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Children’s museum in Fredericksburg opens to rave reviews

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Jessica Jagger marked her calendar and followed the countdown on Facebook. When the doors opened to the Children’s Museum of Richmond in Fredericksburg for the first time Saturday morning, she was there with husband, John Hartmann, and their children, Noah, 2 and Ian, 7.

The floors gleamed. The hands-on exhibits—a stage with boxes of dress-up clothes, an art center and a cozy reading corner, a 10-foot tire climb, and a miniature downtown with a grocery store, diner, bank and dentist’s office—beckoned.

In the air, said one dad who walked through the door, hung “that new-museum smell.”

Noah zoomed past “downtown” and headed straight for the reading room, anchored by an oversized arm-chair and filled with books in bins and on shelves set against a mural of a sprawling apple tree.

“Oh, you found the library,” Hartmann said, and Jagger exclaimed over the room’s details.

The Jagger and Hartmann family held a membership to CMoR back before the museum began opening satellite locations. Fredericksburg is its third. They’ve missed the museum since they moved from Richmond to Stafford County a few years ago.

Seven-year-old Ian still remembered the museum and was eagerly awaiting Saturday’s visit. While Noah nestled in his dad’s lap to hear him read “Mama Llama Red Pajamas,” Ian built a car from Lego “parts” and climbed the tires for a third time.

Karen Coltrane, CMoR’s president and chief executive officer, took it all in.

“It’s really been work for a couple of years, all in anticipation of the children’s reactions,” she said. “You do it all so you can hear them screaming with delight and having a good time.”

Located in Eagle Village in the 12,000-square-foot former Park & Shop near the University of Mary Washington, the museum is a result of a group of Fredericksburg moms, CMoR’s plans to branch out across the state and a bit of serendipity.

In January 2010, the women, who’d grown up in the area and returned to raise their families, began making plans for a local children’s museum. Their research showed it would take them from four to seven years—long enough that their own kids would be too old to benefit by the time it came to fruition. They delved in anyway, traveling across the state to meet with children’s museum directors and founders and starting a series of traveling exhibits that would serve local children in the interim.

When the women, led by Jessica Beringer, met with CMoR leaders in the fall of 2011 to find out more about how to start a museum, they learned the organization was looking to expand to other locations. A partnership was born.

“It was a good match,” Beringer said. “We were all on the same page. It really took off after that.”

The exhibits are all interactive with the goal of promoting social skills, confidence and creative problem-solving for kids up to age 8. The diner features booths, a play stove and a counter with a toy coffee pot, a blender and “ingredients.” There are child-sized aprons and a mop and broom. The grocery store is stocked with miniature shopping carts, baskets, two checkout lines and shelves full of pretend food. The bank has dollar bills from around the world.

The exhibit instructions, written in large letters at each station, are all adult-height, Coltrane pointed out. “When you do a children’s museum right, the children don’t need instructions.”

While children play at the expansive art station—filled with child-sized tables topped with markers, paint and crayons and stocked with bins full of crafting materials such as string, pipe cleaners and bits of cloth—adults can look up and read this message: “Art teaches children that a problem may have more than one answer. Instead of following directions, the child’s brain becomes engaged in the discovery of how and why.”

The 10-foot tire climb, surrounded by soft flooring, offers this bit of wisdom: “Children extend their abilities through risky play and learn to master challenging environments. They generally know how far they can go without actually hurting themselves and need chances [for] proactive risk assessment and setting their own boundaries.”

A special section for toddlers tells parents how sharing is “actually a complex skill that requires children to manage their very strong emotions, understand how others feel and comprehend time.”

And at the stage, where one little boy donned a cowboy hat and a pink high-heel shoe and another paired a Spider-Man cape with chaps, a message about the importance of the arts to brain development.

“Very few parents have a degree in early childhood education,” Coltrane said. But “what looks to grown-ups like kids having fun is productive. They have to touch, to interact, to move their bodies. That’s how they get wired up.”

Kristin Davis:

kristin.grace.davis@gmail.com

 

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