Fairbanks Children’s Museum: Imagination comes alive through play

All is abuzz at the Fairbanks Children's Museum, currently located on the University of Fairbanks Museum of the North campus.

It’s hard not to get caught up in squeals of discovery at Fairbanks Children’s Museum. Every second, it seems, is filled with a shout or giggle or exclamation from a young person, and that makes Brenda Riley very, very happy. Riley, executive director of the museum and a lifelong Alaskan, knows the value of dedicated children’s space in a comunity where winters are long and opportunities for indoor play often short, but she didn’t realize just how successful the outcome would be.

Dynamic Children's Museum duo; Executive Director Brenda Riley, right, and Heather Lambert, co-founder and board president.

Heck, just showing up at the Museum of the North campus is something special! Perched on a hill overlooking the Tanana Valley, kids love to look far below.

Currently housed in the University of Alaska Museum of the North, the Children’s Museum has a home for the first time since the idea was hatched in 2006 by Riley and a cadre of dedicated parents, educators, and community members. A non-profit organization launched in 2011, and Riley started showing up around various Fairbanks venues with her popular “Museum Without Walls” events – a mobile museum, of sorts. Kids took apart old appliances, made squishy dough, splashed in water, built houses; anything to cultivate curiousity and a love of learning, and responses from the Fairbanks community were swift.

A very serious AK Kid works on a building project at the Fairbanks Children's Museum.

“Do it again!” “How can we help?” Each event brought 200-300 children and parents to the museum-on-the-go, and Riley realized that a more permanent space needed to be a high priority. A former volunteer at the Museum of the North, Riley knew both the space and the director, so creative synapses began to fly back and forth over the idea of a potential partnership.

Obviously it worked, because the Fairbanks Children’s Museum opened inside the Museum of the North on October 1, 2013, and will remain there until at least April, 2014.

Air Maze. Nine-year-old boy. 'Nuff said.

"Does this pin screen make my nose look big?" A favorite exhibit.

The building has never been more alive, and it is a thrill to listen to the patter of small feet and the clinking, clanking, and pounding sounds coming from the auditorium. The space may not be large, only about 1,900 square feet, but what they lack in floor space, staff have made up for in three-dimensional exhibits that engage all ages.

From the air maze, an enormous vacuum that yanks fabric balls to the ceiling and back, then huffs them out in a delightfully violent manner, to the amazing pin screen, where anyone can be memorialized in plastic for a few minutes, the museum is hands-on play at its best.

Admission is included in the Museum of the North, too, so parents can tag-team and wander down the hall and explore more adult displays, too. It’s a combination that works so well, I’m hoping this comfortable companionship lasts a bit longer.

Have an infant, but want hands-free access to exhibits? Borrow the Ergo! Brilliant, museum staff. Brilliant.

If you go: 

The museum is open Monday-Friday, 9 a.m.-5 p.m.; weekends 10 a.m.-5 p.m.

Admission is $8/adults, $5/kids, with special rates for groups. The facility also hosts birthday parties in the Museum of the North Education Room, a nice touch.

Look to the museum’s website for a host of special events and combo activities with the Museum of the North, too.

The Fairbanks Children’s Museum is best suited to kids in the age range of 1-8; AK Kid had a blast, however, working with some tools, playing with the air maze, and popping up on that pin screen.

Visiting Alaska with kids? Call ahead to see if any groups are scheduled, and work around the crowds. It is, however, worth the time to visit, crowded or not. 907-474-1887.

*Look for more details about the Fairbanks Museum in your copy of Alaska On the Go: Exploring the 49th state with children. Pre-orders begin this weekend on the AKontheGO website. 

~EK

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