Thursday, June 23, 2011

Visit to a child play space

I took my little star to the new children's museum in Mansfield today.  The day was questionable in terms of weather; it rained on and off all day- which meant that taking him somewhere to play outside was not the greatest idea.  Also I wanted to do some "research".  I knew two people who had gone to the museum, and I saw it a few weeks before it opened, and one mom (with baby and 2.5 year old) loved it; the other one was concerned about safety and cleanliness for her 18 month old.

Now bear in mind that I am going to be EXTRA critical since I do see this place, as competition to some degree.  It's not major competition since our science play space and their museum are really meant mainly for local use, but I do want to make sure ours is different... and better!

So we went.  My son had a great time, so it was a good experience.  However, my son is 3.5.  I can see the concerns for a younger child who'd likely to put everything in his mouth.  And the floor... well, they really need to refinish it.  Its a wooden floor with all sorts of pain and gunk on it.  It looks terrible.  Some things don't look totally clean.  I think they were working so hard to get it opened that they never really had time to completely clean it before they did, so now it just gets spot cleaning, and some corners are missed.  But they did get it open and its kids are enjoying it.

The mom also was concerned about the planting boxes.  You see they have a really cool concept- dirt like stuff in boxes with gardening implements, pots, fake flowers.  My son loved it.  However, they used a rubber mulch material that I really can't imagine is exactly safe for kids in terms of degrading into powder... and who knows whats in it.  The mom who was concerned worried that her kids threw it all over the floor... well yes, kids do do that and it was a mess.  I'm not so sure another material would be an improvement.  I could see improving the set up to contain it in the space slightly better, but... some things are just messy.  They had done a nice job by setting up two different tables of different heights.  It would have been nice to have a shelf /table nearby for potting.  My son kept trying to put the pots on the ledge and shovel the mulch into them.  Of course they were not very stable there.

They also had a nice apple tree thing where kids could stick up fake apples with velcro. Of course they also had baskets, a wheel barrow and a wagon.  Well, two kids had already confiscated the apple in the wheelbarrow and wagon when my son wanted to play.  However they were willing to share and he enjoyed the basket.  I think you could have had pictures of apples for the kids to match the colors or some numbers to count.  The space was over the same old wooden floor, and the apples were always dropping on it.  They looked worse for wear and I don't think they will last long.  Perhaps beanbags or a soft floor would have worked better.

They had a grocery store with little carts, toy cash registers, and a scale.  My son loved it- he spent a lot of time "weighing the food" and using the cash register. They had a lot of "food" including a lot of packaged goods that were shrink wrapped empty boxes. The mom who was critical didn't like the whole shrink wrap idea- and I can see why- for her kid probably wanted to chew it or take it off.  It worked for my older kid. I think filling the boxes with something to give them weight would be a good idea.  I thought it was nice that they had lots of different kinds of food including fruits and vegetables.  They even had grocer's aprons and paper shopping bags.

My son's unexpectedly enjoyed the "vet" area. Once I showed him what a vet might do, he enjoyed putting the stuffed animals in the carrier, giving them shots, examining them with the stethoscope and the flashlight.  I saw some older kids putting on lab coats, writing down stuff, really play acting.  Then my son didn't want to go into the "doctors' office", so we didn't go, but it was actually pretty cool- they had  incubators with toy dolls, a scale, and examining equipment including an x-ray display light.

Somehow, I was just not surprised that his favorite seemed to be the science lab.  They had some balances there including a three beam, but they were either locked or broken.  That was annoying.  The also had some science stuff like rocks and magnifying glass, and magnets, but they were in boxes kind of where kids wouldn't tend to look for them.  I thought they should be out, ready to go.  Of course what my son got into was the chemistry bench.  They had alls sorts of graduated cylinders (plastic), measuring cups and spoons, funnels, and colored water.  Too much fun.  He turned out to be much better at pouring than I had expected.  Unfortunately whenever there was another kids there wasn't really enough water or it wasn't set up well for two kids to really enjoy it at the same time without getting in each other's way.  Also once they mixed the colors... well there were not any refills until a volunteer could come.  They hadn't left out supplies even for parents.  The kids made a mess (as expected). I think they must go through a lot of paper towels.  They didn't rags or towels.  Somehow I think it could have been set up better- maybe the counter should have a drip catcher or the floor...  in any case it was nice to see how it was implemented to give me ideas- and to find that even colored water with cool containers was fun.  It does give kids a chance to get familiar with the equipment.

My son ignored the stage and costumes, but I saw other kids enjoying themselves.  He also wasn't really into the bank.  I think it was more for older kids.

didn't go in the padded baby room, but I saw other kids enjoying it.  It was a shoe free area. It's not very big, but I don't know how much space you really need... except that that space was really more appropriate for the 18month old in terms of cleanliness and safety.

They also had these little toddler car things- my son still fits and likes them occasionally, so I noticed at the end he was getting in the car to take him between areas.  I thought Oh no, is this what he's learning at home- you get in the car to go from one place to the other.  Because we do do that a lot.  We don't always do that- if its available locally we walk or bike unless its on the way and we are already in the car.  The car happens a lot because a lot of things are not available locally and we are often on the way.  I wish we were teaching him better.  I liked how they had enough space for kids to move around - in the cars (they have to pedal) or pushing the wheelbarrow or pulling the wagons.  Although my son wasn't really active, he was on his feet all morning.  They are building a tree house climbing things there.  I hope our space has lots of ways for kids to be active.

They also had a few tables set up in the middle for people to bring in food or eat.

At the entrance they also had a little lounge with a lego table that included legos, Duplo and mega-blocks.  For some reason they were all in their containers, so it didn't look that inviting until I showed my son what he could do. He did like it, and I introduced him to little legos.  He can do them a little bit, and liked them.  Funny thing was, the chairs were the wrong size (like normal adult size), so the kids couldn't really sit at them normally to use the table since it was too low.  Kid size stuff is really expensive.

So all in all.... yes there are some things they could be doing better- and they are easy to see if you go in there with your kid and watch kids play.   I think the space focuses best on preschool and primary school rather than toddler age. They had a little reading area with books, but no board books. I hope when we get a space I will be vigilant about making changes if they are helpful. But my son had a lot of fun- we stayed until I knew he needed a nap, and I think it was good for him to go somewhere new, see some new things, do lots of pretend play with me and also by himself with me watching.  I hope we can make a place that allows that here- and focuses a bit more on active play (though they are planning a climbing wall in Mansfield) and science so it will be different. 

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