Enlarged Madison Children’s Museum opens

When people see a part of themselves in a project, it creates a sense of ownership, and that sure seems like a sturdy foundation for building loyalty.

The Madison Children’s Museum soon opens at a new location, a 1929 Montgomery Ward department store. The move triples museum size and allows staff to wow a larger range of ages (birth to 12 years, instead of age 8) in spectacular ways. For example:

– Homing pigeons and chickens live on the fifth-floor rooftop, as do a vegetable garden, fish and a honey locust tree. The “park in the sky” – open all year – also contains a greenhouse, waterfall, wind turbine (made of bicycle parts) and prime views of the State Capitol and Lake Mendota.

– An 1838 Log Cabin was moved to the museum parking lot from Walworth County and restored. Inside are household items from the era, teaching history as kids churn butter, write with a quill pen, learn about herbal medicines.

– The Wildernest introduces preschoolers to other cultures, through play in themed huts. Children also can walk a suspended bridge (which resembles a set of ribs) and maneuver a horizontal climbing wall (not taller than most parents).

– One of two big-as-life cow models (from the museum’s former home) sits atop an elevator roof. The other hangs from a ceiling harness and moves through a counterbalancing of milk cans and toy cheese wedges.

It all makes for a logical addition to the typical elementary school field trip to Madison. What Ruth Shelly, the museum’s executive director, has built – one block from the State Capitol downtown – is a funhouse that mirrors the lives of many.

About 13,000 children already have left their mark here, without entering. Affixed to museum walls are bottlecaps, each containing a piece of art from a different child, then filled with resin to preserve the art and smoothen the surface.

Almost everywhere is the whimsical work of 100 local artists. On the roof: a 3,400-pound bird with two heads and a cheese-kettle body, made with salvaged materials by Tom “Dr. Evermor” Every of Baraboo. Steps away: a transplanted mural dome of Wisconsin scenes, made for a condo project in 1985 by Richard Haas of Spring Green.

What else? A model railroading club donated and installed a $30,000 train set that will chug and loop above heads. Volunteers sewed recycled material into dozens of felted animals, a substitute for plastic toys.

Much of fun is about “safe risk – what looks scary is totally safe,” assures Ruth, as we inspect the Human Gerbil Wheeel, precariously positioned but actually tough enough to support an adult as it rotates. Speed is controlled.

The $16.5 million museum project is on its way to becoming a nationwide leader in sustainable business practices and design, in part because of reclaimed and donated materials and décor. Consider:

– Wood from a collapsed barn turns into a “squashed house” under a stairwell. Slats from a junior high school’s old wooden basketball court are rearranged and installed as artsy floorboard.

– Inside a play oven at the Pie in the Sky Diner are fake foods made from recycled fabric. It is the same with loaves of bread elsewhere.

– Stone from Door County and Fond du Lac become the walls of a rock grotto, and kitschy staff contributions also are embedded in the cement.

– A hollowed out log, from a Wisconsin back yard, turns into a slick slide. An airplane fuselage turns into a place for “tinkering.”

– Each bathroom stall is made of 1,600 recycled milk containers. Old road signs and board games are transformed into seats and tabletops.

“We’re eager to use this building as a teaching tool for sustainable living” and to help children model behavior that could turn into lifelong habits, says Ruth. A museum full of local materials and people power produces local pride, she believes.

The museum’s “solar chicken” (not to be confused with the live ones on the roof) will “produce” a golden egg for every kilowatt of power that rooftop solar panels produce.

Children can embark on a “green scavenger hunt” inside the museum, and signage also educates adults. “Our ideas came from all over the world,” Ruth says, but most building materials are from within 100 miles of Madison.

The museum earns prominent play at greenexhibits.org and already has received national recognition – a Promising Practice Award, which rewards eco efforts – from the MetLife Foundation and Association of Children’s Museums.

The Madison Children’s Museum, 100 N. Hamilton St., opens Aug. 14. Festivities begin with music at 9 a.m. and a parade around the museum block at 9:30. Weaving, woodworking and blacksmithing demos take place in the 1838 Log Cabin.

Local artists and performers also will participate in the two-day grand opening. For more: www.madisonchildrensmuseum.org, 608-256-6445. Admission is $7; access to the street-level Community Concourse is free.

Visitors can pack their own lunch or eat at Bean Sprouts, the museum’s café, whose menu is all about persuading kids to eat healthy food. Clever names and fun food presentations are what make this happen.

So a veggie burrito might look like a caterpillar, with a cherry tomato as its head, and pizzas might resemble portraits.

Kids order grape kabobs, hummus with “broccoli trees” and Pink Patooties (a fruit smoothie) at the Middleton Bean Sprouts, 6719 Frank Lloyd Wright Ave. (west of Madison). The type of sauce (marinara vs. cheese) and shape of pasta (all is whole wheat) are what distinguishes Noodle-Dee-DOO and Noodle-Dee-DEE on the menu.

For more: www.beansproutscafe.com, 608-826-6YUM. Owners Shannon Payette Seip and Kelly Parthen also have written “Bean Appetit: Hip and Healthy Ways to Have Fun with Food” and host cooking events for children.

“Roads Traveled” is the result of anonymous travel, independent travel, press trips and travel journalism conferences. What we choose to cover is not contingent on subsidized or complimentary travel.

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