Coralville-based Iowa Children's Museum works to provide safe fun, education amid COVID-19
Jeff Capps has been facing a uniquely existential crisis over the past few months.
"I think the challenge for children’s museums and science centers — we're built on this notion of interactive play ... it’s very tangible, very hands-on," Capps, the executive director of the Iowa Children's Museum in Coralville, told the Iowa City Press-Citizen.
The children's museum — located inside the Coral Ridge Mall — has been open for just over a month following a long stretch of being closed after shutting its doors in mid-March as the coronavirus first popped up in Iowa.
Over those months of closure, Capps and his crew have been left to ponder how they begin to make the 28,000-square-foot tactile-focused space able to cater to young kids. As with so many other entertainment/educational non-profits, there has been a multi-fold answer.
The first and most straightforward solution has been creating operational rules that, among other things, limit the number of visitors in the space at a time.
“Now, it’s a one play group capacity," Capps said. "We felt that was incredibly important to make our members and the general public comfortable with what we’re doing and help sustain this reopening.”
Under the new rules, the museum is operating at less than 10% of its typical capacity and requiring all visitors six and older to wear a face covering and encouraging masks for children ages three to five.
It also requires tickets to be bought online in blocks of time called "play sessions" with particular "play groups" of no more than 10 people. These play groups typically consist of "one or two families who are choosing to have contact with each other," the museum's website reads.
The reduced capacity has allowed families to attend the museum — though in smaller simultaneous numbers — while also providing staff an opportunity to wipe down surfaces between visiting groups.
Furthermore, a new installment is expected to open next month adjacent to the museum's aviation exhibit.
“It's high-tech and low-touch," Capps said. "This is a projector system that we are purchasing, and it comes with 125 different games and activities. But the room itself will be completely transformed and, eventually, will have a number of other features."
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Capps said the games and activities take advantage of a projector and "beam system," which projects an interactive image onto a surface — often the floor — that kids can influence by stepping on particular points on the floor.
The museum's final solution has been a recently launched series of Play Packs: boxes of activities and educational material for children to engage with that don't require a screen or internet.
"The most challenging part was conceptualizing (the Play Packs)," Capps said. "We have an incredible team who worked through that design phase. It is so exciting — our conference room has been converted to this Play Pack headquarters.”
Capps says there are currently three planned Play Packs selling for $40 for in-store pick-up or for $50 to have it shipped anywhere in the U.S. The first of the kits is already available on the Iowa Children's Museum's website.
Titled "Out of This World!", the box is filled with activities themed around space travel and astronomy. Activities such as creating a model of the lunar module and creating glow-in-the-dark constellations fill the box.
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The museum plans to release two more before the holiday season-themed around engineering and wizards respectively.
Capps said the museum concluded its fiscal year on June 30 "with a nearly $200,000 loss" because of the extended closure brought on by COVID-19, the disease caused by the coronavirus. Though Capps doesn't foresee these activity kits as a means to buoy the museum above the increasing financial strain of the pandemic — almost certainly not enough to make up for the monetary loss of physical attendance — he said he's been pleased with community members' general interest in returning to the museum and hopes to continue to increase community interest, be it as a physical space or as a series of activities to do from home.
“As a non-profit, we are just absolutely so grateful to the community for investing in what we do," Capps said. "We’ve done something that really stays within the spirit of who we are and what we do, and we’re excited about it."
Isaac Hamlet covers arts, entertainment and culture at the Press-Citizen. Reach him at email@example.com or (319)-688-4247, follow him on Twitter @IsaacHamlet.
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