Indoor Play Areas Learn Through Play

If winter weather keeps your kids cooped up until normal activities seem stale and attitudes begin to sour, these inventive indoor play areas offer refuge. Fully equipped with toys and activities that inspire creative play, these spaces offer two key ingredients to your child’s development: free-play and time with you. Research consistently indicates the importance of free-play to children’s cognitive and social development, and playing with your child helps build a foundation of love and trust. This winter, turn grey days into play days that prepare your child for brighter days ahead.

Sunny Garden Montessori

“The underlying understanding of Montessori,” says Kristy Cowell, owner of Sunny Garden, “is that you create the environment and the child will learn. Research shows children learn through experience; I provide the opportunity to experience.” Kristy, who also teaches child development at Butte College, opened Sunny Garden eight years ago to fill the void created when state policy changes closed a free-play parent education class at Butte College. “Parents reached out to each other, helped each other and bonded. It was really special,” she says. “Now I watch that happen at Sunny Garden.”

Sunny Garden provides a safe, engaging space for families. With only one entrance, parents can set active toddlers loose on the expanse of toys and converse without fear of losing track of their little ones. Kristy says, “People might come in and think it isn’t structured, but everything is here for a purpose: the slide promotes large motor activity, the art area helps with small motor skills and the practical life activities encourage concentration.” Kristy regularly introduces new items to naturally advance cognitive and social development. She also provides special weekly activities for 3- to 5-year-olds. “We really want kids to engage in free play,” she says, “because it drives learning.”

ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum

With nearly 100 interactive exhibits that encourage free play and exploration, ScienceWorks Hands-on Museum seeks to “reinforce what is taught in a classroom through fun and real-life applications,” says museum representative Erin Scott. Permanent exhibits, like DaVinci’s Garage, encourage kids and families to build and create together. Frozen Shadows, another popular exhibit, bonds families together in laughter as a photosensitive board temporarily captures shadows made in bursts of light. Fun events, like the museum’s birthday party on December 9th, bring balloons, bubbles, and cake to the learning experience. Kids will also love the Noon-Year’s Eve balloon drop: a shower of several hundred balloons in celebration of the New Year. In January, the museum will start science-fiction-themed displays, including a Star Wars Saturday event.

“Play is an amazing learning tool,” says Erin, and in fact, one of ScienceWorks’ special exhibits this winter, The Science of Play, investigates the many ways play relieves stress and benefits “kids from one to 92,” as The Christmas Song puts it. “There is so much structure in our lives,” Erin says, “but when we do things because we want to, we tend to remember them more than when we’re forced to. When children get unstructured playtime, they become invested in learning without even realizing they’re learning.”

Children’s Discovery Playhouse

“Children learn all the time,” Cheryl Glasser says, “and they learn best when they’re playing.” These assertions come from Cheryl’s observations as a teacher, plus her master’s degree research. Concerned by school policies that increasingly pushed play out of the curriculum, Cheryl devoted her thesis to understanding the vital importance of play. “In creative play spaces,” she explains, “where they aren’t receiving direct instruction, kids learn problem-solving, critical thinking, teamwork, sharing and more. They develop so many skills that you can’t teach from a textbook or scripted lesson plan.”

Cheryl’s convictions about play led to creating Children’s Discovery Playhouse, where kids get free reign of seven themed play spaces. The permanent play areas include a veterinarian’s office, construction zone, pizzeria, grocery store and performance stage. Other spaces rotate, bringing new creative fun through themes like sand-and-water, camping or farm life. Kids can use these props to stimulate their imaginations or respond to prompts Cheryl prepares.

Parents, like Erin West, play with their children at Children’s Discovery and find inspiration for “different playtime activities at home,” reinforcing parent-child bonding.

“People forget how fun imaginative play is,” says Cheryl. “When adults get the chance to play without being judged, they really enjoy it.”

Turtle Bay Exploration Park

Turtle Bay Exploration Park offers an array of outdoor adventures, but in cold weather it’s what’s on the inside that counts! Through January, the museum will feature Smokejumpers, a special interactive exhibit that invites visitors to slip into a mock parachute and experience a firefighter’s journey from the sky into battles against wildfires. This winter’s “touchy-feely” exhibit, Material Culture, explores fabrics from various ages and cultures that people use for everything from keeping warm to body armor.

Designed to engage adults while simultaneously appealing to kids, both the special exhibits and the permanent displays engage families in actively learning together. One of the museum’s regular exhibits, for example, fascinates visitors young and old with a fish’s eye-view of a river ecosystem. Museum representative Seth McGaha sees play as a great way to learn in hands-on environments like Turtle Bay. “Sometimes play comes from boredom, especially in winter months when you’re stuck inside. Being bored creates learning channels. Since our museum is designed for independent exploration, kids are free to interact with the exhibits. It’s more about empowering than instructing kids. They may not realize it, but they’re learning while having fun.”

Kid Time Children’s Museum

Kid Time Children’s Museum has offered creative play spaces for over 15 years, featuring instructor-led classes, a preschool program and multiple free-play exhibits. Kid Time’s classes introduce kids to new mediums of creative play: art supplies paired with music for Sound Painting, strength-building exercises and stretches for Super Hero Yoga or construction supplies for designing forts. Executive Director Sunny Spicer says that while the “entire facility is designed” to promote playful interactions between kids and their guardians, the museum also coordinates “specific playgroup activities that teach parents and caregivers how to get the most out of their playtime with kids.”

Kid Time’s website describes imaginative play, or “free-play,” as “a vital component in proper brain development, actually changing the way the prefrontal cortex is wired.” To enhance this brain development, Kid Time’s free-play environments include a veterinary clinic, farm, treasure cove and tree house. Even the youngest children can engage in creative play in the Peekaboo Baby Playground, furnished with soft play structures for infants. As Sunny says, “Play is how children learn about the world around them. It’s how they build a foundation to become successful adults. Through play, children enhance their skills, abilities, brain development, creativity and social awareness.”

Jenna Christophersen
About Jenna Christophersen

Jenna Christophersen is a Chico native who loves her community and can never get quite enough of the arts. She supports fostering creativity in any venue, especially as a part of young people’s daily lives.

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