A Parent’s Review: The All-New Hands On Children’s Museum

Published on: December 30, 2013

exterior-croppedBy Malia Jacobson

This week, thousands of happy South Sound families are getting their beloved children’s museum back. After waiting through eight years of planning, two years of construction, and two months of museum closure, member families and community members finally experienced the new Hands On Children’s Museum in Olympia as the museum opened its doors to the public over the weekend.

On Saturday, November 10, eager members poured into the new museum site on Olympia’s East Bay waterfront for  its members-only opening event. (The public Grand Opening took place Sunday and Monday.) What they experienced was a completely re-imagined space that holds true to its Olympia heritage, with eight galleries and more than 150 exhibits sprinkled liberally with artwork by local artisans, authentic marine fixtures, green building materials, and homages to local landmarks.

At 28,000 square feet, the new museum is the largest children’s museum in the Pacific Northwest. The museum features a new café serving coffee and hot and cold foods and a park plaza with a stream bubbling with reclaimed water. “We wanted families to be able to experience and learn about water reclamation and water preservation before even entering the museum,” says Genevieve Chan, museum communications manager. Both the café and the park plaza are open to the public and don’t require an entrance fee. But the highlights of the new museum are arguably the eight galleries brimming with interactive play opportunities:


- The Good for You Gallery encourages healthy lifestyles and food choices with farmers market stalls modeled after the Olympia Farmers Market. During the summer, children can pull vegetables from the museum’s working garden and prepare them in the 14 Carrot Café.

- The Puget Sound Gallery invites children to learn about a working Puget Sound as they explore a two-story marine cargo ship, complete with marine life under hull. A Build-A-Boat Buoy, working crane and loading dock, and electron microscope and science table provide hands-on lessons in science, engineering, and building.

- EMERGENCY! supports imaginative play and heroism with an Olympia Police Car complete with flashing lights, a fire engine,  emergency room, and a 911 dispatch center.

hocm-1- In the Tide to Trees Climber and Slide, children can imagine they’re a Pacific Northwest raindrop, starting under a realistic pier, climbing up into the atmosphere, and swirling down a slide back to earth. With a 70-foot elevation gain, the climber provides a safe physical challenge for children up to middle-school age, says Chan.

- On the museum’s second level, Snug Harbor gives the museum’s youngest visitors a sensorial exploration area complete with a reading corner and a wooden “anemone” climber and slide.

- The Fabulous Forest Gallery celebrates the Pacific Northwest with a treehouse, a Squaxin Island longhouse and weaving loom, a tent campsite, and a woodland animal rescue center.

- The Move It! Gallery supports physical play and gross motor development hands-on-water-croppedwith a wind tunnel, flying and building station, and Build-A-Car station (coming in 2013). By feeding scarves and other objects into the a 25-foot air maze, kids learn about wind power, physics, and cause and effect.

- In the Build It! Gallery, builder boards, real-life tool exhibits, and safety gear invite children to construct a home or playhouse, developing collaborative, creative, and construction skills in the process.

The museum’s “ninth gallery” is an Arts & Parts Studio. Overlooking Budd Inlet, the studio invites children to explore an assortment of new and recycled art materials, create one-of-a-kind masterpieces, and get messy with free-form creations in clay, sand, or water.

The new space enables the museum to expand its preschool and event programming. Two dividable party rooms mean the museum can host up to four birthday parties simultaneously, notes Chan.

Finally, the museum’s Outdoor Discovery Center (opening in spring 2013), the largest of its kind in Washington State, was recently picked as a National Pilot Site by the Association of Children’s Museums. It will feature a half-acre of outdoor exhibits on what used to be an unused brown field where visitors can explore a hike and trike loop, a lighthouse look-out, a sand excavation dig center, a fire ring for storytelling, a working garden and a naturalist cabin.

“We’re excited to see the community experience this museum that we’ve created with them and for them,” says Chan. “Seeing their joy will be the highlight of the entire project.”

If you go:

Where: Hands On Children’s Museum, 414 Jefferson St N.E., Olympia, 360-956-0818

Hours: Monday–Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday,11 a.m.–5 p.m.

Admission: $9.95 general admission for age 2 and up; $7.95 seniors; $6.95 toddlers 12-23 months. Babies under 12 months free with paid admission.

Deals: First Friday of the month is FREE from 5 p.m.-9 p.m.

Nearby attractions: Two good nearby spots for lunch are Ramblin Jacks and Cascadia Grill. If you have extra time, consider a visit to the LOTT Wet Science Center; Olympa's awesome farmers market, open Saturdays and Sundays in the winter; and Percival Landing, a waterfront park.

Photo information, in order of appearance:

- Eagles Nest is part of the Tides-to-Trees exhibit

- The Ballcano Water Vortex is in the Our Puget Sound Gallery

- The Air Maze (tubes) is in the MoveIt Gallery

- All photos by Aaron Barna

More indoor play

7 Children’s Museums to Visit This Winter

Rainy-day Recess: 60 Places for Indoor  Play

About the author: Malia Jacobson is a Tacoma-based freelance journalist and mom. She blogs about family health and parenting at thewellrestedfamily.com.

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