Nora Rose Mueller

Taking On The Great Outdoors At Kidspace Museum

Just across from the Rose Bowl, tucked away from the parking lot under the shade of two old trees, is the entrance to Pasadena, California’s Kidspace Museum. Part educational gallery and part jungle gym, Kidspace is the ultimate nature outing for kids, providing a playground for both body and mind. The museum’s continued success and enthusiastic support comes from the fact that they embrace and encourage the inquisitive nature of children, with exhibits designed to be interactive, to foster curiosity, and to welcome adventure.

Kidspace first launched in 1979, when it was still located in the California Institute of Technology. In 1981 the institution moved to McKinley School in Pasadena, before finally settling on their current location in the historic Fannie Morrison Horticultural Center in 2004– a locale where they have continued to grow and install new exhibits. As Kidspace continues to expand and develop, their work is guided by four key words: respect, integrity, safety, and experiential learning. The museum is designed to encourage multiple kinds of play–active play, pretend play, nature play–and offers kids a unique place to imagine and create. Many of these spaces are outdoors and all exist within the context of the environment, such that nature is always nearby.

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Kidspace AntNora Rose Mueller

Just outside the main building, the Galvin Physics Forest features 12 hands-on physics experiments, and is landscaped with native flora, conscious of California’s ongoing water shortage. Among the different experiments are a bottle rocket, a pulley to hoist yourself up, and a build-your-own roller coster with interchangeable sections. Each seeks to engage a basic concept of physics through kinesthetic learning, with Kidspace staff typically on hand to answer questions and explain interactions. In the winter, snow is brought in for seasonal activities, as many children in Los Angeles otherwise have no access to what is (for many) a staple of wintertime.

KidspaceNora Rose Mueller

Next door, the Kidspace Greenhouse offers a sensory experience for all ages: tubs full of dirt and a wall of textured plants are tactile encounters. Compost, worms, and Painted Lady butterflies are all kept inside the greenhouse, where children can learn more about plant life and the different ecosystems that support them.

Further back in the park, a large clearing is ringed by wisteria–Wishteria, as Kidspace calls it. Hanging off the branches are children’s holiday desires earnestly written on small circles of paper.

Kidspace wishteriaNora Rose Mueller

Even inside the museum proper, nature–and all of its living creatures–remains at the forefront. An elaborate bee hive is built into the wall such that–behind a safe layer of plexiglass–the entire surface of the hive is visible, complete with bees crawling over the honeycomb, going about their business. On the left, a long, vertical tube leads out to the open air and bees can be observed climbing up and out. Even ants–to many a banal reality of being outdoors–become an exciting, adventurous prospect, as kids climb through the Ant Hole and InterAntics Climber: a play structure that begins underground and takes children all the way up along giant branches and leaves to the ceiling.

Across the hall is the Nature Exchange–one of the more unique aspects of Kidspace–a wide open room where kids can trade nature related relics. Windows occupy most of the wall space and below them are low shelves full of neatly-filed objects. Shark teeth, rock shards, and other natural artifacts are organized in small troughs, with their “price” printed along the front. Kids earn Nature Exchange points by demonstrating knowledge or by bringing in samples (earning more or less points depending on the rarity and condition of the specimen), and can save up to “purchase” objects for themselves. An angular glass case on the central counter displays more “expensive objects”: an inflated pufferfish, a starfish, a sea sponge.

Kidspace shark teethNora Rose Mueller

In addition to the exhibits, daily activities offered at Kidspace include art projects at the Flutterby Art Center, where kids craft using organic materials (moss, seeds, etc); serving meals at the Bugsy Diner, where children discover the world of insects and their role in ecosystems; and Imagination Workshop, a maker’s space that repurposes old materials, with a focus on electronics and technology.

While most of the Kidspace installations and curriculum are geared for ages ten and under, some interactive exhibits are targeted at younger ages. The most popular are the climbing structures, which serve the dual function of socializing children (through cooperation and taking turns as they climb up and down), and developing their early motor skills.

Kidspace beesNora Rose Mueller

Opening in Spring 2016 is Arroyo Adventure, an exhibit focused on the Arroyo Seco (the local watershed). One section of the installation–the Pepper Tree Music Jam–is already installed and open, and is soon to be joined by several more exhibits: a floodplain area, which demonstrates the effects of erosion; a mud and clay area, where kids will be able to make their own crafts; a harvest corner, complete with vertical gardens; an area to build forts out of natural materials; and the Hawk’s Nest, a 16-foot high observation structure which yields a panoramic view of the museum, which is meant to emulate the perspective of the nominal birds.

With all of their endeavors (current and future), Kidspace is aware of the of the importance of hands on learning in a natural setting–even adults have fun brushing up on their science. The museum’s goal is to make all of what they do accessible, and to incorporate nature and the outdoors as much as possible. They make science exciting and fun–as it should be. The natural world, with all its oddities and intricacies, is an adventure. Kidspace is just leading the way.

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