When Playscape opened in 1981, it was one of the first such galleries in any children’s museum designed specifically for preschoolers. Once again The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis was leading the way, with the Playscape motto—“Play is a child’s work”—testifying to the exhibit’s foundation. Featuring water and sand play stations, along with a dress-up area and an area in which visitors could try out musical instruments, it was clearly a place that allowed children six and younger to learn through doing.
“Playscape, in many ways, is an extension of other museum galleries,” said Kay Cunningham, the museum’s early childhood education coordinator at the time. “Here preschoolers can experience the things that can be found in exhibits elsewhere in the museum.”
Popular from the start, Playscape became the entry point to the museum for many families with children too young for many of its other exhibits. By the early 1990s, it was a victim of its popularity, the wear and tear on its contents beginning to show. It closed in 1992 for an extensive renovation, which was funded in part by late-night talk show host (and Indianapolis native) David Letterman. When it reopened in 1993, it was bigger and better than ever with a new construction area, a garden and a raft, along with the old favorites, the water and sand tables.
With occasional tweaks, adjustments, and replacements of worn-out materials, Playscape remained the same for the next 19 years. But by 2011 museum officials decided it was time to rethink Playscape, based on current research and understanding of early childhood learning, particularly that children learn a variety of things much earlier than once thought. So the museum closed Playscape in July 2012 to expand the gallery and reinvent its contents.
2013 Playscape Reinvention
Planning for the new Playscape began in 2010 when trained observers followed and interviewed families to learn what they did and liked in the gallery, what they learned from, and what—if anything— they would change. What became clear was a desire for natural lighting, as well as continuing access to the ever-popular sand and water tables.
Taking those desires into account, the museum also asked numerous early childhood specialists for their input as well. “We want to infuse the new early learning experience with the best and most current practices in early education,” Barbara Wolf, then the museum’s associate vice president of research and family learning, said in an article in the winter/spring 2011–2012 issue of the members magazine Extra! The original group of advisors for the 2013 Playscape revision included: James Elicker, PhD, professor of developmental studies, Purdue University; Ted Maple, PhD, director of United Way Success by 6; Dean Mary Benson-McMullen, professor of early childhood education, Indiana University, and Dean Ena Shelley, professor of education, Butler University.
The result is a redesigned Playscape that contains several experiential areas:
- The Pond (which includes a climbing structure), The Sandbox, and The Creek (a water table)—interactive elements that encourage physical exploration of phenomena like cause and effect in a nature-inspired setting.
- Blockopolis (block play), Roll ’n Race (ball tracks) and The Reaction Contraption (a ball machine)—interactive elements that encourage manipulation and motor skills development in advance of later encounters with science, math, and engineering concepts.
- The Art Studio and The Music Studio, which encourage creative activities such as drawing and sculpting with authentic art materials, and music-making with real musical instruments.
- Babyscape, which is primarily for infants and toddlers and contains climbing, rolling, walking, and grasping activities to develop their senses as a means of experiencing and understanding the world.
“Every area has increasingly higher levels to it,” said Wolf, “so that a child who comes in at two years is going to go back to some of the same things at three years of age and still find them interesting.”
Additionally the renovated gallery includes a nursing area, two family restrooms, and a diaper changing station.
Though it has undergone changes over its 30-plus years, Playscape is as popular with preschoolers and their parents as ever. That’s because it represents The Children’s Museum as it always has been—a transformative place for children and families.
Playscape is made possible through support from many generous donors. Learn more about the museum’s transformational donors.