ScienceWorks Hands-On Museum this week started construction on a new 1,000-square-foot space designed exclusively for kids 5 years old and younger. It will be called Discovery Island.
Construction began on Monday. The grand opening will be June 27. Built with grants from the Sharkey Foundation and the Oregon Community Foundation, Discovery Island is the result of extensive research.
"We've been in touch with museums all over the U.S., trying to learn what young children need and want in a museum exhibit," Executive Director Mark DiRienzo said. "We've also consulted with dozens of local educators and parents. On top of that, students in (Southern Oregon University's) Early Childhood Education department have been providing information about brain science and how young children learn. It has been a real community effort."
The Discovery Island concept came from discussions with parents and children.
"We wanted to create an environment that would give kids a platform for imaginative play and learning," ScienceWorks Board President Steve Miner said. "We think kids should be able to walk through a door, and feel they're transported to a special place. So we asked parents and educators where their kids would like to go. The consensus was an island."
Designers developed plans for a half-dozen island-themed "anchor" exhibits. For example, there's The Lagoon, a three-tiered water table with dams, water wheels, and pumps; Shipwreck Playhouse, a boat with pulleys, periscopes, flags, and lots of other interactive components; Coconut Hollow, a stand of trees that launch air-powered coconuts to different areas of the room; and Crawler's Cove, a safe, enclosed area for kids under 2.
"We haven't forgotten parents' needs, either," Miner said. "There's plenty of space for adults to sit and watch their kids while they chat, plus a quiet area for nursing, or for sitting and reading."
To give the environment a more dramatic touch, the museum has engaged Doug Ham, a local theater set designer. Claire Duncan, the museum's original art director, has returned to oversee the exhibit's look and create its logo.
ScienceWorks officials plan to turn the organization into Ashland's community center for families with young children.
"This exhibit marks the beginning of a whole new approach at ScienceWorks," DiRienzo said. "We're not just thinking of Discovery Island as a museum exhibit — we consider it a way to bring young families together as a community. Since the Inner Child Café closed, there's really no place where parents and their tots can meet and hang out every day. We want to serve that role."
To achieve this, ScienceWorks is launching the ScienceWorks Preschool Family Network — a group exclusively for young families. Membership is free. Those interested can go to the museum's Web site, www.scienceworksmuseum.org, and sign up.
The museum plans to offer members special family events, lectures from early childhood experts, special times for mothers' and fathers' groups, potlucks where young families can spend time together and more. It will also begin working with preschools in the same way they work with other schools in Oregon, offering special programs and reserved space. An additional grant from the Lieghtman Maxey Foundation will provide the Preschool Family Network with nutrition-specific exhibits.
As the museum plunges into construction, ScienceWorks is putting out a call for skilled volunteers to help build and decorate it.
"This is a community resource, and we've always depended on people who love the museum to pitch in and make work," said John Javna, a founder of the museum who's coordinating the exhibit.
Anyone who wants help on this project can call at 482-6767, ext. 29. Javna says the exhibit builders estimate they need five carpenters and cabinetmakers, three artists to help paint murals, and a handful of people willing to help decorate and paint the area to transform it into an island.
"It's your museum," he said. "Come take ownership of it!"
People can see Discovery Island unfold over the next few months at ScienceWorks. Parents can sign up for the Scienceworks Preschool Family Network at the front desk or online at www.scienceworksmuseum.org.