Play Carries the Day With Nice Views at Buffalo’s New Children’s Museum

Originally Published in The Buffalo News
June 27, 2019
By Mark Sommer

At Buffalo’s new children’s museum, come for the exhibits – and stay for the view.

After years of planning and construction, the $29 million Explore & More Ralph C. Wilson Jr. Children’s Museum will open its doors Thursday promising to be one of the most fun, playful and educational experiences under one roof in Western New York.

The design of the four-story, 43,000 square-feet building is roomier than earlier renderings suggested, and it takes full advantage of the historically aligned canals behind it. The ground-level Low Bridge Cafe and Celebration Room presents stunning views of the water, while the rooftop provides sweeping views of Canalside and the water below.

“Oh my gosh, it’s excellent,” said Jennifer Fenwick, program manager for LE3, a summer program based at St. Benedict School in Eggertsville.

“It’s very educational, and everything is hands-on and very kids-friendly,” Fenwick said. “My kids are having a blast.”

Fenwick said she liked that kids could experience things in a kitchen, on a farm or by doing construction.

“It’s geared for everyone,” Fenwick said as 123 campers frolicked a day before the general public is allowed in.

The seven play zones on the second, third and fourth floors feature creative play – structured and unstructured – while delving into history, geography, culture, agriculture, industry, athletics and innovation. They also offer costume changes.

The Art Studio, Cooking Galley and Tinkering Tank provide play time with facilitators.

“Our museum is built on three significant things: It is built on Seneca land, on the terminus of the Erie Canal and on top of the former Memorial Auditorium,” said Jeannine Weber Kahabka, the museum’s marketing and public relations director.

The first zone that visitors encounter is “Being Good Neighbors.”

Rooms showcase Yemeni, Seneca and Puerto Rican culture and traditions, curated by representatives of each culture to reflect differences in food, furnishings and fabrics.

Next door is the Buffalo City Theater, where kids and adults can put on a puppet show for each other’s amusement.

Transportation is emphasized with a bus, truck or car that children can move on an interactive screen. A cut-out of a car has a seat on wheels easily moved aside for a wheelchair.

The centerpiece of the floor is the two-story waterfall in the Moving Water exhibit. It circulates almost 500 gallons of water above a large wooden wheel.

A sign celebrates the harnessing of water to create electricity at the 1901 Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo, showing beams of light coming from the Electric Tower.

Children can put small boats into a water tank and learn about the Erie Canal, complete with locks. It’s one of several interactive water features that offer a chance to play with water. Another: an archimedes screw that demonstrates how water can be moved upward.

There is a packet boat, with stories of kids who worked on the canal, and a two-story wall that sparkles with over 1,700 small discs that move when drying tubes used to dry kids’ hands are pointed at it.

The Playing Together zone allows kids to don uniforms of Buffalo teams, race against one another with lights and honking sounds and play in a sock skating rink beneath a miniature jumbotron.

A play area for toddlers, beneath a text panel and historic photograph of Memorial Auditorium, conjures memories of the onetime home of the Buffalo Sabres and Buffalo Braves, as well as concerts and the circus.

“Look, it has the orange seats,” Kahabka said. “It’s our nod to the Aud.”

The Lighting Buffalo’s Imagination exhibit celebrates Buffalo inventors.

An Innovation Wall features 42 Western New York inventors, from Rich Products’ dairy-free whipped topping and the first U.S. day care center to the first custom built movie theater and ice bikes found at Canalside.

A fun (and loud) experiment on air pressure, an interactive display on grain elevators, with the Connecting Terminal visible from a window behind, and a display on how windshield wipers work add to the array of local inventions.

Kids get to put on lab coats to work in a hospital, with teddy bears as patients. They administer a checkup by following instructions on a clipboard, and use an X-ray machine and MRI with images and sounds that look like the real thing.

“This makes it possible for a children to feel comfortable in a medical setting,” Kahabka said.

“They are wearing the medical lab coats and the stethoscopes, and are comforting the teddy bear,” she said. “They are telling him everything is going to be OK, that this is a place of healing, and that solutions are coming and don’t be frightened,” Kahabka said.

Agriculture and construction also have a presence at the museum.

In Building Buffalo, kids are acquainted with Buffalo’s architectural heritage and can build things with blocks, or wear orange vests and hardhats to put put siding on a building, and install electrical wiring and pipes into the holes of a wood frame.

Older kids can use real tools, and learn about a laser cutter and 3D printer.

The Farm to Fork exhibit lets kids harvest carrots, onions, cucumbers and tomatoes. They milk a cow wearing an apron and gloves, with liquid coming from the cow’s teat. A chicken coop, kitchen, handicapped-accessible truck to take the produce to market and kitchen are also part of the hands-on exhibit.

A barn, where the life-size plastic cow resides, breaks the lane of the building to extend onto the rooftop, where activities will be offered. A giant tricycle overhead will soon be outfitted with tassels.

The museum has sought to serve children of all kinds. That includes a changing table for a child up to 250 pounds, to a quiet room with a light tower with bubbles and light and sound insulation for kids who suffer from sensory overload.

The museum employs a full-time inclusion and access educator with a master’s degree in special education.

Admission is $11, free for children under 1. One-year memberships cost $125 for up to six people in a household. Explore & More expects 250,000 visitors over the next 12 months.