Play to learn at Oklahoma Wondertorium

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Big fun with big, foam blocks at Oklahoma Wondertorium in Stillwater.
Medical needs are examined in the surgery center.
A-mazing Airways is a maze of tubes.

Play to learn at Oklahoma Wondertorium

By Linda Miller

Oklahoma Wondertorium in Stillwater is serious about play.

This is where young minds can examine a surgery center, build castles or towering skyscrapers with foam blocks or wooden links – and then knock them down; perform on stage, navigate giant magnets on a wall and have fun with a maze of air tubes.

The Wondertorium’s mission is to offer a safe, engaging space for unstructured play. Everything in the museum is intended to inspire. It’s about the experience and during that experience parent and child engage, often playing together. Children who don’t know each other become partners in play. Ideas and solutions start to form. The brain kicks into gear. Children learn about math, physics, air flow, different cultures, engineering and problem-solving. All through play.

Clayton Moore, executive director of Wondertorium, said an added benefit is that adults, either through engaging with children or watching them on the floor, begin to realize the importance of play, that it can be an important and fun way to learn.

“Unstructured play is the core of our mission,” he said, and it leaves children with a really good feeling.
At Wondertorium, children don’t make something to take home. “This process is to create, not to walk away with anything,” Moore said.

With OSU and its diversity, children at the museum are exposed to different cultures and languages, sounds and learning.

“That makes it a gem,” he said. “The science that happens on that floor is just as significant as any research anywhere.”

As children play and are exposed to everything from math and physics to medicine and performing, it gives them a belief they can do it for real, he said.

Moore said the museum’s goal is for children to feel better about themselves when they leave. When they discern something they didn’t know or make a friend, that’s a good thing, he said.
The museum’s play-to-learn method allows children to imagine, problem solve, test and lead.

“The best thing we can do is offer a safe, clean engaging space for kids to do their best work,” Moore said. “There’s value in giving a child the space and opportunity to play and play well.”
Wondertorium features more than a dozen exhibits, many of which are open-ended so children may see it differently each visit. For babies and toddlers to 24 months, there’s an enclosed Little Wonders room for tot time and interactive play.

The rest of the museum is more open so children can move easily from exhibit to exhibit without being far from an adult. There’s the Forest Playground with rock climbing, tunnels and slides; a barnyard so children can learn that food doesn’t magically appear; and a Japanese house to honor Stillwater’s sister city in Kameoka, Japan. The Discovery Diner, Artist’s Pad and Water Works inspire creative play and problem solving skills.

Wondertorium has been open four years but started as an outreach program. It came about when two mothers realized Stillwater had much to offer but not as much for families. They did their research, surveyed children and parents about what type of exhibits interested them, started bringing Museum without Walls programs into schools and then complemented those educational activities with Wondertorium.

“It’s a great story of people not just satisfied with the status quo and who didn’t just complain,” said Debbie Williams, the museum’s programs coordinator. “They said, ‘What can we do?’ ”

The community got behind the idea from the beginning and still pitches in to help. People regularly clean out their closets and drawers and bring in craft supplies, buttons and medicine bottles, anything that can be used or recycled for exhibits. Volunteers have built furniture and props.

In three to five years, the plan is to build a new museum closer to downtown Stillwater. “Hopefully it will be our dream home,” Williams said. “This is our first home and we’ve learned so much.”

Williams said the museum anticipated 13,000 visitors the first year. More than 47,000 came, and those numbers have stayed constant each year.

“This was sorely needed in the community,” Williams said.

Oklahoma Wondertorium is at 308 W Franklin Lane in Stillwater. Call (405) 533-5333 or go to okwondertorium.org for hours and more information.

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