The Northwoods is home to its very own children's museum, a place where the interactive exhibits are designed to stimulate children's creativity. But as WXPR's Emily Bright reports, it takes the efforts and creativity of an entire community to keep it running.
Cindy Thompson gets down on her knees to explain the rules of the Northwoods Children’s Museum to my two-year old.
“Okay my friend, look here. See this red line, and the red light way up high? What does red mean?
Thompson encourages her to walk, put away her toys, and have fun, then she switches the traffic light to green and sends her to play.
“Go have fun!”
Thompson’s name tag calls her a “Play Expert,” and at the Children’s Museum, that’s an important title.
“We believe in hands-on play. We lose a lot of opportunity to play in our society with TV, electronics, overscheduling of our young kids, and this is an opportunity to explore, touch things, learn how things work...”
Rouleen Gartner is the Executive Director of the Northwoods Children’s Museum. Gartner has a degree in physics, but she says,
“You don’t go to school to learn how to play, so there really is no education that fits you for this."
And when it comes to fit, the children’s museum seems to have found a surprisingly good one in the Northwoods. But Gartner says it once seemed unlikely that this kind of institution could thrive.
“The business plan and the feasibility studies said this museum could not survive in a community this small," she explains. "And to this day we’re still the only museum in a community this small. We’re the only one in the northern half of Wisconsin and the western 2/3 of Michigan.”
The children’s museum started in 1998 as brainchild of a homeschooling husband and wife team, the Long family. Lacking the endowment that give some nonprofits their start, the Longs had to convince the community that play was important—an effort they continue to this day.
“We’ve had to work really hard to show that we are servicing this community so that people see it is worth it to pay the amount to come in," Gartner says. "At the beginning, a lot of the museum exhibits began as pet projects by community members.”
Like many nonprofits, they rely heavily on grants and community partnerships. Every exhibit has been built in-house by museum staff and volunteers, which gives the museum a unique Northwoods feel. Like the “frozen lake” where children can climb up the steps to ride a stationary snowmobile or down the steps to explore the pretend lake below, complete with fish.
There’s a handmade Reading Tree that “reads” children pre-recorded picture books over the phone, and a player piano that comes to life at the press of a button, letting children watch as hammers strike the strings inside. Gartner remembers the families and volunteers who created each piece.
“You know, we can’t afford to have construction people come in and build everything," says Gartner. "We have to do it ourselves…. For every exhibit we do, we always have a work night, and we’re getting people…to come in, take ownership, help develop it….they take ownership, they want to be here and see how the kids play with it. It’s just as much of a toy for them as it is for the kids."
Jen O’Donnell and her two young daughters are frequent visitors to the museum since they moved to Eagle River from Madison this summer. I find them in her 3 year-old daughter, Autumn’s favorite spot:
“The dress-up room, with lots of dresses and firefighter coats and a place to do hair," says O'Donnell. "We found this and we’re like Yes! somewhere to go!...it’s hard to find things to do for kids up here.”
The enthusiasm of locals and visitors who come from hours away has been enough to keep the Children’s Museum going for the past 16 years. More than half of the museum’s revenue comes from ticket sales, much of it during the summer months. As they’ve seen those numbers go down in the past few years, they’ve had to get creative, offering monthly special events like Wizard Fest and Tea Parties to draw families in. But for a place devoted to play, getting creative is something they can do.