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Child’s Play

Children’s Museum puts play on display

“Museum” might be a misnomer for a place where children race freely from activity to activity, crow as loudly as they want or take refuge in an enormous soap bubble, all the while dressed as firefighting lizards. On the other hand, were a child to grow up visiting such a place called “museum,” she would likely develop some very nice associations indeed to Getty or Guggenheim, Prado or Pompidou.

The Missoula Children’s Museum settled over the summer into its present home in an unused storage space beneath the Florence Building, and its attendance and membership have grown steadily since. The non-profit museum spent its pilot year in the Southgate Mall, where it was surprised by over 20,000 visitors. It then moved to its ideal present downtown location, expanding into 3,000 square feet of the Bitterroot Room, a forgotten ballroom where the bygone seniors of Missoula high schools once held their formals. With dreams of a home three times as large, the museum continues to explore options and actively raise funds, but none of this matters to the children who drag their parents down the granite basement steps on an inclement, wintry day or smoked-in summer afternoon.

As an institution, the Children’s Museum is designed to be not a static altar to nailed-up art, but a palpable playground which capitalizes on a child’s curiosity and attempts to fill the exhausted silence of parents continually asked “Why? Why? Why?” Missoula’s museum, still in its relative infancy, will have strongest appeal for kids ranging in age from 2 to 6, though babies get their own corral of giant, soft, bright, safe things, and kids up to the age of 10 will find plenty to think about.

On a typical Saturday, a dozen 4-year-olds arrive for a birthday party held in the roomy art space, which has a painted chalkboard floor and lots of chalk, as well as fully stocked supplies for a variety of projects. Unleashed like beagles after a rabbit, the children spread out in delicious exploration, tantalized by all the exhibits. No one stops them. No one says, “Watch out!” No one says, “Get down.”

The coming months promise a teepee for a section devoted to Native American culture. Soon, there will be a dinosaur dig, designed by UM’s Anthropology Club. Right now, comfortingly low-tech, the museum highlights one of the principal truths of childhood play: Anything will do (didn’t my 2-year-old adore the kitchen barbecue tongs I wrapped up and presented to him as a gift?).

One small girl crawls inside a foam cylinder and starts to roll herself across the floor. Two boys find the giant Lincoln Logs for building cabins (and, naturally, knocking them down again), and the constructions change in an instant from horse jump to toll booth, the random wanderings of childhood association given ample room here. A trio of kids giggles before the TV monitor in which they can see themselves. The weather station includes a video camera and a laminated map of Montana. In a basket they find place names and temperature numbers, which they slap up all over the map. Down a wide hallway, a 3-year-old is attempting to play a giant floor tom and a gathering drum using four sticks and, for the most part, he’s succeeding. The space quickly comes to feel like a farm, crammed with life and mess, the air filled with unchecked shouts, trills, bleats and whoops.

The volunteer who comes each Saturday to read German stories aloud doesn’t stand a chance of getting anyone’s attention, because for many this is a first visit, and as the kids experiment with a body-sized soap bubble or summit the wooden fort, pregnant mothers chat quietly, remarking on this previously undiscovered resource. Distinct from almost every other stage on which a child’s life plays out, the museum is a world of “Touch!” This is the landscape of yes.

Parents, too, are treated to an amazing sight: a safe, stimulating environment devoted to the interests of their kids, where it is someone else (bless you!) in a cheerful apron who buzzes in their childish wake, restoring order to the ring toss or to the abundant plastic vegetables in the miniature kitchen. Parents are encouraged to explore alongside their kids, but kids are pleased to roam untethered on their own as well, and a father or mother may seek out a few moments of serenity in one of the adult-sized chairs. The museum, which is open Tuesday through Saturday, keeps late hours Thursdays and Fridays so that working parents can share the experience.

Now that peaceful parent can take a rare opportunity to observe her child in play and discovery without concern for mess or mealtimes. This is such a release, and allows her to study the most dynamic of the exhibits: the children. In a setting such as this, the reality of children—and of their reality—becomes broad and vivid, for it is their interest, their hands, that rouse everything to life. With limitless permission, the children pace themselves from dress-up corner to puppet theater, forge spontaneous alliances at the shelf of immense nylon body socks and relax with the unfamiliar egg-balancing game (you gotta be there). Surely the inside of a child’s head is a place just like this, filled with strong colors, bursts of music, spikes and lulls of energy, everything at the right height and available immediately, grown-ups standing like a perimeter of Ionic columns, steady and still, invisible in our ubiquity.
The Missoula Children’s Museum is located at 111 N. Higgins in downtown Missoula. For more information, call 541-PLAY or Families First at 721-7690.

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