Before child’s play was considered “educational” …

Back when little kids were wild things to be tamed and taught …

Two groups of Lincoln parents knew better -- and wanted better for their children and all children growing up around Lincoln.

And so it was in the mid-1980s that these parents proposed Lincoln build a children’s museum.

The response was lukewarm.

Why would anybody build a museum -- the very definition of “look, don’t touch” -- for rambunctious kids? Museums, like libraries, were quiet places for well-behaved and wise-beyond-their-years youngsters.

But the parents -- fueled by a new and growing body of research -- knew children learn best by doing. The earlier kids had experiences, the more information and memories their brains acquired, and the more synapses that connected -- all leading to lifelong benefits.

However, it wasn’t scientific research that turned the tide of public opinion -- it was a giant bubble machine crafted out of a hula hoop, rope, pulley and a pool of soapy water.

The “science exhibit” attracted 11,000 kids and parents to Sights and Sounds ‘88, a nine-day event at the State Fairgrounds in 1988. Hands-on science experiments, art projects, dress-up activities and a castle let children explore, invent, create and discover on their own -- qualities now recognized by experts as crucial for child development.

For adults, Sights and Sounds opened their eyes and minds to just what a children’s museum could be.

Families flocked to Sights and Sounds, some visiting two -- and even three times. At the end, the event raised more than $17,000 and secured three “seed grants” from the Junior League, the Cooper Foundation and the Lincoln Foundation to create the Lincoln Children’s Museum.

It opened Dec. 2, 1989, in a 6,000-square-foot former clothing store in the downtown Atrium.

Now in 2015, the Lincoln Children’s Museum is celebrating 25 years -- 15 of them in its 23,000-square-foot, three-story home at 1420 P St.

A birthday bash complete with cake, entertainment and suitable festivities will be held from 1 to 5 p.m. Nov. 8.

The birthday presents will be to the community -- the grand opening of the museum’s newest exhibits -- Grow Zone and Cuckoo Construction -- the final phase of a five-year renovation/upgrade.

At the helm is Tara Knuth, the museum’s sixth executive director. The former head of Kearney’s children’s museum, which coincidentally marked its 25th year in 2014, arrived in Lincoln this past January -- and has her eyes to the future for Lincoln families and  following generations.

More than 150,000 children, parents and grandparents visit the museum each year.

It consistently is ranked among the nation’s top 20 children’s museums by Parents magazine.

In the beginning …

To appreciate just how far the museum has come in 25 years, one needs to look back to its modest and emotional beginnings.

Mary Ann Stalling was the museum’s very first director. Hired March 1, 1989, she recalled the struggle to raise money.

“Not everyone believed we needed a children’s museum,” she recalled in an interview earlier this year. “I went to every Kiwanis, Rotary, Sertoma, Lions and Women’s club meeting to talk about what it would bring to Lincoln.”

She was always accompanied by a gravity chair -- a joyfully dizzying spinning contraption that introduced people to the science of centrifugal force.

As daring adults took a whirl, Stalling would explain that the museum would be more than fun, it would foster in children a desire to learn. Its activities would plant the seeds of curiosity in science, art and early childhood education.

Critics weren’t keen on the idea, Stalling recalled.

“People thought it would be in competition with the (Lincoln Children’s) zoo, Morrill Hall and the (Edgerton) Explorit Center (in Aurora),” Stalling said.

“The concept was difficult for people to wrap their arms around,” agreed Tom White, the museum’s very first marketing director and a longtime supporter.

“Early childhood education” was a foreign term. Research on brain development was in its relative infancy. People believed real learning started in school.

Today, it is commonly understood how the first three years of a child’s life sets the stage for future development. Research shows how simple experiences, such as “tummy time,” being read to and open exploration, form the foundation for all subsequent learning.

By age 3, a child’s brain will form 1 trillion synapses, according to early childhood experts. Those that are used grow and develop. Those that are unused -- about half -- will fall away by late adolescence, scientists say.

Back in the late 1980s, most people considered that stuff psycho-babble.

“A lot of it was an educational process,” Stalling recalled.

But once the idea of a children’s museum caught hold, it also caught fire. Community volunteers stepped forward with time, money and elbow grease. Volunteers ranged from business executives to juvenile offenders fulfilling community service hours.

When the museum opened that December day in 1989, the paint was still tacky in spots, Stalling said. Every single one of its exhibits was locally made -- many of them by the Downtown Kiwanis.

Recalling opening day, Stalling smiled.

“I remember the best compliment that day,” she said.

It came from a family just traveling through Nebraska. The day before, they had stopped at the Omaha Children’s Museum.

“They told me that even though it was our first day, our museum was much better,” Stalling recalled. “That made my day.”

Sue Carraher, former museum board member and interim executive director, concurred.

“People felt our museum had a lot of love,” she said. “It comes together because people love it.”

White summed it up succinctly: “The reason we have a children’s museum is because it is Lincoln.”

Two months after the opening, Stalling resigned the directorship to take care of family health issues.

Marilyn Gorham was hired.

The petite former grade-school and preschool teacher and church youth director was a force and an inspiration.

“Everyone saw her as their third-grade teacher, so when she said something, people listened,” White mused in an interview earlier this year.

Shortly after landing the job, Gorham traveled to an Association of Youth Museums conference.

“And I saw what a real children’s museum could be,” Gorham recalled in an October 2000 Lincoln Journal Star interview. “That was the beginning of my dream.”

Gorham, who died in February of this year, never was swayed from her vision of a place where children were free to explore, imagine, invent and create. A place where “no, don’t touch” was banished, and “let’s give it a try” took its place.

The museum quickly outgrew its space in the Atrium.

In 1991, it moved to a 15,000-square-foot space in the Lincoln Square Building at the corner of 13th and O streets.

With more than twice the space of its former site, the museum needed new, more and bigger exhibits.

And, Gorham had her sights set on something spectacular -- a light and sound system called Recollections.

“I thought if we had something like that, other people would believe in us. They could see what a professional exhibit looked like, and other people could get excited,” Gorham said in the 2000 interview. Recollections had a $25,000 price tag.

“It could have been $1 million,” Gorham had said. “We didn’t have any money at all.”

Then she heard about Eugene Brockemeyer, head of Dorsey-Sandoz Laboratories (now GlaxoSmithKline) in Lincoln. The corporation had funding to give -- all it needed was a recipient.

A very nervous Gorham invited Brockemeyer and his associates into the museum, where they scrunched their business-suit-clad bodies into “little people chairs” and watched a video of Recollections. Then she told them the price.

Brockemeyer looked her directly in the eye and said: “We’ll just do that for you.”

Gorham burst into tears.

The donation -- and purchase -- marked a new era for the museum.

More corporate sponsorships followed. Groups, businesses, individuals and foundations give regularly in time, money, materials, labor and moral support. The Lincoln Fire Department gave a firetruck and firefighting gear, Sartor Hamann’s Bob Fixter, the museum’s go-to guy for many exhibit repairs and upgrades literally built the Lunar Lander with the help of his fellow Kiwanians. Lincoln bankers came together to build the museum’s kids bank, BryanLGH Health System funded the medical exhibit.

As families and their needs changed, the museum came up with new ideas.

People said the museum should be open at night -- when parents were home from work and kids home from school. The idea sounded good, but the reality was once home at night, families were reluctant to go back out.

“We needed an idea to attract them,” White recalled. “We needed to get food.”

Valentino’s agreed to serve pizza for a $1 a slice -- and then give the $1 to the museum.

That was the beginning of Music & Mozzarella, the summertime outdoor concert series. People showed up because they could get a meal -- rather than have to make one before heading out, White recalled.

In the mid-'90s, museum supporters decided kids needed to celebrate New Year’s, too, recalled Rae-Hope Putney, longtime volunteer and former program/volunteer coordinator. Rather than compete with adult celebrations, it added to it -- allowing kids to celebrate and be in bed long before the corks popped off champagne bottles.

With no money for a bash, the museum again turned to donations. McDonald’s offered free punch. Local grocery stores gave the museum leftover Christmas cookies.

Kids played, made hats. Everyone got a balloon.

Despite a New Year’s Eve snowstorm, 75 children and parents braved the elements for the very first Make Believe New Year’s Celebration, Putney recalled.

By the second year, word had gotten out.

“I just prayed that the fire department wouldn’t come and close us down. The place was jampacked,” she said earlier this year. “The third year, we got smart and had tickets.”

Proving that imitation is the highest form of flattery, the Omaha Children’s Museum also began offering an early New Year’s celebration with its own Father Time.

“But it all started with our little museum in Lincoln," Carraher said.

On the grow

Once again the museum outgrew its facilities. And when Union Bank, owner of the space, decided to expand, the search was on for a new museum home -- one the museum actually owned, rather than rented.

But to buy space, it needed a “lead” gift from a donor. And no one was willing to commit, White recalled.

The museum looked for years, but no one came forward.

“Then we hit upon an idea,” White said. Following an example set years earlier by the Lincoln Children’s Zoo and the Parks Department, the city and the museum formed a partnership. The city purchased the old Nebraska State Library building at 1420 P St., with the understanding it would lease the facility to the museum for a nominal fee.

But renovation of the vacant building was the museum’s responsibility. The city agreed to a  $1.8 million bond issue, as long as the museum raised the remaining $2.74 million on its own -- which it did.

Putney and her family personally applied the stick-on addresses to the over 25,000 fliers mailed out to Lincoln voters.

“I had no money, but I had time,” recalled the 93-year-old Putney.

With over 72,000 square feet, the museum at 1420 P St. has room to grow for a very long time.

And that’s just what it is doing -- and always will be doing, said Knuth, executive director.

“Kids outgrow us faster than ever before,” she said, referring to the ever-changing advances in technology. “So, we will always be growing and will always be changing to keep up with them.”

In 2010, after 10 years in its new building, then executive director Darren Macfee announced a $4 million Build a Better Museum project. The campaign focused on updating existing exhibits and keeping up with the ever-changing understanding of child development.

“What kids and families need today is not what they needed 10 years ago,” Macfee said in 2011.

Build a Better Museum proposed a five-phase project to make exhibits even more curiosity-inspiring with educational content directly linking cause and effect. It also sought to make the museum more appealing to the youngest and oldest children -- infants and preteens (ages 8-12).

The revamp involved nearly every existing exhibit: the farm, grocery store, medical center, TV studio, sports arena, Tiny Town, tot town, Big Splash Waterworks and included new ones, such as the BNSF Railway and Tracy’s Collision Center.

Now, five years later, the wraps will come off the final and biggest phase of the project -- Cuckoo Construction as well as the transformation of Tot Town (the toddler area) into Grow Zone.

Cuckoo Construction, which spans all three floors of the museum, will appeal to all ages -- most especially the older kids, who can climb 28 feet straight up from the museum’s lower level to its upper floor.

Grow Zone expands the age range downward.

“I like to say you’re never too young for the Lincoln Children’s Museum,” Knuth said.

Grow Zone proves that, with various play areas for not-yet-mobile babies as well as for thrill-seeking climbing, sliding and plowing-head toddlers.

“Kids are exposed to so much more today,” Knuth said.

“Their brains are developing so much faster because of all these new experiences that we didn’t have 25 years ago -- or even 15 years ago.”

And so, the museum must embrace the technology, without letting it take control.

“We want to make sure it (technology) is a nice complement to the play that is happening, but that it is not the focus of it,” Knuth said.

Carraher described it best.

“It’s more important than ever for us (museum) to be around. Walk down any toy aisle and you see how everything is prebuilt to direct the play. There is no opportunity for imagination,” Carraher said.

“Here is an open book. Every time you come you can create a different story. Here it is all pure learning, pure exploration and pure creativity.”

Wherever the future takes humanity, the museum will remain true to its core mission, Knuth said:

Create, discover and learn, through the power of play.

Reach the writer at 402-473-7217 or On Twitter @LJSerinandersen.


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