New Children’s Museum exhibit encourages innovative learning

By: Eric Sandbulte, The Brookings Register

Innovative learning is at the heart of what the Children’s Museum of South Dakota does, and that’s always been the case at one of its most popular exhibits, Splash.

The highly interactive, water-based room has always been a favorite with guests, and now, a project two years in the making is complete, with an improved, new water table installed.

Two years ago, museum leaders began to consider what exhibit should be updated, and as they looked at their options, they saw that the Splash exhibit was in particular need.

Splash has been a hit ever since it was first installed when the museum opened in 2010. With about 850,000 guests since it opened, the museum has certainly gotten a lot of value from the room and its special water table, but they wanted to give future guests something more interactive.

Just as before, the focus of the room is the massive water table, which holds more than 800 gallons of water. The new water table was designed to be an even more interactive and engaging experience, with more things brought down within a child’s reach. There aren’t as many vertical components to it, which CMSD Associate Director Mike Mogard said helps make it feel a bit more open and inviting, and it’s still packed with play features.

Children can experiment with buildable pipes, interact with a river portion where tabs can be arranged and placed to dam the water or redirect its flow, or work a pair of levers to pump water up to fall onto the top of a waterwheel, causing it to spin. One of the most popular parts of the new table is a play area complete with toy lily pads, logs, turtles and frogs.

There are also two whirlpools included in the new table, and whereas the previous table had its water vortex up high and out of reach, these can safely be interacted with. These were put in thanks to feedback they received from child guests at the museum.

One is very shallow but wide. Kids can place balls in this whirlpool and watch the current take it down. A metal track inside then catches the balls and directs it to an opening underneath, ready for another go.

The other is in a clear cylinder so that guests can see the whirlpool in action, and it’s placed low enough that they can stick their hands inside to experience firsthand how the current feels.

Still, kids find creative and unexpected ways to use some of these features, such as taking the dam tiles and using them to block the hole at the bottom of the whirlpool’s cylinder. That causes the rest of the cylinder to fill up and overflow, but it’s harmless enough, since the pieces can still be easily removed and the excess water simply spills over into the water table.

As noted, a lot of these new features came from the ideas of children.

For starters, the museum sought help from Camelot Intermediate School’s fifth-graders in coming up with ideas for what to do. One important thing that came from that was the students’ desire for more parts that could be freely moved around the room and the water table, which was incorporated with the play pond area and the dam pieces.

Area elementary schools also gave their input last fall during learning labs.

“In their time in Splash, it became clear that one of the things piqued their interest was our vortex, our water tornado. But their questions around it were things like, ‘How is it operating that way?’ and ‘What does it feel like?’ So our goal from that feedback was to take that component and make it more accessible,” Mogard said.

With that done, the museum worked with Boss Display to make the final design for the new water table and build it. It took four months for it to be built offsite in Ohio before it disassembled and shipped to Brookings.

Thankfully for the CMSD’s many guests, Splash was only closed for eight weeks.

“While the table was out, we thought if there was anything else that we wanted to achieve in that space that now was a good time to do it. So we did end up adding some additional drainage in there, we replaced some cabinets and windows,” Mogard said.

Even while Splash was closed to guests, museum staff sought to make it engaging space all the same.

CMSD Director of Marketing Kerrie Vilhauer said, “We had some construction hats available outside and visitors could actually peak in the window and see what was going on that day, so they really had a firsthand view of what was happening in the room.”

Although they had a soft opening, the room was officially opened to the public again Nov. 13.

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