“The Play Center”: Changing Children’s Lives

When I was a child, I grew up with Sunrise Children’s Museum. 

I remember the planetarium, when the room became as dark as night in the country and stars in constellations emerged as if by magic on the curved sky of a ceiling.  I remember leaning back in the tilted seat, my face unavoidably turned toward the heavens, and listening to Mr. Gardener speak the names of Orion and Pegasus and the Big Dipper, and then those same beings would appear as connected stars before my eyes.  He spoke of seasons, and change, and science, and the stars spun as he described the tilting of the earth on its axis.  Our moon, our solar system, other galaxies became realities for me as I sat there in the pitch black room, becoming part of the universe and listening to what seemed, if not the voice of God, the voice of someone who had an inside channel.

There were pencils in the gift shop with tiny geologic specimens in the tip.  There were animals in environments designed just for them in the basement. A woman named Loa Martin would hold a boa constrictor and let us kids touch it to understand that in fact, reptiles were not slimy, they were dry — dry and cold, because their blood was cold.  You can hear all day that mammals are warm-blooded and reptiles are cold, but until you put your hand on a boa you really haven’t “learned” it.

There was a sloth, “an arboreal and nocturnal animal,” who I only ever saw active on a tree and in a room lighted with an orangish-red light.  Why, I asked, is this room so dark?  Because this is nocturnal animal, it is only active at night.  Click……my mind got it.

I am grown up now, and so is the Sunrise Museum.  It is now the children’s discovery museum at The Clay Center.  Family members and very good friends have been employees there and volunteer leaders on its behalf.  I renew a family membership every year, and it has nothing to do with nostalgia (which I clearly have) and everything to do with opening the world of the arts and sciences to my child.

My little girl asks every week to go to “the play center.”  As soon as we are in the door it is, as they say, ON.  She starts with wind currents and balance, then moves to water and more wind and erosion.  She moves to magnetic fields and physics and how machines work; sound waves, animation, lasers, and exoskeletons.  She runs experiments on how feathers keep birds dry, sees the life stages of a butterfly, and marvels at the teeth still set in the jaw bone of long-demised deer.

I also support “the play center” for children other than my own.  A close friend told me a story about some children who came to the art portion of the museum.  This particular group of kids was from a county more rural than most in West Virginia, and there were children in the group who had never been up a flight of stairs.  One child shrank against the wall in confusion when she saw the winding staircase with its great wood banister in the original Sunrise Museum. 

Moments like this open our eyes to how much  of a life-changing experience a simple field trip can be.  Sometimes it is not even about the detailed experiments or art, it is the opportunity to see new parts of the world, parts many of us take for granted.  In this same group a guide asked the children about what they saw in a painting by Anne Shreve.  The painting was a still life that included a large frilly pink seashell.  The children were silent.  “What about this?” asked the guide.  “What do you see here?”  More silence.  Then an intrepid young soul piped up gently, “A birthday cake?”

Never underestimate what one visit, one opportunity means to a child.  Every day, lives are changing and opening to the world of arts and sciences…….and beyond.