Weekend Highlights

Published January 9, 2012
Going Places

A Parent’s Review: New Children’s Museum of Tacoma

by Jenni Prange Boran
seattle child article photo
Woods Playscape at the new Children's Museum of Tacoma, which opens Jan. 14.

seattle child article photo
Water Playscape at the Children's Museum of Tacoma.
Photos courtesy of the Children's Museum of Tacoma.

One of the first things every child learns is that a humble caterpillar miraculously turns into a beautiful butterfly. But how often does a butterfly evolve into an even more glorious creature?

That’s what has happened at the Children’s Museum of Tacoma. Its metamorphosis began fifteen years ago with a dream, continued over the past three years with a concentrated search for the perfect space, and came to life at a ground-breaking last April 25 at the Museum’s new home. Tacoma mayor Marilyn Strickland will be in attendance when the new museum opens its doors to the public on Jan. 14, bringing this evolution full circle. With the Museum’s brave new “Pay as You Will” admission program, the number of visitors to the new space is expected to soar beyond 100,000 this year.

“Access has always been the cornerstone of the Museum’s beliefs,” says Executive Director Tanya Andrews. Last year, half of its 63,000 visitors came for free.

In the search for a new space, the concept of access first covered the obvious – accessibility to and from the freeway, to bus lines, to Tacoma’s free Light Rail system – and the new space has all of that. But the idea of accessibility also extended to the ability of all families to visit and play together. Thanks to funding from the “We Play” campaign, the Museum is the first of its kind in the country to switch to a donation-only pay system. “We are inviting our visitors to be philanthropists and to pay as they are able,” says Andrews. “We hope to prove to children’s museums across the country that this is a sustainable way to run this kind of business.”

My 4-year-old son and I attended a “Members-Only Sneak Peek” of the new space in the last week of December. He headed straight for the glass doors – he could see what lay just beyond: namely, a tunnel made of cut logs, and a rope bridge. He was sold.

That was just the beginning. The Museum’s new exhibits, aptly called “Playscapes” as they intentionally blend learning with play, are categorized into three areas: Woods, Water and Voyager. Each Playscape focuses on a certain area of exploration. Voyager was my son’s favorite; he found a giant dragon that could also be a space shuttle, a pirate ship, and so on. The emphasis in Voyager is less obvious than that of the Water and Woods Playscapes, as it’s all about imagination.

The space captures the interest and hunger for learning of children from as young as 18 months to around 8 years old. Many of the Playscapes’ play elements call for teamwork, offering a chance for older kids to show younger kids the ropes.

The Museum also added a variety of amenities in the new space, which is almost three times the size of the previous location. Visitors will find 40 lockable storage cubbies, family restrooms, water fountains, stroller parking and, due to overwhelming popular feedback, Café Play. The Museum partnered with Tacoma-based Satellite Coffee to offer healthy snacks, packaged sandwiches and Stumptown Coffee. Additionally, the café boasts an affordable kids’ menu that offers mostly all-natural or organic items like applesauce, dried fruits and vegetables.

Despite the Museum’s change in admission policy, there are still benefits to becoming a member. On the most practical level, there are 10 free two-hour parking spots directly adjacent to the museum that are reserved for members. Additionally, there are “Members Only” hours, programs and discounts.

If you are a nonmember, nearby street parking is available at 75 cents an hour, which is not a bad deal. My son and I like to park free of charge at the Tacoma Dome Station Parking Ramp at 424 E. 25th St., and ride the light rail, also free of charge, to the Convention Center station, just one block from the museum. Any way you get there, it’s worth the trip.

As I watched my son pedal a stationary bike on the Voyager Playscape, I saw his eyes light up. He knows how to ride a bike, I thought, surprised at his delight. Until I followed his gaze upwards and saw that, as he pedaled, he was making the huge wings of the dragon flap. He wasn’t looking down at his feet; he was looking to the sky. I think that’s the gift the Children’s Museum of Tacoma can truly give its young patrons.

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If You Go...

Where: 1501 Pacific Ave., Tacoma

When: Wednesday through Sunday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; additional members’ hours: Monday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 9 to 10 a.m.

Cost: Pay as You Will; donations accepted.

Contact: 253-627-6031; www.playtacoma.org.