Children's museum aims for a natural approach to learning

Annapolis allows facility to build on city property

March 03, 2002|By Jackie Powder | Jackie Powder,SUN STAFF

Outside the soon-to-be home of the Chesapeake Children's Museum on the banks of Spa Creek in Annapolis, Deborah Wood sees what's not there -- budding naturalists watching a blue heron take flight, a floating dock in the water and a flower-filled meadow.

No idle daydreams, Wood's clear visions are the first step in bringing the shuttered museum back to life, and moving it beyond four walls to woods and water.

"Once I decide it's so, I see it," said Wood, the museum's executive director. "And once I've made my mind up and I decide it's good and true, it takes a heck of a lot to deter me."

The Chesapeake Child- ren's Museum is a testament to Wood's refusal to take "no" for an answer. Homeless for two years since its rent-free lease expired at Festival at Riva shopping center, the museum is taking shape again in a 50-year-old city-owned building nestled in a wooded site at the head of Spa Creek.

Student carpenters are hard at work framing exhibit rooms, and Wood said a museum opening by the end of next month is a possibility.

Housed in a series of temporary spaces for the past six years, the museum has showcased simple, colorful exhibits to engage and stimulate children -- one on the Chesapeake Bay features a 10-foot plastic tugboat, another lets children explore other cultures through costumes and crafts.

Catering to children from preschool age to about 7, the museum offers a combination of fun and learning for young children that museum supporters say is lacking in the Annapolis area.

"Without going to Baltimore or D.C., there's no place to go that provides the activities for kids in the age group the museum targets," said museum board member Julie Kizer Ball.

$20,000 raised so far

Between fund raising and donated materials and services, Wood figures the museum has raised about $20,000 of the estimated $50,000 needed to make its new home inhabitable.

Del. Michael E. Busch, a Democrat who represents Annapolis, has sponsored a bill that would allocate state funds to match money raised by museum supporters. The state money would pay for a front porch, more exhibits and property improvements.

"I've heard out in the community that people are anxious and really waiting for us to reopen, people who are still holding the museum in their hearts as a real thing they connect with," Wood said.

The museum grew out of a meeting that Wood held 10 years ago with a group of volunteers. Their goal was to offer hands-on exhibits and activities designed to spark children's imaginations.

Parent and child interaction also became a key component of the museum's philosophy. A parent, for instance, might don a yellow rain slicker or grab a crab net to become a tugboat captain or waterman in role-playing and storytelling exercises.

"Adults can't wait to leave Chuck E. Cheese," said Wood, 46. "We were trying to create something that holds the attention of both."

Wood, who holds a doctorate in human development, runs a counseling practice from her Cape St. Claire home. She teaches parent-education courses and certification classes for child care providers. She also runs several programs for Girl Scouts. She and her husband also manage the Clones of Funk, a local band.

Wood refers to the museum as her "full-time volunteer job."

"This is her dream," said board member Ball. "She gets frustrated, but nothing seems to bring her down because it's the right thing to do."

Adjacent to more than 5 acres of city-owned parkland, the museum's new home is in a former radio station building on the water's edge in Annapolis.

The journey to the idyllic spot hasn't been easy. When the museum lost its shopping center space and became a sort of traveling show, Annapolis officials agreed to let Wood use the building on Spa Creek for storage. The complications began when Wood decided the site would be perfect for the museum's new home.

Inspectors found asbestos, a carcinogen, in the basement and identified numerous fire-code violations. Wood spent the past year going back and forth with city officials over a plan to make the building safe for children and raising money to start renovations at the site.

Last summer, the Annapolis city council granted the museum a five-year, rent-free lease on the space, with an option for two five-year extensions. City officials approved the construction permit Jan. 31, and renovations began the next day.

"I mean we were ready," Wood said. "It was great to see those walls coming down, opening up the space and letting the light come in." Students from Gateway Tech, a county program that provides job training for high school dropouts, are doing most of the carpentry work. Architect Bill Smith designed the museum in his spare time last summer, working around a daughter's wedding and a son's departure for college. Mel Wilkins, a retired Lockheed Martin manager, shared his landscaping and gardening skills, planting dogwoods, hundreds of daffodils and a blueberry patch.

"It's organized chaos at the moment," said Wilkins, who's seeking grants for more plantings.

At the museum's new home, Wood seems oblivious to the noise and mess of construction as she makes her way through the basement, thinking aloud.

"This is going to be a curiosity shop," she says. "And this area I'm thinking of calling the Lily Pond, or the Lily Pad -- I don't know."

Community involvement

Wood hopes to involve pupils from nearby Bates Middle School in museum activities, as well as families from the neighboring Hispanic community.

Wood said she never doubted that the museum would get back on track.

"There were many points where I said, `This is hard, how do we go to the next step?' " she recalled. "There's just too much invested and too much need and expectations from the community that it will happen. There's no way I can give up."

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