Creative thinkers at the Iowa Children’s Museum in Coralville have been thinking outside the box to create take-home activity boxes for little learners who may think they’re just playing.
The COVID-19 pandemic shut the museum’s doors inside Coral Ridge Mall in mid-March, and when the leadership team returned after furlough, members began brainstorming ways to keep kids engaged.
They assembled Play Packs. The first one, available now for $40 at the museum and online, focuses on space-related activities. The next one will have an engineering theme, and the third will have a wizarding feel, tapping into the theatrical component of the museum’s space, noted Jeff Capps of Iowa City, the museum’s executive director.
While some workers were placed on leave shortly after the museum closed in mid-March, the leadership team was furloughed for six weeks in April and May, Capps said. He and assistant director Aimee Mussman stayed on, but knew they would have to cancel programs like summer camps. So when they began planning to bring staff back, finding ways to connect with the public shot to the top of the to-do list.
“One thing that we knew was going to be of high value was trying to do something that people could enjoy at home and have a piece of the museum at home,” Capps said. “In light of the plethora of virtual offerings that were out there — we knew we wanted to do that, as well — we felt like having some physical play-to-learn materials would be a hit.
“This is a creative space — a space we really pride on being built in-house for the most part, so there’s a flavor to the Iowa Children’s Museum that’s significantly different than your average children’s museum out there.
“We knew when we would start building out these Play Packs, we wanted them to have that feel — that people would open them and be like, ‘Yeah, this is the ICM’ — that sense.”
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The concept emerged when the leadership team’s 11 members broke out into small groups to brainstorm programming and communications.
The team that came up with play pack idea “just took it and ran with it,” Capps said. “We wanted them to have themes that really were tied to different elements of the museum, as well. We have a new space shuttle portion of our ‘Take Flight’ aviation exhibit. The shuttle has been there for a little over a year, so this first play pack was this ‘Out of This World,’ and it’s all about space.”
It contains four elements with in-depth space-related activities geared for elementary ages, but preschoolers also can use them with a little help from an adult, Capps said.
“The neat thing about what we do here at the museum, and the Play Packs mirror this — I’ve got a picture of my 9- and 11-year-olds dressed up in spacesuits in the museum just this past year. I think they love (the museum) every bit as much as when they were here when they were 4 and 5, but in a different way,” Capps said. “They realize different ways to play, they discover different things here ... so I think the Play Packs really parallel that.”
According to the museum’s website, the packs “provide everything your child needs for a cosmic adventure” — including the packing box. As the kids play, they “will learn how to communicate ideas, gain motor coordination, express themselves through art, build problem solving skills, and more.”
The activities include:
• Train to be an Astronaut: Explore the ins and outs of a day in the life of an astronaut as you conduct experiments and complete zero-gravity tasks.
• Star Stuff: Explore constellations and use chalk to discover the stars through the lens of artist Vincent Van Gogh.
• To the Moon: Create your own lunar module and help astronauts safely land on earth’s natural satellite — the moon.
• Make Your Own Flight Deck: Control your very own space mission with this DIY flight deck creation.
“We really feel there’s some great learning that can happen online and there’s so many wonderful educational apps and tools out there, but we really think that it’s also critically important for kids to work with their hands, for them to make something out of nothing. To take simple materials, like our data box parties, where we load up cardboard boxes, chalk and markers and take then out to parks and let kids build with them,” Capps said.
“You can take simple materials and build something, create something and learn something in the process. These packs give kids the opportunity to do that. It’s not screen-based. There are extensions of the learning they can do through apps and YouTube that we’re recommending they could if they want to delve deeper into some of these concepts.
“But everything is in this little box, and it’s just chock full of stuff.
“We hope that this can be a real complement to the learning that kids are doing here this summer, but then also going into a school year that’s obviously going to look significantly different, no matter what option school districts and families are going with,” he said.
“We think this is a great thing to offer, and we hope it’s manageable for parents, too. Especially for older elementary kids, it’s all laid out for them — it’s not something that requires a high level of supervision. For younger kids, certainly there’s a distinct role for parents.
“We just hope it’s a great diversion, but not just a one-off deal, either,” he said, noting that parents are saying their kids are doing one activity per day, “because they’re substantial. But then they found their kids going back and taking some of the unused materials and making up something completely new.”
Since the first batch of 20 packs is nearly gone, the staff is making another batch of 20, and will keep going to fill demand, Capps said. The museum also is looking into ways to make partial packs that are less expensive, or donating some to community groups.
The packs can be picked up at the museum or sent directly to homes.
The Iowa Children’s Museum reopened July 13, with reduced hours, capacity limits and extensive cleaning and coronavirus safety protocols in place, Capps said. High-touch items that are harder to clean have been put away.
The museum wasn’t really affected by the Aug. 10 derecho storm that impacted the surrounding area, he added. The power flickered a few times, but didn’t go out.
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Visitors are coming, in fewer numbers, averaging about 60 per day, and the staff used the previous downtime to research, network and discuss with others the best ways to safely bring the public back to a high-touch children’s museum.
“For the better part of three or four months it was just so much high anxiety and thinking about what this process would look like,” he said. “Can we do this safely? What are people going to think if we decide to open and how long can we stay open?
“There’s something about getting open and demystifying a lot of that, that’s been really refreshing,” he said. “We’re feeling really comfortable about what we’re doing. It’s just a matter of whether it’s a sustainable approach.”
At a Glance
• What: Iowa Children’s Museum
• Where: Inside Coral Ridge Mall, 1451 Coral Ridge Ave., Coralville
• Hours: Member Monday, 10 a.m. to noon and 2 to 4 p.m.; general public 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Tuesday to Thursday, 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. and 3 to 6 p.m. Friday to Sunday
• Admission: $9 ages 1 to 59, $8 ages 60 and over, free under age 1 and Museum Members; advance tickets required at Theicm.org/tickets/
• Pandemic protocols: Face coverings required for ages 6 and up, encouraged for ages 3 to 5; more details at Theicm.org/plan-your-trip/
• Play Packs: $40 at Theicm.org/playpacks/
• Information: (319) 625-6255 or Theicm.org/
Comments: (319) 368-8508; email@example.com
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