Fossils, farm food and fitness: Three Wisconsin children’s museums outline new attractions

Museum officials from Eau Claire, Appleton and Madison join WPR’s 'Central Time'

A child stares at a museum exhibit with colorful paintings in the background
A child in November takes in features of the “Wonderground” exhibit at the Madison Children’s Museum, which finished an expansion of the exhibit in fall 2022. Photo courtesy of the Madison Children’s Museum

With Wisconsin’s cold and gloomy winter limiting outdoor family activities, one option for parents is visiting the local children’s museum.

Curious children have the world at their fingertips when they enter a museum.

Wisconsin Public Radio’s “Central Time” recently spoke with representatives from children’s museums in Eau Claire, Appleton and Madison about some of what each facility offers.

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New fossil dig, firetruck in Eau Claire

The Children’s Museum of Eau Claire opened its new building this month in the city’s downtown.

Museum CEO Michael McHorney said its energy system is now 100 percent renewable with more than 300 solar panels on the roof.

McHorney said the new facility adds free parking and more natural light. Based on feedback from kids seeking more dinosaurs, it also now includes a fossil dig. The old museum had a small firetruck experience, but McHorney said children wanted something bigger, so the museum salvaged an old fire engine from Ohio.

“That was really exciting and fun,” he said.

When children are feeling overwhelmed, the museum now offers a sensory room developed with help from the special education department at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire. In the past, McHorney said, children and their parents would feel like they had to leave if kids were having a breakdown.

“It allows children, if they are having a moment where they’re overwhelmed, to go to an area to work through that overstimulation and then positively re-engage back into the experience of our exhibits,” he said. “Really, our goal with that and our goal with the whole building is to make it accessible and available to everyone.”

A child plays with a water exhibit at a children's museum in Appleton
A child in November tries the water gallery exhibit at the Building for Kids Children’s Museum in Appleton. Photo courtesy of the Building for Kids Children’s Museum

Upcoming Appleton exhibit focuses on food

Casie Holdcroft oversees marketing at the Building for Kids Children’s Museum in Appleton. She said the museum is the only place kids scream “Fire!” and she knows it’s not an emergency. Like the Eau Claire museum, the Appleton museum also boasts a life-size firetruck to explore.

One exhibit coming in the fall is called “Food to Grow.” Holdcroft said the exhibit focuses on the sourcing, choice, equity and culture around food. It will feature a farm for children to grow their own food, a market to sell it, a kitchen to cook it and a table to enjoy it.

“Families or perhaps some new friends made at the museum can sit down together and eat,” she said.

For more active children, the museum offers an exhibit called “Planet Imagination,” which Holdcroft said has giant building blocks and an obstacle course for kids to burn off energy.

The museum also has an upcoming adults-only event from 6 to 9 p.m. on Feb. 25 called “Art Jam.” She said this event will have collaborative art and live music.

Madison adds more rope climbing

The Children’s Museum of Madison had a long-term goal of adding more outdoor space. Then closures during the COVID-19 pandemic created an opportunity to fast-track those efforts, said Kia Karlen, vice president of education and community engagement.

This past fall, the museum wrapped up its second building phase for “Wonderground,” which added more climbing equipment, such as rope bridges. The space is 10,000 square feet and originally opened in fall 2021 with playhouses, slides and a log cabin — one of the oldest surviving European family home structures in the state, Karlen said.

“It’s a wonderful four-season outdoor play space,” she said. “Of course, it’s immediately adjacent to all of the indoor comforts you might need when taking your kids outside during the winter.”

For the cold season, Karlen said the museum also offers an ice-skating rink and, when the weather is chilly enough, machine-made snow for sledding hills.

One project in the works is called “Caretakers of Wonder” and aims to bring together nine children’s museums across the country to examine age-appropriate sustainability education. The project is funded by a grant from the federal Institute of Museum and Library Services. Karlen said the Madison exhibit is scheduled to open in spring 2024.

“(It will come) from a voice of hope, optimism and agency — that we have the power to make things different,” she said. “So, it’s a climate change project that we’ll never mention the words climate change. We want to ground this in encouraging kids to play outside, learn to love nature and the outside world, to care for animals and other people, and develop their empathy skills.”

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