For the past 17 years, children in central Illinois have had a unique space to explore, learn, and play—a place all their own. “The Children’s Discovery Museum, originally named the McLean County Children’s Discovery Museum, was the fruition of a dream shared by two women in the community,” according to Heather Young, the museum’s public affairs coordinator.

One of the original founders—and the current manager—Shari Spaniol Buckellew, had traveled the country visiting children’s museums, Young said. “Her family relocated from Dallas to the Bloomington-Normal area, and it wasn’t long before she wondered why a community with two universities, three wonderful school districts, and an education-minded business atmosphere didn’t have a children’s museum. So she thought maybe she’d start one. Six years and a seven-member board later, they opened a 1,100-square-foot ‘preview’ museum in a store space donated by College Hills Mall. It was intended to test the waters—to see if the community was interested in having such an attraction in town.”

Response to the museum was phenomenal. “Families came to the museum, and they wanted more,” she said. “Requests started pouring in for field trips, birthday parties, and more exhibits—much more than the 1,100-square-foot museum could provide. So in March 1995, the museum relocated to an 8,000-square-foot facility on the Constitution Trail in Bloomington. The museum added programs in partnership with Bloomington Junior High School, local scout troops, and also developed their own programs for youth in preschool through third grade.”

Young said attendance kept growing, and it wasn’t long before the museum launched a capital campaign to fund what was originally intended to be a 24,000-square-foot museum with professionally designed exhibits. “This was part of a public/private partnership with the Town of Normal and was to be the cornerstone of its downtown renewal effort,” she said. “As plans unfolded for both the downtown redevelopment and the museum site, the Children’s Discovery Museum Board and the Town of Normal agreed to take things a step further. In 2002, Normal officially announced its commitment to build a $4.5 million, 34,000-square-foot building and to encompass the operations of the museum within the Town of Normal’s Parks and Recreation Department. The museum board committed to $3.5 million to fill the now three-story facility with professionally designed and fabricated exhibits.”

The Children’s Discovery Museum welcomed the first visitors to its new home November 27, 2004. “Seven short months later, the museum celebrated its 100,000th visitor,” Young said. “To date, the museum has hosted well over 120,000 visitors and has surpassed everyone’s expectations. It’s the mission of the Children’s Discovery Museum to inspire the love of learning through the power of play. Play is the real work of childhood, and children’s museums are one of the few places where unstructured and spontaneous play takes place for our youth. It’s through the power of play that children learn who they are, how their world works, and much more. Studies show that observable and quantifiable learning takes place in children’s museums. From cause and effect to small motor skills and beyond, children’s museums are the place where neurons unite and imaginations soar. Children’s museums are also unique places that bring children, families, and communities together for quality interaction and to make memories that last a lifetime.”

In addition to logistical changes, Young said the museum has undergone programming changes as well. “The museum offered programs for preschool through third grade, plus homeschool programs, in its former location. Now, in addition to those programs, we offer infant and toddler programs, free floor programming, cooperative programs in conjunction with local organizations including the Ecology Action Center and Illinois State University, and teen programs.”
The exhibits, too, have experienced a remarkable transition. “They were conceptualized with museum staff with an exhibit design team that considered children’s various learning styles and abilities,” she said. “The exhibits are layered with content that appeals to our youngest visitor, while also keeping our older visitors engaged. They were fabricated to withstand the hundreds of thousands of visitors who will experience them in the hands-on way that children’s museums encourage.

All of these things add up to thrilled responses from new visitors, Young said. “We especially enjoy the reactions of the little ones. Just walking in the door elicits ‘oohs’ and ‘wows.’ That response is due to the two-story ‘Luckey Climber’ that’s directly overhead as you walk in the front door. Children traverse the climber from the second to third floor and down again, and these children can be seen as you walk in the door. Once through the museum, we’ve received comments and compliments that compare us to museums found in larger, more metropolitan areas. We’ve even encountered skeptical adults who’ve never experienced a children’s museum who come out believers in the hands-on experience they’ve just been a part of. We encourage visits, if at all possible, to last a couple of hours. And even then, chances are good you haven’t experienced all there is. Our family pass sales have increased exponentially as people realize they can come time and again and still enjoy their museum experience in a slightly different way.”

Children of all ages are welcome, but Young said the museum has several different “typical” customers. “We have our family passholders, who visit on a regular basis. We have thousands of school children and adults who visit us as part of a field trip. Stay-at-home moms, grandparents, pre-schools, and daycare centers are common. Tourists are a group that’s seen immense growth. When we celebrated our 100,000th visitor, we shared that more than 40 percent of our visitors have come from outside the Bloomington-Normal area, and we’ve hosted people from more than 25 different states and three countries. Birthday parties also encompass a large number of our visitors.”

Young said a few misconceptions persist about the museum. “Occasionally, parents feel that if they’ve been to the museum once or twice, they’ve seen and done all there is to do. That’s a big misconception. So many of our museum exhibits are open ended and experiential. A child can approach an exhibit in one way on one day and then come back two days later and experience it in a completely different manner—and enjoy it just as much. Because the exhibits are imagination-based, children may experience it time and again without becoming bored with it. Another misconception parents have is that their 10- or 11-year-old child is too old to enjoy the museum. The truth is, children as old as 13 or 14 greatly enjoy their visits to the museum. In fact, when we opened, we were surprised at how much older our visitors were. And once a child reaches the age of 13, they can volunteer at the museum. So, people ages six months to 99 years can enjoy and benefit from the museum, either as a visitor or as a volunteer.”

One misconception Young said museum staff actively combats is that adult interaction is optional. “Some parents come with a book to read or find a friend and chat the entire time they’re here. Or worse still, parents try to drop off their children at the museum while they do a little shopping or go to a movie. That’s a big no-no at the Children’s Discovery Museum. Children benefit from the experience of the museum much more if they experience it with a loved one or with an engaged adult. Left to wander on their own, children may misuse or abuse exhibits, and they certainly miss out on the shared memories and learning. Parents and children should come to the museum together and become lost in the moment of interacting and playing together.”

The museum regularly offers special events, in addition to its permanent exhibits. “October is certainly a busy month at the Children’s Discovery Museum. We’re hosting, for the first time, a murder mystery fundraiser with proceeds benefiting the museum, Illinois State University’s Milner Library, and the Friends of the Arts. The Marsten Murders is based on the following: Mrs. Marsten is donating her fabulous jewelry collection to a museum. The question arises: is the jewelry really hers, or does it belong to a great collection that’s been lost for years? What mystery is hidden in the jewels and how many lives will it cost? The mystery event is as interactive as the guest would like it to be. They can be active in trying to solve the case or simply watch as the events of the evening unfold.”

The event takes place at 7 p.m., October 7 and 22 and includes a dinner, prepared and catered by chefs from the Radisson Hotel; the mystery event; and a chance to win one of two diamond pendants donated by Bremer Jewelry. Tickets cost $75.

Other October events include Fall Colorbration!, a celebration with pumpkin painting, face painting, crafts, dancing, and fall treats from 6 to 8 p.m., October 15. The cost is $10 for passholders or $15 for non-passholders. Zoot Creative Arts Workshops is a performance-based program that encourages the development of artistic, social, and personal skills while exploring their own creative expression. There are four programs to choose from for kids in kindergarten through eighth grade. The October Home School Programs, which take place October 27 and 28, focus on Bottle Biology and Ecosystems. The museum also offers its infant and toddler programs and Discovery Bunch programs in October.

Funding is an issue for most arts organizations, but Young said as it’s a part of the Town of Normal’s Parks and Recreation Department, the museum is a tax-based organization. “Our long-range plan calls for only a small part of our operational budget being funded through the town’s coffers. We rely on revenues generated through general admission, family passes, classes, field trips, and birthday parties—plus operational fundraisers to make up the remainder. However, we also have a Museum Foundation that raises money for future exhibits. We’re raising money right now to fund a new exhibit in our third floor ArtsScapes gallery, ‘The Paint Wall.’” Our goal is $100,000 to pay for and maintain this popular exhibit. Our Foundation Board, coupled with the Museum Guild, will lead the way to help raise the needed funds for the Paint Wall through their annual Sweet Discovery Ladies Luncheon, gala, and other fundraising activities. We’re also selling personalized ceramic tiles that will create a permanent fun and colorful backdrop for this exhibit and a memory of your museum visits for generations to come.”

Young said the best part about working at the Children’s Discovery Museum are the smiles and laughs that come from our youngest visitors. “It just tickles me to see them walk in the door, so full of excitement and happiness to be here. We’ve provided our community’s children with a place to play and learn, and I’m proud of that.”

But the museum’s growing pains have been rough at times, she said. “Learning to operate as a bigger operation has been challenging. We’ve added more staff, programs, activities, and events than I ever would have imagined in our first year. We’re also now part of something bigger, the Town of Normal. I think communicating to all interested parties about the activities at the museum is the biggest challenge for me, but it’s a challenge that we at the Children’s Discovery Museum are certainly ready and willing to take on.”

Future plans for the museum include adding new exhibit galleries, according to Young. “We’ll open our new Paint Wall exhibit October 15, and from there, the focus will be on our new agriculture exhibit, AgVenture, which will fill a significant portion of the second floor. We’re also filling the second floor with more air exhibits in the very near future. We’re continuing to add educational programs and activities, and we’re even hosting our first overnight program during the holidays. One thing you can count on here at the Children’s Discovery Museum: there will always be something new and exciting going on.”

For more information on the museum or its events, call 433-3448. AA!