaranteed. Accompanying me on my journey through the human digestive tract is my 3-year-old daughter, Millie, whose size and malleability make quick work of the experience. As for me, I’m the gas that will not pass — lodged along the intestinal wall and army crawling my way toward freedom.
“Hurry up, Daddy!” Millie hollers, racing toward the exhibit’s rectum.
“Honey, you can’t rush these things,” I grunt. “Digestion takes time.”
Just ahead, I see daylight. I position myself on the slide (a.k.a. “the rectum”) and, in a final flourish of realism, exit the digestive tract accompanied by what my daughter accurately describes as “fart sounds” protruding from the tiny speakers within.
I have come to the newly-opened Children’s Museum of Eau Claire not only to give new meaning to the phrase “you are what you eat” (though the digestive tract exhibit certainly accomplishes that) but also to encourage my own child to test-drive the latest kid-centric addition to our kid-friendly community.
Upon entering the children’s museum, we’re greeted by chief executive officer Michael McHorney, who, along with his team, helped shepherd this dream into reality — during COVID-19, no less.
“It wasn’t easy,” Michael says. “When COVID hit, we had to focus on our operations to make sure we could get through it financially.” But while weathering the storm, they also found ways to fundraise the 12.5-million-dollar projects, all but $3 million of which has been secured.
The one-two punch of fundraising for a capital campaign amid a pandemic taught Michael to expect the unexpected, and then adapt.
It’s the kind of lesson Michael observes daily from the children who enjoy the museum. While Michael and his staff have expectations on how they think children will respond to the museum’s many hands-on exhibits, the kids inevitably adapt the exhibits to fit their playing needs. Rather than prioritizing “prescriptive play” (how play allegedly should occur), the museum encourages “open-ended play,” empowering children to play however their hearts (and imagination) desire.
“We like to call it ‘play your way,” Michael says.
“Is it working?” I ask.
“Everything here is kind of like a laboratory,” Michael says. “We’re always testing to see how things work.”
No laboratory is complete without a scientist, or in the world of children’s museums, a playologist. Here in Eau Claire, that role belongs to Elizabeth Eldridge.
“So what exactly does a playologist do?” I ask as Millie and I roam the museum’s second floor.
“We just play with kids,” Elizabeth says. “We stand back, watch kids play with the equipment, and help them when they need help. We want to ensure this is a safe place for kids to imagine and explore.”
Ahead of us, Millie climbs the rocket slide and blasts into outer space. One small step for girl, one giant step for humankind.
“You okay up there?” I call to her.
“Yes!” she cries, flying her rocket through an invisible meteor shower before arriving safely among the stars.
Peering out at the dozen or so children on the second floor, each appears to be lost in the throes of open-ended play. No one’s quite using the equipment as intended, which, for playologist Elizabeth, proves that the museum is meeting its mission of inspiring learning through play.
“When the exhibits were being built, we had an idea about how they were going to be used. But the moment we opened, the kids showed us eight different ways of using everything,” she laughs.
In the grown-up world, we’re often hamstrung by the “right” and “wrong” way of doing things. But in the children’s world, it’s less “right” versus “wrong” than “fun” versus “even more fun.” At the children’s museum, it’s all about maximizing your good time in a safe and supportive environment.
“Kids will teach you everything,” Elizabeth says. “My stepmother says that kids raise the parents, not the other way around. And I think that’s totally true.”
Testing that theory, I let Millie take the lead for the remainder of our visit. Together, we head toward the Water Works exhibit. Millie presses a wooden fishing pole into a water orb, somehow sending clouds of mist into the air. Emboldened by what seems like magic, next she uses the fishing pole to interrupt a perfectly aligned stream of water meant to land in the frog’s mouth. The disrupted water shoots everywhere — the floor, the water table, and especially all over us.
Previously, Michael had warned me of just such a fate at the water exhibit.
“But at the end of the day,” he’d smiled, “it’s just a wet T-shirt, you know?”
An hour later, as I carry my daughter back toward the van, it occurs to me that children’s museums aren’t quite schools, they aren’t quite amusement parks, but instead, inhabit some sweet spot in between. It’s a place where kids learn without even realizing they’re learning. And where their caregivers can learn, too, if they’re wise enough to observe their kids.
On this day, my daughter and I leave the museum empowered. Not only did we escape the clutches of the small intestines, but we had a good time doing it.
“Well,” I say, buckling Millie into her car seat, “what’d you learn today?”
“Everything!” Millie shouts, fist-pumping the air.
So long as the museum supplies the intestines, the kids will provide the heart.