RALEIGH — From tiny tables and chairs to dwarf-sized counters and cabinets, everything in the new “Ready, Set, School” exhibit that opened Wednesday at Marbles Kids Museum is tot-friendly and focused on easing children into the idea of school.
The Marbles museum already runs an extensive school readiness program that includes two yearly “kick off to kindergarten” events, but they wanted an exhibit that would never close. A two-year, $112,688 grant from the Institute of Museum and Library Services made that possible.
“This grant gave us the opportunity to build, to design, to test this exhibit so that we can invite families all year round to teach them about school readiness,” said Pam Hartley, the museum’s vice president of play experience.
“Ready, Set, School” mimics a child’s first day of kindergarten. Children can pet toy hamsters in a cage, play with blocks, or arrange magnetic letters on cookie trays. Throughout the day, museum staff members will lead “circle time” with children who happen to be in the exhibit. They might lead a song, ask the children to meet their “new friends,” and read aloud.
Museum researchers set about finding the best way to introduce children to the classroom in a fun way that encourages children to learn and diminishes anxieties about a new environment.
Chris Alexander, director of exhibits at the museum, said he worked to construct the materials in a way that would to put children at ease. Alexander pulled ideas from his experience of sending his own daughter, now 7 years old, to kindergarten last year.
“The big thing about kindergarten is that it can be an anxious time for kids,” he said. “We want to give them the idea of ‘Oh, the teachers are going to be nice, your friends are going to be there, and this is not something to worry about but something to be excited for.’”
Tables and chairs are designed to be their scale, Alexander said, so children will understand school is “not just a grown-up space.”
Sprinkle in some “whimsey and imagination of a child,” Hartley said, and you get bright graphics, games and a giant, apple-shaped mirror on the wall.
For ideas, staff explored the Boston Children’s Museum and dived back into their own child-rearing experiences. Design work for the graphics and layout started this summer, and construction began about a month and a half ago.
Much of the material for the display came from the museum’s own 2,000-square-foot construction shop, where two men – Alexander and another N.C. State University graduate, David Healy – work full time to prepare most of the content of the museum.
“Ready, Set, School” received a rigorous trial run Wednesday. After the main opening, Marbles was scheduled to host an event that would bring in more than 1,000 low-income and special needs children and their families for a free night at the museum.