Children’s Museum of Atlanta plans major renovations

Jane Turner has a talent. She can see the future while eyeing the present.

It’s the only way the executive director of the Children’s Museum of Atlanta can navigate a floor littered with plastic balls, cast-off costumes, fake corn on the cob — and, of course, children: infants, toddlers, elementary-age youngsters, all of them bumping, falling, laughing, crawling, dancing, hollering at mom.

All of them learning. It’s the reason why the museum in downtown Atlanta exists.

The reason, too, that the museum will close in August for a $8.2 million rebuild and face-lift. When the facility on Centennial Olympic Park Drive reopens in December, said Turner, visitors will discover a facility with an enhanced emphasis on STEM — science, technology, engineering and math.

The facility will add two new permanent exhibits. Workers will install an L-shaped mezzanine to bring the museum’s space to nearly 20,000 square feet. The museum also will build a permanent performance space for the Imaginators, a troupe of professional actors who regularly regale visitors.

The four existing galleries will get some additional pizazz, too.

The changes, said Turner, stem from two years of research — of asking parents, educators, museum and child care professionals what changes would make the museum better. Employees even asked kids what they wanted. The museum augmented that with a 2.5-year capital campaign that is nearly complete.

The result? “We believe this will make a dynamic experience that doesn’t grow stale,” Turner said. “We always want to be engaging, always hands-on.”

Studies show that children, no matter where they live, all embrace the same type of play. In so doing, they learn about their world. Helping youngsters learn about their surroundings has been the nonprofit museum’s mission since it opened in March 2003.

On a recent afternoon, Turner wove past knots of youngsters, pointing here, pointing there.

She motioned at a cylindrical structure resembling a giant spool of thread. It will make way for “Gateway to the World,” a two-story climbing wall that leads to a globe suspended about 10 feet from the floor. The 14-foot globe will be foot-powered, turned by the tread of young feet. Below will be six tables, each shaped like a continent and featuring hands-on activities focusing on the stuff of science — geography, geology, astronomy, physics, aerodynamics.

She pointed at the ceiling, where a mezzanine will be the site of “Step Up to Science.” Up there, said Turner, people can conduct experiments, maybe build a robot. Yes, build a robot; the museum is working with some Georgia Tech geniuses to make that happen.

The museum’s four current learning zones get some upgrades or expansions, too.

  • “Tools for Solutions”: Youngsters get a look at the inner workings of a home — its switches, plumbing, carpentry. A new feature: They’ll also get a chance to try out their own building skills.
  • “Fundamentally Food”: A primer on how food makes it from the farm to the grocery store before it’s eaten in a home or or served at a restaurant. The improvements includes a new diner, a make-believe place with menus that change.

“It is important for children to understand where their food comes from,” Turner said.

  • “Let Your Creativity Flow”: This focuses on music and the visual arts. Carpenters will create a new room on the museum floor for making music. They’ll also build a permanent stage for the Imaginators and other arts programs. It will replace the museum’s current mobile stage.
  • “Leap Into Learning” (for kids under 5): The “under 2” space will add a toddler car, bubble wall and a little house. The water feature will receive a series of dams; using these dams, kids will be able to play and experiment to see the impact on small boats in the water.

The museum, Turner said, will feature revolving exhibits that change three times a year. A museum cannot thrive without some fresh gee-whiz.

Yet some features won’t change. The museum’s John Deere tractor is too popular with kids (and their parents) to junk. Ditto for Buttercup, a fiberglass Holstein; she’ll continue producing fake milk.

And let us not forget the ball machine. It is a fabulous combination of gears and belts and tubes, of motors and levers and boxes, that makes a big production of moving balls from point A to point B. It is a youngster’s dream, an engineer’s sleepless night. You cannot walk past it without stopping to stare.

The sand pile made the cut, too. On a recent afternoon, Brittany Sholtz, of Rome, had her hands in the stuff. It rose like a pale mountain. She peered at her work with a 7-year-old’s intensity.

“It’s a cake,” she explained.

OK. What kind of cake?

Brittany looked exasperated.

“A food cake.”

Duly noted, Miss Sholtz.

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