Volume One Special Coverage: Pulling Together While Staying Apart

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Block Party

EC children’s museum exhibit spurs creative, constructive play

Tom Giffey, photos by Andrea Paulseth

200 brightly colored foam blocks, chutes, channels, and gears form the new Children’s Museum of Eau Claire exhibit.
200 brightly colored foam blocks, chutes, channels, and gears form the new Children’s Museum of Eau Claire exhibit.

What can you do with a roomful of giant blue blocks? Pretty much anything you can dream up.

That’s the concept behind the Imagination Playground, the newest exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire. The “playground” is housed on the museum’s recently opened second floor, where in the coming weeks it will be joined by two more traditional exhibits.

While existing children’s museum exhibits – such as the Bitty City on the museum’s main floor, which includes a bank, a grocery store, and a restaurant – tend to promote structured play, the Imagination Playground is designed to unleash children’s creativity. It’s a collection of 200 brightly colored (and biodegradable) polyethelyne foam blocks, chutes, channels, gears, and others thingamajigs that can be arranged in countless ways to build any object little minds can dream up. Cross Tinkertoys and Legos, blow them up to enormous proportions, and make them out of the same material as pool noodles, and you’ve got the Imagination Playground.

“The thing that we were intrigued by is (it offers) open-ended play,” explained Darcy Way, executive director of the museum, 220 S. Barstow St. Museum board members and Way had seen the Imagination Playground at conventions in recent years, and finally decided to purchase one. “With us growing into our second floor, we thought the time was right.”

An elevator ride to the museum’s second floor brings you face-to-face with a world of wonder. On a recent morning a half dozen kids – from toddler to elementary-aged – played amid the blocks, building towers, stairways, and elaborate channels for balls to run through. Way said children (and their parents) often break into groups to build structures, then collaborate with others to link their creations together.

Imagination Playground is the brainchild of noted American architect David Rockwell, who has designed numerous high-profile buildings, including the Dolby Theatre in Hollywood (home of the Academy Awards) as well as hotels, restaurants, and theaters in major cities around the world. Rockwell created the Imagination Playground as a “playground in a box” that is portable and can be used indoors or outdoors. (The local museum’s playground will stay put, however.)

In 2010, Rockwell described his creation to The New York Times in this way: “In an age of childhood obesity and children tethered to electronic consoles, playgrounds have rarely been more important. In an age of constrained government budgets, playgrounds have rarely been a harder sell. Fortunately, the cost of play doesn’t have to be prohibitive. In creating the Imagination Playground in Lower Manhattan  — a playground with lots of loose parts for children to create their own play spaces — we realized that many of the elements with the greatest value to children were inexpensive and portable.”

From New York, the Imagination Playground has spread to schools, museums, and parks nationwide. The playground has proved popular in Eau Claire, where it typically is open for play in the late morning and early afternoon. (Hours are currently limited, however, so check the museum’s website for Imagination Playground hours.)

The playground was purchased with the help of the $500,000 raised through a successful, just-completed campaign to finish off the museum’s second floor. In the coming weeks, elements of a new camping exhibit will begin arriving, including a Jeep, a boat, and a “mystery log” that will be filled with touchable, outdoorsy items such as antlers and honeycombs.  Nearby, volunteers from the Chippewa Valley Homebuilders Association recently held a “barn raising” to build a shelter for the museum’s new life-sized (and milkable!) Holstein, the focal point of a forthcoming farm life exhibit. The long-term plan, Way explained, is to rotate among these two exhibits, the Imagination Playground, and other exhibits that are on the drawing board (including one with a Native American theme and another that explores kids’ dreams for their lives).

To learn more about the Imagination Playground, go to www.imaginationplayground.com. Visit the Children’s Museum of Eau Claire online at www.cmec.cc.

Lasker Jewelers
Lasker Jewelers

Pulling Together Partners

The following organizations are currently supporting Volume One’s work in the community during the pandemic:

Lasker Jewelers

L.E. Phillips Memorial Public Library, Eau Claire

Downtown Eau Claire Inc DECI

University of Wisconsin Eau Claire

Pablo Group

Wisconsin Independent Network

Middle West Management

Bon Iver

Royal Credit Union

Silver Spring

Evergreen Surgical

Charter Bank

Chippewa Valley Technical College

The Murty Henriksen Family

The Larry and Marie Past Family

The Dan and Kerry Kincaid Family

Anton and Rae Schilling-Smets

Brady and Jeanne Foust

If your organization is interested in supporting Volume One during this difficult time, nick@volumeone.orgcontact us.