By Carly Loeper, Exhibit & Program Developer
When I began working at Providence Children’s Museum as an AmeriCorps volunteer in 2003 and first discovered that there had always been bigger plans for “the cave” in The Children’s Garden, I wondered what striking, engaging learning environment might one day fill this shell.Â Now, as the Museum’s exhibit and program developer, I’ve had the opportunity to be a part of the team deciding exactly what our new Underland exhibit would be.
We knew we wanted this environment to encourage different kinds of play.Â An imaginary underground world has to inspire pretending, provide opportunities to crawl and touch and explore as a burrowing mammal might, and offer activities for individual discovery and social play.Â We know that children’s free, outdoor play is more and more restricted, that they have a growing “nature deficit” as Richard Louv argues in Last Child in the Woods.Â What we most wanted to do was to help children connect to the natural world and develop a sense of place.Â Our intention was not to replace the complexities of nature but to awaken kids’ wonder of it.
Situated in The Children’s Garden, a space for play featuring flora native to Rhode Island, Underland inspires stories about the wildlife that spend some or all of their lives beneath our feet.Â A giant bronze rabbit at the entrance invites children to play and imagine.Â Kids don costumes to become underground animals while observing and touching handmade ceramic creatures along the burrow wall, including a fox family, a sleeping woodchuck, and newly born pink mole babies.Â Underground sounds hum from a network of tunnels that children crawl through to encounter a cicada nymph waiting to emerge above ground.
At the sand pit, kids become paleontologists using tools to dig sand from the crevices of a mastodon fossil, or they can scoop and pour in whatever ways they’re drawn to play.Â Nearby, metalsmithed flowers welcome children to trickle sand through their moving and stationary parts, tipping leaves and funneling sand through various pathways.
Committed to natural and local, we worked with Rhode Island artists to craft special details of this environment and exhibit designer Chris Sancomb used local wood, including fallen trees, and transformed roots excavated at a construction site into lit chandeliers.Â Children play with natural materials like acorns and sticks in carved bowls and pots as they sit on stumps at a beautiful wood slice table and make sounds at a musical sculpture made entirely of wood and natural materials.
Our summer programs will further engage kids’ exploration of nature.Â Families will touch worms, make trails of animal tracks, and create weavings and sculptures with natural materials.Â We hope Underland will evoke a feeling of place for our visitors, distinct to our unique location in the world, and open wonder to what might be living just below us.
In celebration of Underland, families join in special programs throughout the summer.Â Explore the wonderful world of worms and meet live animals that burrow.Â Dig in for hands-on fun with dirt, cook up some mud pies and paint mud masterpieces with natural materials.Â Create artistic animal tracks and build burrows from clay, stones and a host of other natural materials.Â Check the Museum’s calendar for details.
Photo Credit: Providence Children’s Museum