Tuesday, November 24, 2020

Children's Museum Offers Natural Wonders Section

 The Children's Museum of St. Tammany has made great strides in the past year, even with the CovID 19 pandemic greatly affecting its attendance. It has new exhibits, a new schedule, and new friends throughout the community. 

New this year, the Natural Wonders outdoors exhibit area at the St. Tammany Children's Museum takes the young visitors into the world of nature: the animals, insects and plants. Its location just off Tammany Trace bike trail lends itself to short nature walks to see what's thriving nearby: birds, turtles and even otters.

The Natural Wonders presentation area allows for all kinds of talks about the environment, plus real life experiences like feeling animal fur. A custom designed wall cabinet allows for viewing different types of animals and insects in a way that allows some degree of interaction. 


The nature area came into being in late 2019 and opened just in time for only a handful of groups to come by before the CovID 19 pandemic disrupted the schedule.  With some of the restrictions lifted, the museum is now having presentations daily with a number of live animals and other special activities.

Gillian Rabalais, Director of Education and Programming, said that recently the stars of the show were the Monarch caterpillars, with one of the butterflies emerging from the cocoon this past weekend. "We have seven more to go, so it should be a busy week," she said of the arrival of the butterflies.

In addition to the popular spiders, this week there are five new Madagascar hissing cockroaches, sure to be a hit with the young crowd.

"We have done all sorts of projects out here," she explained. Children have made bookmarks, they've felt raccoon fur, they have walked down Tammany Trace a little ways to "Turtle Pond," and they have gone on scavenger hunts to find particular items for their nature collections.  "The otters are always fun to see," Ms. Rabalais said.

There's a squirrel's nest visible in one of the nearby trees, so kids are often treated to a brief lecture on squirrels and what they do. Future plans call for more attention on local animals, but enclosed areas of adequate sizes are needed to allow for close up views. At this point in time, all the animals showcased at the outdoor Nature's Wonders area are brought in at night for security purposes.

The Natural Wonders area was always a part of the original design for the Children's Museum. The indoor portion emphasizes STEM subjects: science and math especially. There's a grocery store, car track building sets, and other educational adventures. A huge world globe teaches geography. There's even an emphasis on art and personal creativity.

But the Natural Wonders section opens young visitors eyes to what is around them every time they go outside. The St. Tammany environment gives them a sense of exploration and discovery even after they have left the museum.

"We give them activities that they can take home with them and maybe do scavenger hunts at home to see what they can find in their own yards," she commented. "We hope to give them a love of nature."

The Natural Wonders outdoor classroom is sponsored by Chevron. The company provided a grant for the Natural Wonders and also helps finance STEM educational activities as well. "The kids love the Natural Wonders section, and our staff love it, too," said Ms. Rabalais. Ben Bigler of Covington is the man who built the Natural Wonders presentation area.

Early on the children's museum partnered with the public school system, so the program takes advantage of that connection as well. During the early years, fund raisers to help the children's museum get off the ground were held throughout the school system.

Field Trips

Ms. Rabalais misses the field trips from the schools, which brought the children from various grade levels for group tours of the museum prior to CovID 19. She feels that the field trips from the schools helped some children experience the museum in a way they would have been unable to otherwise.

To arrange to visit the museum, parents are encouraged to visit the museum webpage at  cmstkids.org and buy a "timed admission ticket." That over-the-internet ticket purchase system allows the museum to keep attendance to a safe, social distancing arrangement. "You pick your day, and you pick your time," she explained.

Last year the New Orleans Iris Society picked the Children's museum area to plant an iris garden. A group of college students came in and planted close to 500 irises in a location near the museum. So that was an additional attraction for young and old alike.

The pandemic put a damper on tours of the blooming irises a few months later, but the museum has produced virtual visits to the iris plantings, as well as other technology-enhanced virtual lessons of the outdoor world via the internet.

"We have a Facebook page, and we also have a new YouTube channel," she said. "We just received a grant from Chevron for some video technology. 

"During CovID 19 we were using cell phones to record videos for our YouTube channel, and Chevron decided we needed a better video camera."

New Video Equipment

So with that incentive, they just started a new YouTube video series called "Kids Want To Know" where they can dive into the wonders of nature. The first video was on the black widow spider, and the second episode will be on why leaves change colors in the fall.

Another component of the Natural Wonders will be the simulated Archaeology Dig, a squared-off area of sand into which various "artifacts" have been placed so the kids can dig them up. It's been a proven crowd-pleaser in other areas, and since museum staff will know what's in there, each discovery will be accompanied by a detailed explanation of what it is and what it represents. There will be dinosaur bones, remnants of ancient civilizations, etc. 

The site of the Archaeology Dig will be changed soon, a little further away from the building, and new security fencing will provide a safe outdoors area for the kids to explore.

They don't have to go far, however, to find fossils in the rocks. A gravel pile on the other side of Tammany Trace can provide stones with all kinds of unique characteristics including the fossils of undersea creatures. "It sometimes surprises kids to find out that St. Tammany was once underwater, so there are fossils of these sea creatures readily available here," she said.

Ms. Rabalais previously worked at the Audubon Institute's Aquarium and the educational department at the Insectarium. When the children's museum opened, she made the move to the Northshore. "It's been fun being here," she commented.

A variety of special events and explorations are also on the calendar for November and December.

The non-profit Children's Museum of St. Tammany is one of a few children's museums that are open during the pandemic, and its operations are funded by admission fees, grants and donations.  Sponsors have included Chevron, the Junior League of Greater Covington, parish government, NASA, and the St. Tammany Parish Public School System.

Numerous corporations and businesses throughout St. Tammany have contributed to specialized educational events. See the complete list here: https://cmstkids.org/give/sponsors-donors.

The museum building opened in late January of 2018, so in two months it will be celebrating its third year of operation.  Even before the building was completed, however, the group was offering a variety of educational events and travelling exhibits.

See also:

Nature Walk with Gillian and Piper

Childrens Museum of St. Tammany  

Butterfly Landing Video