By Malia Jacobson
In 2009, after a long and fruitless search for the Tacoma Children’s Museum’s new home, executive director Tanya Andrews stumbled upon the United Way building at 15th Street and Pacific Avenue in downtown Tacoma. “I instantly fell in love with the space,” she says. “Now, nearly three years later, here we are.”
During the planning phase, museum staff solicited input from museum members and visitors—and then brought their ideas to life. One of the most-requested items greets visitors as soon as they step in the door (the museum opens to the public on Jan. 14): Play Café, a sleek coffee bar serving Stumptown java along with an array of organic options and healthy snacks.
The rest of the new museum building is equally reflective of the community’s collective wish list. The space boasts 60 percent more square footage than the museum’s previous home, more accessible parking (10 reserved spaces are free for members), a water feature, a slide, and more collaborative, experiential play opportunities for children up to age 8.
The museum’s five main “Playscapes”—Woods, Water, Invention, Voyager, and Becka’s Studio—invite self-directed play around core childhood experiences. The Playscapes are designed to encourage creativity, exploration, and social and emotional growth, and gross and fine motor skills, according to Debbie Kray, museum education and exhibits director.
The Playscapes are inclusive and accessible for toddlers, but they offer cognitive and physical challenges to engage older children: the Woods Playscape, for example, offers an age-appropriate sensory exploration area for crawlers and new walkers, while older children can climb through a pile of logs and up a net staircase, transport materials with a pulley system, or camp out in a dark cave stocked with light writers.
Another highlight is the Water area, a top item requested by museum visitors. This Playscape features tall panes of glass and metal topped by fantastical copper pipes and old-fashioned fixtures. Kids can control the flow of water into a series of galvanized tubs where they can experience falling, running, and still water. Children can creatively problem-solve as they fashion channels for boats, navigate objects down a stream, and change the flow and direction of the water. “I’ve been to a lot of children’s museums, and I’ve never seen anything like it,” says museum consultant Courtenay Chamberlin.
Art is a key component of the museum’s focus, highlighted by projects like a reflection space within the museum and the Playful Tree in the Woods Playscape. Visiting artists will collaborate with children through projects in Becka’s Studio. The warm, modern museum space features artistic elements throughout: “We wanted to respect a child’s ability to appreciate beauty,” says Andrews.
The museum is the state’s first private museum to offer a pay-what-you-can admission, funded for the next 10 years through the We Play! Campaign. “Access has always been a cornerstone of our beliefs,” says Andrews, who estimates that the museum will serve 100,000 visitors in 2012. “I hope that we can prove to other children’s museums in the country that this is a sustainable way to do business.”