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A place to play, to explore, to pretend, to share and to laugh

Mt. Washington Valley Children's Museum:

June 30, 2010
Andrew has the fingers of both hands wrapped around a black marker. He's decorated the white paper beneath the marker with the swirling lines of a budding artist. Unbeknownst to him, Andrew has captured the essence of Vincent Van Gogh's Starry Night.

He's also captured the essence of the museum. He is learning through playing, as he discovers how to manipulate the marker, translating his idea of circles into the round shapes on his paper.

By the front desk of the museum, three-year-old West Vaillant of North Conway is peering through a pair of binoculars at museum director Shelly Morin's bracelet. A huge brown paper fish hangs from the ceiling, turning toward the entrance as a young boy rushes by in medieval armor, the air from his enthusiastic imagination creating a slight stir as he passes underneath it.

"The history of play in the valley needs to be honored," Morin says. Morin, her staff, volunteers, and board of directors have captured, in their circle of rooms in the former bank branch building half a mile north of North Conway Village, the spirits of Bob and Ruth Morrell, founders of Story Land. It should come as no surprise that Morin, a Berlin native, was once one of those local teenage workers at the land where fantasy lives. It should come as no surprise, either, that she worked for 17 years in various capacities at Story Land.

The Mount Washington Valley Children's Museum is five years old, and is growing by leaps and bounds. It's three times the size it was last year, with Morin and her crew focusing on one of the Morrell family's basic tenets: always be adding something new, make it interactive, and lead both new and repeat visitors on a journey of discovery.

This June, the museum added the Let's Pretend/Drama Center and the History Tree Exhibit, and recently brought in the 'Camera Obscura' Exhibit.

"Designed to look like a Victorian era camera, black box and drape on a post, the camera obscura can be turned to look at different things and its focus can be adjusted for close up or far away viewing. Elementary aged kids like to experiment with the upside down visual effect, while preschool aged children enjoy the cause and effect of the push button light switch," reads the museum's description of this exhibit.

These additions complement the museum's life-sized tree house, the huge kaleidoscope, the castle and more. There's an infant and toddler area, a large craft room, a Lego room, and a room where parents and children can have a quiet moment or two.

Downstairs there is a thrift room, and they are working on developing a programming room.

The space in the museum, a warren of rooms, is limited, unlike the acreage around Story Land 50 years ago, but Morin explains how they are working to add depth to the exhibits.

Morin says that they are carefully adding depth to each exhibit, so that there are elements in each to reach their young visitors as they mature. They are working on crafting signs that go from pictograms for the youngest, to pre-reading concepts for preschoolers, and then on to simple text for early readers.

The museum started out with a focus on pre-schoolers and younger, serving children from birth to six, and now goes up to eight-year-olds.

Admission is $5 per person for ages one and up, though no one is denied entrance due to lack of funds. Several local organizations have donateds funds to cover those families who can't fit a visit in their budget, and the entrance fee is waived for children who qualify for subsidized healthcare, too.

There's also a membership program that covers unlimited admissions. Family membership is $80 a year; one parent and one child is $65.

"We get lots of babies," Morin says. "In the Valley, we've found the need is for the small child."

Morin says parents of small children appreciate being able to come in and relax a bit, connecting with other adults as their children play and learn.There are snack areas and places to sit down and read. While Morin talks, a young child sits on a pint-sized picnic table, thoughtfully munching on a juicy plum.

"We encourage healthy eating," she says, smiling at the child.

The museum is open Wednesday 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Thursday and Friday 10:30 a.m. to 4:45 p.m., Saturday 10:30 a.m. to 5 p.m, and Sunday, 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. It is closed on Monday and Tuesday. Current information can be found at the museum's website at www.mwvchildrensmuseum.org/ or on its Facebook page.

"We're perfect when it's raining" Morin comments, adding that the cooler space is also a welcome respite from summer's activities.

"We serve everybody, we're both for the visitors and the locals," she says, adding,√"We don't compete with profits of other nonprofits, we complement businesses."

Morin is pleased with the support the museum receives from the community. Since Dec. '09 they've gotten over $30,000 in donations and grants.

The lumber for the museum's front desk was donated by Home Depot. The desk area was crafted by Richard Cox, with artist-in-residence Racheal Kaplan decorating the desk's front panels.

Marc Stowbridge, the museum's volunteer in-house exhibit designer, designed and built the Camera Obscura exhibit, donating his time and materials.

Morin's former employer, Story Land, is quietly working with the museum, too, donating items from Heritage New Hampshire that the museum, Stowbridge in particular, love reworking into more dynamic pieces.

"We like to play with people who play well with others," Morin says. She looks forward to working in partnerships with non-profit and for-profits.

In the meantime, the museum will keep adding interactive exhibits, carrying on the tradition of mixing fun with learning started over 50 years ago by Bob and Ruth Morrell.

Garnett Hill
Garnett Hill
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