Fernbank's NatureQuest mixes learning with fun

In one corner stands a majestic tree, its insides strung with netting ideal for climbing.

Adjacent is a two-level clubhouse filled with magic mirrors, microscopes, digital binoculars and a nook lined with science books.

A few feet over, two diamondback terrapins creep around their glass-enclosed home in the estuary zone, where columns pocked with (plastic) barnacles surround an interactive video about the camouflaging capabilities of marine life.

And that’s about a third of NatureQuest, the new permanent children’s exhibit that opens Saturday at the Fernbank Museum of Natural History.

The 7,000-square-foot, $8 million expanse had been planned for four years as a replacement for the upper-level children’s area of the museum.

After nearly a year of construction, the exhibit, funded by private donors, is ready to receive thousands of foot poundings while giving kids the opportunity to interact with nature, geology and even a waterfall.

Teaching, however subtly, is NatureQuest’s primary goal.

“We wanted it to be a safe place to explore,” said Chris Bean, vice president of education at Fernbank. “There’s so much that a toddler can do, from climbing to learning motor skills to seeing the live animals. You also want to tap into kids’ imaginations where they can create their own fantasy worlds.”

The exhibit, designed in collaboration with the Thinkwell Group, a Burbank, Calif.-based development firm, is targeted to those ages 2-10. Fernbank used the expertise of its own content team to make sure each of the zones offered cognitive, behavioral and affective learning goals.

Beth Figaretti, a Smyrna mom, visited during a preview opening with her daughter Anna, 3, and son Thomas, 5, and already plans to return with her 7-year-old daughter, Sarah.

As a former science teacher at Wheeler High School in Marietta, Figaretti is attuned to seeking out opportunities for her kids to learn, even if the lessons are subtly folded into a fun diversion.

Figaretti appreciated the openness of NatureQuest and found its unstructured layout appealing.

“It allows kids to explore and go where their personal interests lie. One [of my kids] loved putting the pieces of the broken pot [in the archaeological area] together and spent 10 minutes there, and the other didn’t touch it but ran off to climb the tree. There’s no order to seeing things. You just turn around and it’s one more thing for them to show their sibling -- they’re seeing a lot more than they would in a book.”

Visitors might also want to explore the mineral cave, sprinkled with samples of quartz (the state gem) and amethysts, and leading to a moving wall of fossils, which should thrill any budding geologists. Fish fans will also find some surprises in the “river” running through NatureQuest.

In future weeks, the museum will begin staging scavenger hunts in the clubhouse and providing “ologist” cards, which will explain the exhibit from the perspective of various scientists, such as an archaeologist or zoologist.

“It’s nice that [the kids] can do all of this in a contained room,” Figaretti said. “Everything is so captivating and engaging, you want to just turn them loose.”

Exhibit preview

NatureQuest at Fernbank Museum of Natural History

Opens 10 a.m. March 19. Regular hours 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Monday-Friday; 10 a.m.-5 p.m. Saturday; and noon-5 p.m. Sunday. NatureQuest included in museum admission. $17.50 adults; $16.50 students and seniors (62 and older); $15.50 children 3-12; Free for children 2 and younger and for museum members. 767 Clifton Road N.E., Atlanta. 404-929-6300, www.fernbankmuseum.org.