Children’s Museum of South Dakota

A delight for children

Leading a tour of the Children’s Museum of South Dakota in downtown Brookings, SDSU Associate Professor Kay Cutler takes visitors:

• To the three-story-tall, award-winning Cloud Climber,

• Into the Sensations gallery where, by breaking a light beam, you can play Ring the Bell alongside the Pride of the Dakotas Marching Band, and

• Around the farm, where you can plant and harvest corn, pumpkins, and tomatoes and send them by conveyor belt to the neighboring market, a fully stocked mini grocery store equipped with checkouts that beep as you scan the goods.

And she ends with a grown-up introduction to her colleagues, like museum Executive Director Suzanne Hegg, who earned an advanced degree from SDSU’s College of Education in 1995.

Shaking hands, a visitor imagines what it must be like to work in such a place and wonders if, in the museum at night, when it’s closed and no one else is around, these lucky ducks transform somehow into children who stay up late to make ice cream cones in Café Oscar, ride the earthquake table, or visit Belle, the cow built totally from recycled items by designer Chris Green.

“As he studies the animal he’s going to create using recycled objects, he decides on the concept for the animal,” Cutler explains. “For example, the cow has a factory quality; it is hard working. You can hear the sewing machine when you milk the cow—it whirs and clicks. A pump jack is the tail, making whooshing sounds as it pumps.”

Cutler, director of the Fishback Center for Early Childhood Education at SDSU, works the equivalent of one day a week as director of education and programming for the Children’s Museum of South Dakota, which opened in Brookings September 12, 2010, thanks to the generosity of the Dale and Pat Larson family who funded the capital investment as well as an endowment for the museum.

But she’s been involved since the early design stages.

Tour of 42
In summer and fall 2009, Cutler took a sabbatical from the University and, at the request of Dale Larson and the museum board of directors, toured, photographed, and talked to people at forty-two children’s museums across the United States, amassing 12,000 photos and a wealth of knowledge. She then shared this information with the Larson family and board members who made the critical team decisions that determined the exhibit makeup of the museum.

“One thing the board especially wanted to do well was water,” Cutler says. “They wanted multiple levels, where younger kids, older kids, high school kids, and adults could play, so as families came through, all would have a place for entry and to play.”

They hit their mark. Hours can be spent at play in the Splash! area, as water rains down, sails through, and plops into all kinds of crazy contraptions.

“We were told this is the most diverse activity table the designer, David Foster, has ever created,” says Cutler, who interviewed each of the designers and muralists while they were at the museum creating their work. Her interviews will be part of the story of the museum, which she is editing with Jeff Heinle, associate professor of media production at State.

The museum is connected to SDSU through others as well. Through alumni like Carrie Benson, former mentor teacher at the Fishback Center and current education coordinator at the museum. And through students, like early education majors who work, study, and volunteer throughout the museum every day and athletes whose strong arms and unflagging energy do whatever is needed at special events.

“We have lots of volunteers,” Cutler says,” and that includes various SDSU groups. The softball team helped with the grand opening and representatives of almost all sporting teams volunteered for the Halloween event.”

Room for potential
As director of education, Cutler plans and develops educational programming for the museum, which includes scheduling traveling exhibits such as the National Children’s Study, which is under way at SDSU, artists-in-residency, and a variety of ongoing learning opportunities, most of which take place on the second floor. “In the spring we hope to incrementally put more and more programming into place, for all ages, from very young children to adults.” Cutler says.

The museum extends to the outside and its mud pie kitchen, dinosaur dig pits, and prairie grass maze. There’s a stream to play in and bugs to discover. Mama, the only permanent, animatronic T. rex in the United States, keeps a close watch over her feathered Baby.

“We have butterfly and bird houses,” Cutler smiles. “So we’re hoping to attract wildlife. We do have our first resident rabbit who’s living near Mama’s feet.”

Cindy Rickeman


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