The Children’s Museum – Where Learning Hides as Play

One of the most often cited reasons people choose to stay in Wheeling or move back to the Upper Ohio Valley, without fail, is because, “it’s a great place to start a family.”

And it is.

With wonderful school systems, various J.B. Chambers sports complexes, Oglebay and Wheeling parks, the skate park and vast rail trails, places like the Smart Center and all that Oglebay Institute has to offer, and the many playgrounds and ballfields scattered throughout our neighborhoods, it is no wonder people want to raise their children here.

And, as summer approaches, the leaders of another unique asset in our community, the Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley, wish to remind parents of all that it has to offer.

It is, after all, the place where, when children play, it’s research, and they learn while laughing. That is the main message that is consistently delivered by the leadership of the Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley as they prepare for the summer months.

"Buddy" is a popular member of "Animal Alley" at the Children's Museum.
“Buddy” is a popular member of “Animal Alley” at the Children’s Museum.
The climbing wall is a popular attraction at the museum.
The climbing wall is a popular attraction at the museum.

Depending on the programming schedule, the facility, located on the corner of 10th and Main streets in downtown Wheeling, welcomes between 500 to 900 children per month and features hands-on learning in every nook and cranny of the museum. Inside, children and parents alike will discover a climbing wall, the “Make Shop,” “Animal Alley,” “Imagination Playground, the “Dramatic Play,” and “Paint with Water,” areas, as well as “Lydia’s Attic,” a prime example of how fun educates those who are at play.

“Lydia’s Attic is a play-exhibit that is based on Lydia Boggs Shepherd, who was a very important person in the history of Wheeling, W.Va.,” explained Mimi Parsons, the Children’s Museum board president. “We received a grant from the Sprout Fund to create it in the northwest corner of the museum.

“History shows that Lydia collected things given to her by the travelers who made their way through Wheeling, so ‘Lydia’s Attic’ features a lot of those types of things that she likely collected during her years of life while living along National Road,” she continued. “The exhibit allows the children to travel back to that time so they can realize what people had during those years opposed to what we have today, and it is a wonderful part of what we strive to achieve each day we open those doors.”

Although closed this week to perform a few renovations, the museum is consistently open to the public Tuesdays through Saturdays from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and on Sundays from noon until 5 p.m.

Two of the staff members include general manager Valerie Reed and Olivia Best, who is the programming director.

“We want our community to recognize what we do in the space that we fill here in downtown Wheeling because the Ohio Valley is lacking in opportunities for kids and for families,” Reed explained. “We want people to know they can come here, use our space as a community resource, and that way they can fill in that gap that exists in this area.

"Beertastic" is a fundraising event for the Children's Museum of the Ohio Valley.
“Beertastic” is a fundraising event for the Children’s Museum of the Ohio Valley.
Several of the children who visit the Children's Museum get the chance t visit with "Bobo" at Heritage Port Park in downtown Wheeling.
Several of the children who visit the Children’s Museum get the chance to visit with “Bobo” at Heritage Port Park in downtown Wheeling.

“We do a lot of different programming, and the Children’s Museum’s staff is filled with all education-centered people,” she continued. “And we focus on hands-on play; learning while playing. It’s all about learning while doing. That’s what we strive to do every single day because Mr. Rogers once said that when a child is playing a child is doing research. In that sense, that’s how children learn their surroundings.”

Parsons recently attended a conference hosted by the West Virginia Non-Profit Association and during one portion she had the chance to partner with Jamie Remp, the executive director of King’s Daughters Child Care Center in Wheeling.

“We were tasked with creating a vision statement for what we want to see in the future and the vision statement we developed was, ‘That our kids will have places to play where they can be the leaders of their own imagination.’

“We are a very small organization so our board is a working board because we are in it to win it,” she said. “Moving forward, our goal will be to change our community’s mindset about children’s museums, and about play. We want people to realize that not only is play fun but also that play is such an important part of a child’s growth process.”

Even before working with Remp on the vision statement, Parsons and the staff at the Children’s Museum have followed one important guideline.

“It’s all about the kids because this is their place. Here, they do what they want to do and the staff follows them,” the board president explained. “That’s why it’s important to us to change people’s ideas about what it is we do here. I believe all non-profits are very important to their communities because of what they do for that community, and what we do is right up there, too.”

"Camp Cranium" is a four-week program that takes place away from the Children's Museum home base.
“Camp Cranium” is a four-week program that takes place away from the Children’s Museum’s home base.

Colors, Craniums, Collages, and Recycling For Fashion

The Children’s Museum, which can be rented for birthday parties, too, has programmed a number of summer camps and activities in June, July, and in August, and it all gets under way with a workshop on June 8 to introduce children and their parents to a special event, the Ohio Valley Upcycle Fashion Show that is set for August 6.

Additional workshops are scheduled (July 6, July 20) up until the show begins at 1:30 p.m. at the Ohio Valley Mall.

“Olivia is one of our staff members and she will serve as the designer because she has participated in statewide competitions while she was a student at Brooke High School,” Reed explained. “She was successful, too, because she won third place in 2012 and 2013 in the state’s Recycled Fashion Show.

Subscribe to Weelunk

“She will lead child designers in two age groups – 10 to 14, and then 15 to 18 – and they will create their own pieces for the fashion show while using materials that are typically not used for clothing,” she continued. “Things like a bike tire and computer packaging will be used so the kids can get the idea about recycling.

“Oliva and some other guests will lead the workshops and they will talk about the concept, the vision and the design process so the children will have help during the design process,” Reed said. “And that process will teach them about innovation and creativity, and it will also allow them to see how re-purposed materials can be used for one thing and then can be used for other reasons.”

The “Cerealism Collage Workshop” will take place on June 12 and it will feature artist Michael Albert.

Albert, a pop artist from New York City, has been creating art since his time as a business-focused student at New York University. From doodles, sketches and wax oil drawings, Albert’s work evolved into a form of collage in which he incorporates everyday materials.

"Lydia's Attic" is a storefront area that is dedicated to the memory of Lydia Boggs Shepherd, a legend in Wheeling's history.
“Lydia’s Attic” is a storefront area that is dedicated to the memory of Lydia Boggs Shepherd, a legend in Wheeling’s history.
The "Make Shop"is where the visiting children get to create while learning.
The “Make Shop”is where visiting children get to create while learning.

“Michael is an artist who has come to the museum before and he does collage with the children,” Reed said. “And what makes that so much fun for the kids and for the parents are the materials he uses to create his art. His collages feature the packing materials for cereals and peanut butter jars and things like that so the kids are able to recognize a lot of those features.”

Camp Cranium” is set for four weeks in June and July and will take place away from the Children’s Museum’s downtown home.

“Camp Cranium is an opportunity for us to build relationships with the family members of the children who play here, and we take it off-site,” Reed said. “We do two weeks at Grand Vue Park in June, and then we’ll do two weeks at the Fresh Air Farm in Valley Grove. It’s a chance to do hands-on programming in the field, and we’ll do a ‘color week’ and a science week during Camp Cranium.”

The first week is set for June 13-17 at Grand Vue Park and the first week will be centered on creating everything from spinner art to tie dying t-shirts to screen printing posters.

“Be Green” week is scheduled for June 20-24 and it will serve as a kick-off to PBS’s “Nature Cat!,” and each day the children will focus on recycling, repurposed materials, and sustainability.

In July, “Science Week” is set for July 11-15 and will possess a concentration on STEM projects, bugs and animals, science experiments, and the creation of edible concoctions.

Then, from July 18-22, “Frontier Week” will reveal to the children the many wonders of the great outdoors along with the history of West Virginia and the American Frontier.

For additional information concerning the planned programming at the Children’s Museum, please visit the organization’s web site.

Learning hands-on is a primary component tot he programming at the museum.
Learning hands-on is a primary component to the programming at the museum.

Evolution of Play

The walls, floors, ceiling, and window fronts of the Children’s Museum all present something uniquely different to all those who enter, and it’s an ever-changing process, thanks to the general manager. What also is evolving, Reed explained, is how the staff presents a learn-while-playing experience to the children.

“When I see the kids having fun and enjoying what they are doing here, that’s a great indication that the activity is something we should build on,” she said. “If it’s something they ignore or don’t pick up too quickly, then that tells me it’s a path not to follow much farther, or to develop a different way to present the learning experience. It’s important for us to choose activities that they want to do.

“The activities the children participate in here are not like what they experience while in the traditional school environment,” she said. “But it is an extension of that because it’s learning taking place while they are having fun doing what they are doing.”

Parsons’ history with the Children’s Museum began as a favor to a good friend soon after she decided to return to the Upper Ohio Valley, but ever since that very first day in 2006 she has become dedicated to the museum’s mission.

“I moved back to Wheeling 10 years ago and had a close friend who was involved with the Children’s Museum so I got involved then,” Parsons explained. “She told me that she needed help so I started volunteering and I fell in love with it.

Adult Craft Night is a popular event for the parents of the children who visit the Children's Museum.
Adult Craft Night is a popular event for the parents of the children who visit the Children’s Museum.

“When I had my son (seven years ago) I stopped working but I joined the board,” she said. “My son, Mac, loves it here so that makes it easy to spend a lot of time here. It’s like it’s his house and that’s how we want all the children to feel when they come here.”

Parsons has seen much growth take place during her years as a staff and board member and believes many forget that the museum was founded in 2000 in a young lady’s cellar.

“When the Children’s Museum first started it was located in Jennifer Taylor’s basement, and then we moved to a small corner on the second floor of the Wheeling Artisan Center,” Parsons recalled. “And then in 2005 we arrived to the space we’re in now and we’ve filled it and we’re now outgrowing it. And in a few years we’ll be moving on to an even bigger space for bigger and better things and we’re really excited.

“Since that very beginning it’s always been about the children living here in the Upper Ohio Valley and not just in Wheeling,” she continued. “The Children’s Museum is a concept that is very successful across the country and it’s been successful here, as well. We’re just hopeful that the word will spread and we will continue to see more and more kids and parents decide to visit because once they do, they discover that learning can be a very fun, hands-on experience that is most important in a young person’s development.”

(Photos by Steve Novotney and Children’s Museum staff)

Weelunk received compensation in exchange for running this article. But we would love the CMOV even if that were not so!