Coming Soon in Forces at Play: Endless Experiments using Air and Water
Minnesota Children’s Museum hits a milestone soon in our ongoing expansion and renovation project in downtown St. Paul.
In August, we open Forces at Play in the 3M Gallery. This will be the first of 10 new permanent exhibits, where families will play, explore and learn together like never before.
Forces at Play will offer an engrossing series of activities using air and water. Visitors are invited to build air-powered machines to launch ping-pong balls, use valves to send water cascading from one source to another and run their own car wash from start to finish with hoses and dryers.
It’s on track to be hours of wet, wild and windy fun.
To get an insider’s description of this exciting new exhibit, I sat down with Senior Exhibit Developer Mary Weiland, one of the creators of the experience, and asked her about her inspiration and expectations for Forces at Play.
“We started looking around at the tried-and-true activities that engage children,” Mary said. “We know that children love to play with soapy water. It’s fascinating on both a scientific level and an artistic level. So we took that idea and tried to ramp it up and approach it in a different way.”
Workin’ at the Car Wash, Yeah!
Forces at Play, located on the street level where the museum’s offices used to be, is split into two main sections, the wet side (water) and the dry side (air). Dominating the wet area will be a car wash, where visitors will wash a fantastical vehicle with hoses, sprayers, brushes and dryers.
Mary explained that the exhibit team drew inspiration for the car wash by looking for common memorable childhood experiences that at one time could be slightly frightening to younger children, but that later become a source of fascination.
Another activity on the wet side will be clear acrylic basins filled with bubble water lit from underneath so that visitors can not only play with soapy water, but also experiment with how the light reflects in the bubbles and how the water interacts with the light.
Catching Some Air
Mary laughed when I asked what her favorite part of the exhibit was, “That’s a trick question!”
But she admits that one of the components she enjoys playing with most is the blower-build stations, where visitors can create the machines that launch ping pong balls into the air or at targets.
“It’s just crazy,” Mary said. “You build your launching machine out of the tubes, and you flip the valve and your ball goes FLYING.”
Play is Learning
Mary said the activities in Forces at Play will not only be fun, they’ll also cultivate a variety of important skills, including critical thinking, creative thinking and collaboration. The gallery challenges visitors to think through problems, test out ideas and come up with solutions that may involve working with others.
One example is a component where children and adults may need to join forces to hold the tubes of a tall machine and open a valve to introduce the rushing air.
In Forces at Play, visitors will begin to see a shift in how the museum designs its exhibits. According to Mary, the developers have made a purposeful decision to emphasize activities that are open-ended, where each visitor builds and controls his or her own outcome through trial and error and experimentation.
“One of the biggest challenges for this exhibit was finding the balance between open-ended and kinetic play and not creating chaos,” Mary explained. “By creating an exhibit that puts so much of the experience in the hands of visitors, we had to understand the right amount of parameters to design into the gallery so the experience was not overwhelming. Hopefully, we hit the sweet spot of unadulterated joy while playfully learning!”
Adults Play, Too!
As an adult who is admittedly as excited to play with the new exhibit as any small child, I discussed with Mary how the adults in the family were thought about in gallery design.
“We opened up the space so that there is room now for five or six people instead of three or four children, we have more loose props, and we made sure that there were adult-sized costumes available. But most of all, what we are trying to communicate is that the adults that come have permission to play.”
Finally, I asked Mary what she hoped visitors leave with after their time in Forces at Play.
“I hope they come away with confidence in their ability to understand challenges or problems and the knowledge that there are so many different ways to solve something or approach a challenge. It can be a quirky way to solve it, or maybe a more traditional way, but that it’s OK to approach life, or challenges in life, in a hundred different ways.”
The museum remains open for play through November. After a four-month closure, the all-new museum will open in April 2017.
Molly Elian Carlson is a digital communications intern at Minnesota Children’s Museum.