POSTED: SEP 12, 2010

Argus Leader
By BryAnn Becker

BROOKINGS – Children splashed in puddles, drew on the walls, clanged cymbals and dug through the dirt Sunday during the opening day of the Children’s Museum of South Dakota. And no one stopped them.

That’s exactly what Carmelle Jackson had in mind when she envisioned a children’s museum in her hometown. “These days a lot of people have structured learning. This is back to old-fashioned play,” she said.

As a young mother, Jackson, who lives in Minneapolis, said she appreciated visiting children’s museums across the country with her family. “I thought, even though Brookings is a small city, it could work.”

She enlisted the help of her father, museum founder Dale Larson, and other family members. They formed a board of directors about four years to design the museum. The board also sought advice from community members and teachers.

The Children’s Museum of South Dakota is the state’s first children’s museum. On Sunday, community members and their families, including Brookings Mayor Tim Reed, gathered on the front lawn before the museum officially opened its doors.

“Children, this museum is especially for you and your grown-ups. We want you to climb and dance and sing and build and splash and discover new things, and imagine,” said executive director Suzanne Hegg.

The Pride of the Dakotas marching band played, and, in some ways, the opening celebration resembled the inauguration of a new school. The building previously housed Central Elementary school. Construction on the museum began in fall 2008, when the school began its last school year, according to museum marketing director Jill Hungerford.

In its place is an interactive museum with a maze of exhibits. The colors are bright and cheery. In the “Start getting fit” exhibit, children can pedal on bikes, climb monkey bars and play Wii. At a water exhibit called “Splash,” tubes twist and turn over a pool of water. Bailey Mergen, 13, of Brookings pressed down on a red pump that shoots a ball into a tube that travels around the room.

In “Sensations,” one wall is full of musical instruments. Another wall holds a blown-up game of Lite-Brite. At the art studio, children draw on see-through glass with markets and then clean it off with a squeegee.

Imagine every child’s game, and then make it life-size. Café Oscar is a cafeteria where children serve up ice cream and sandwiches. “That’ll be six dollars,” a child says to his father. At Farm Fresh Grocery, one child plays the cashier, filling a cart with milk, Kleenex, French bread and other items into an overstuffed cart.

There’s a post office and a directing studio. The main open area, titled “Our Place on the Prairie,” includes a barn, teepee and a spiral climbing wall where children can climb on blue oversized surf boards that look like clouds.

Michelle Hofer of Huron waited for her 6-year-old son, Blake, to finish climbing. “We’ve been to other museums before that cater to children. (This) is more for all ages of kids. My six- and three-year-old are having a ball,” she said.

In the outdoor area, kids can excavate dinosaur bones in the sand and jump in puddles. The main attraction, though, is the Mama T-Rex, a life-size animatronics dinosaur that growls, swings her tail and moves her front legs. “It’s moving!” kids squeal.

Community members applauded the museum, saying that it will be an educational center not only for the town but for the region.

Roma Meister, 61, brought her two granddaughters. “It’s a huge benefit for the kids. Economically, it will be a boost,” she said.

The day had significant meaning for Jennifer Lacher-Starace, 36, who attended Central Elementary school. In July, her family moved back to Brookings from Maine.

“This makes Brookings a better place to have this resource available to us,” she said. “They’ve turned it (the school) into this community center for children.”

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