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    Mike Walker designed the exhibits for Discovery Place KIDS.
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    Mike Walker designed the exhibits at Discovery Place KIDS.
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    Discovery Place Kids.
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    Caleb Stirewalt, 18 months, explores an undersea submarine at Discovery Place Kids.
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    Discovery Place Kids in Huntersville opened on Oct. 23.
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    Town Market at Discovery Place Kids.
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    Discovery Place Kids.
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    Aidan Clark, 2, peers out from the clubhouse at Discovery Place Kids.
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    Avery Bullock, 3, gets to be the captain of a boat at the new Discovery Place Kids.
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    Blakeley Hickok, 20 months, of Charlotte enjoys a water display for the littler ones at Discovery Place Kids.

A Child’s Imagination

By Carol-Faye Ashcraft | Photography by Todd Sumlin

Posted: Friday, Oct. 22, 2010

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Kids can play with the child inside Mike Walker’s head at the new Discovery Place Kids museum in Huntersville.

Walker designed most of the exhibit kids will see, touch, hear and operate as they role play in the museum’s nine interactive indoor and outdoor spaces, with themes including “I Can Grow,” “I Can Build” and “I Can Create.”

Walker, president of Mike Walker Creative Strategy Inc., a design firm in Charlotte, brought the imagination of a child to this work. When he designs, he is more the 6-year-old visitor than the parent deciding what to teach the child, he says. “I was always interested in toys. Everywhere I go, I visit toy stores. I think you have to be in that mode. Sometimes I get an inspiration.”

Not long ago, he was in New York and visited FAO Schwarz, the giant toy store. “I got some great ideas for interactives,” he says.

He and Debbie Curry, director of Discovery Place Kids, visited more than two dozen children’s museums around the country to help shape their vision for the local facility, the first of several planned regional children’s museums. They also talked with local educators and parents about what they wanted. Then they set out to create something that went a step beyond what they were seeing and hearing.

The museum is designed for children ages birth to 7 and the adults who visit with them to explore together. Walker has been conscious of designing for the abilities of all age levels. He has also made as much of the museum accessible as possible to those who are disabled. An elevator will take children with mobility challenges to the mezzanine overlooking the main floor, where they can sit in a model of a bi-plane that appears to be flying through a wall.

Value of role playing

Walker learned the value of role playing early on. In college, he was a marshal at Tweetsie Railroad, participating in shoot-outs and other theatrics at the railroad and wild West theme park near Blowing Rock.

Discovery Place Kids lets children role play in familiar settings, such as a bank or a grocery store. They also get to discover new aspects of their world.

An old fire truck dominates the exhibit space and influenced the scale of everything else. Although the exhibits are scaled down for children, they are not Lilliputian, and accommodations have been made for adults. “We’ve made it comfortable for children in their size, but still realistic,” Walker says.

Children will be able to climb into the fire truck in the “I Can Work” area and pretend to drive it. Children in wheelchairs can navigate up a ramp along one side of the truck and ride a lift from their chairs to a seat. Visitors also can drive a model of an ambulance, or tend to those playing patients in the back.

They can be a veterinarian and care for stuffed animals, or they can be a teller in a bank – or a customer arriving at the drive-up window in a small red car. A pneumatic tube will take their transaction to the teller.

The “I Can Be Healthy” area includes a grocery store where kids can shop for produce and other healthy foods. “We are challenging them. We are teaching them about vegetables,” Walker says.

Sinks in two exhibits have no water, but they play songs, such as “Happy Birthday,” that run the length of time a person should wash his or her hands.

A brick factory in the “I Can Build” section has a conveyor belt that takes small, plastic foam bricks from the main level to the mezzanine, where kids can sort them or load them into a working crane.

Walker says the idea for the brick factory evolved from an exhibit of a wheat mill he saw in London years ago. He was intrigued because it employed all of the simple machines that are used to create anything mechanical – the lever, wheel and axle, pulley, inclined plane, wedge and screw.

He brought the idea back in an exhibit for the main Discovery Place facility. A visit with another client of his design firm, who owns a brickyard, led to the idea for the brick factory for Discovery Place Kids, Walker says. The exhibit “created a learning experience,” he says. It also fostered social interactivity. Children who didn’t know one another began to work together on the large machinery. “You start creating these relationships with other children, this sense of community.”

‘A gifted designer’

Indeed, creating a sense of community is part of the goal of the new museum, which opened Oct. 23 in downtown Huntersville. John Mackay, president and chief executive officer of Discovery Place Inc., says Discovery Place Kids is intended to embody the sense of community in the area. “We wanted to create an experience that reflects the values of that community, which is families.”

The children’s museum has been in the works for about five years. Walker, who worked briefly as vice president for exhibits for Discovery Place, was a natural fit when he entered the process about four years ago. “He’s a gifted designer,” Mackay says. “He has a wealth of previous experience.”

Although it is his first full design for a children’s museum, Walker has done children’s spaces for the pediatrics unit at Presbyterian Hospital in Charlotte as well as the main Discovery Place.

Trained in graphic design, Walker has created the concepts for sets for TV commercials and news programs, trade show exhibits and corporate showrooms. In the past 10 years, he has concentrated on museum exhibits, especially for children’s and history museums, and currently is working with Levine Museum of the New South.

The “I Can” theme at Discovery Place Kids lets children show what they can do, rather than having adults lead the way, Mackay says.

“Children at that age are anxious to demonstrate to others, particularly parents, that they are capable, that they can do it. We want them to show their own proficiency. It’s the way we learn to do everything.”

Want to go?

Discovery Place Kids
105 Gilead Road, Huntersville
Free parking in a deck behind the museum.
Hours: 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays through Saturdays and noon to 5 p.m. Sundays. Closed on Mondays.
Admission: Children under age 1 and museum members are admitted free. Tickets for all others are $8. Discounts are available for groups of 15 or more. Children must be accompanied by an adult.
704-372-6261
www.discoveryplacekids.org

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