Sherrie Neff, the Executive Director of Great Falls's Children's Museum of Montana, says that while seeing all the children learn and play is fun, there is one aspect to their experience there that proves bittersweet. And, she says, it happens pretty frequently.
"Almost daily we hear the tears of a child that doesn't want to leave as their parents are compelling out the door with promises they'll get to return." It occurs so often, she says, that the staff just giggle when they hear it. "That poor child's tears are the sound of our success," she says.
The long journey which ends with so many children crying that they don't want to leave started over 25 years ago, when a group of community leaders met to discuss a problem: the children of Great Falls had few places for educational recreation year-round. So they came up with a plan. The members of the newly founded board applied for non-profit status in 1996, and in 1999 the Children's Museum of Montana opened their doors.
The exhibits are mostly targeted towards children up to 10 years of age, but Sherrie can personally attest that children up to at least 75 can have a lot of fun there; her favorite story of children at play in the museum involves a Grandma and Grampa having an "appointment" with a very young dentist in the Medical Clinic exhibit: "As Grandfather was in the dental chair getting his teeth worked over by one of the boys, Grandma was about to leave the dental clinic when the other grandson tells her very authoritatively, 'No wait Grandma, You have to pay me here!' He was sitting at the computer desk in the front of the clinic for appointments and payments. It was so sweet that the little guy knew exactly how it worked! His Grandmother and I laughed at the intuitive these small minds can be."
Like the Medical Clinic, all of the exhibits are intended to promote "real-life play." In the wonderfully imaginative displays children will explore a different side of Great Falls, here reimagined as the kid-sized community of "Little Falls." They'll exchange play money at the Little Falls Credit Union, teach lessons at the Little Falls Schoolhouse, and even tend to the animals at the Little Falls Zoo and Cafe. But the area in which the children seem to spend most of their time is the Little Falls Market, where they shop and pay for groceries while, typically, a little playmate checks them out at the cash register. And there are even opportunities to travel back in time at the Little Falls Homestead.
Above all, the Children's Museum is a uniquely, perhaps even distinctly Montana experience. As Sherrie says, "I think everyone in Montana should know that we take great pride in being the Children's Museum of Montana and that we want each and every Montanan to be proud of their state's largest and oldest Children's Museum. We work with any and all other museums interested in helping continue to build the strength of our great state; if you are interested in working with us, please call or email anytime."
The Children's Museum has an eye on tomorrow's children as well, as Neff reports that "new and future developments are aimed at providing more interactive historical learning with a strong emphasis on our regional culture and industries we see every day." And since their current lease expires in 2023, they are already planning to relocate somewhere that will increase their capacity and build exhibits that will appeal to an even broader age group of children.
The only downside is that you might (and this goes for you adults as well) find yourself in tears when you leave. But luckily, there's an easy fix for that. You can just come again tomorrow!