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Jan 24, 2012

Opinion: A great place to play

Tacoma Weekly

Play is an important component of early childhood development. It bolsters imagination and encourages creativity. In an era when too many children spend their play time inside with computers and video games, having a place where they can engage in creative play with others is more important than ever in helping them development intellectually and socially.

Children's Museum of Tacoma has been meeting that need since it opened in 1986. It has taken its game to a whole new level in its new facility, which opened to the public on Jan. 14. The shouts of glee and looks of wonderment in the eyes of children at the grand opening on Jan. 14 made it clear the museum is a real winner in its new location.

There are five themed "playscapes" – Water, Woods, Voyager, Invention and Becka's Studio. Each location has themed play that allows for countless options for children to explore and learn about the world around them while they play.

That play sometimes can get a little messy, and the new facility offers opportunities for that. Plastic aprons are provided at the Water area. Becka's Studio has paper and paint for children to explore their artistic side, along with more aprons.

Woods offers stairs and walkways for children to get a few feet off the ground.

Voyager has a structure with a pair of wings above that can be operated by pedals inside.

Invention has two great features that operated on air flowing through tubes. One has small balls that can be placed in a tube. They may go in one direction or another, or even bounce away onto the floor. The other has small pieces of fabric that are placed into tubes. Levers around this device direct the flow of air in various directions. In a society with a glaring need to produce more engineers and scientists, features such as these could plant the seeds that could lead children to study such subjects in school when they get older.

Several old-fashioned telephones – ones with cords – are installed around the building. Picking up the headset allows a person on one end to speak to someone on the other.

New amenities include lockers to store personal items and a café selling coffee drinks for adults to enjoy while their children explore the museum unfettered by grownups.

The educational benefits of creative play are useful to all children, regardless of their family's location on the socio-economic ladder. This is the first private, non-profit children's museum in the nation offering pay-what-you-can admission. That makes access possible for all children, even those with parents of limited means. Those who can afford to pay are encouraged to do so, but those who are struggling financially are not required to pay. This "honor system" admission will be funded for about 10 years through a $1 million access fund, which received a generous lead gift from KeyBank.
In recent years, staff and board members realized the location on Broadway was too small and a new facility would be needed. That process ran into a few bumps in the road, most notably when museum officials expressed interest in a vacant parcel at the south end of Thea Foss Waterway. Others in the community who wanted that land used for other uses raised objections and museum officials found themselves in the uncomfortable position of being in the middle of a controversy.

Locations outside of the city were discussed, but there was a strong sentiment from many museum supporters to keep the destination play center downtown. The decision to place it on the first floor of the United Way building on Pacific Avenue is a great one. There is an adjacent parking lot, a light rail stop just up the street and numerous buses roll by it. This makes a great addition to Tacoma's museum row.

Kudos to Executive Director Tanya Andrews for the vision and leadership she has displayed in the effort to locate a new home and to Joan Bamford and Jacquie Boyd, co-chairs of the museum's We Play! Campaign, for their efforts to raise money and generate community support.

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