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Destination: Kidzu Children's Museum at University Mall

Posted February 27, 2014

Kidzu Children's Museum made a big move this month from University Square on Franklin Street to much bigger digs at University Mall just down the road.

The so-called Launch Pad is a way station for the Chapel Hill spot, which turns eight in March. Long-term plans call for the museum to eventually move to a space designed just for it atop the Wallace Plaza about a block off Franklin Street back in downtown Chapel Hill. Kidzu leaders hope to eventually move to that permanent home in 2017.

In the meantime, Kidzu will be on the move. The current Launch Pad, which is in the space formerly occupied by the Chapel Hill Public Library, will serve as place where Kidzu staff and visitors can test exhibit ideas and programming until the end of the summer. It is about three times the size of the space it occupied at University Square, which is undergoing major redevelopment.

"This is a test drive," said Pam Wall, the museum's executive director. "We're prototyping everything in this facility to make it into Wallace Plaza. This has been a wonderful opportunity for us."

Kidzu will be in its current space until August when it will move across the hall in University Mall into a few storefronts (including Red Hen, the children's consignment shop, which will move to another space in the mall). It will be there for about 18 months to two years or so, Wall said.

"We're working very hard to have a fantastic, creative space all of the time for our community," she said. Melanie Hatz Levinson Destination: Kidzu Children's Museum at University Mall

The bright, open and airy space features some Kidzu favorites, including its popular Gravitron, a ball machine that launches balls with a giant Archimedes screw, and the Zoom Wall with little toy cars.

There are some new pieces here too. The centerpiece, of course, is the award-winning traveling exhibit Adventures with Clifford The Big Red Dog from the Minnesota Children's Museum. The exhibit lets kids explore Clifford's home, Birdwell Island, with a kid-sized restaurant, post office, school, boat and more. Kids can feed a giant Clifford statue dog bones, slide down his tail or cuddle up for stories or Clifford cartoons.

Wall said the exhibit sort of fell into Kidzu's lap. It had been at a museum in South Carolina and was without a home for a few months. Kidzu got a call from the exhibit's owners, wondering if they could take it in.

It was a perfect fit, said Wall, who noted that Kidzu's original home only featured traveling exhibits like Clifford. Wall said hosting Clifford means Kidzu has more time to retrofit its existing play pieces so that they will fit in the spot that the museum will move to at the mall in August.

Clifford will be at the museum through May 25 when Wall said the museum expects to bring in another traveling exhibit for the summer.

Another new piece for Kidzu is The Makery, a creative space that allows kids to experiment with arts, crafts, woodworking, technology and other endeavors. While Kidzu has generally been designed for babies to eight-year-olds, the museum now hopes to cater to older kids up to about 10 or 11 with The Makery, which will ultimately make the move to Wallace Plaza.

My nearly nine-year-old daughter had aged out of most of Kidzu's offerings, but I can see her spending a lot of time in The Makery.

"We've actually had kids say 'oh, this is the place for me,'" said Melanie Hatz Levinson, Kidzu's curator of design and exhibits and a mom of three.

At The Makery, the plan is to focus on science, technology, engineering, art and math activities - or STEAM, a play on the popular STEM programs that emphasize the sciences for kids.

And there's the adorable book nook here for storytimes and quiet time after a morning of busy play with Clifford. The sweet space, with butterflies from the Paperhand Puppet Intervention and cloth trees made by local artists, is filled with books.

The new space, which includes a large room for blocks and other play, also allows for the museum to expand its programming, field trip and birthday party options. Much of its programming will continue to include other community groups and venues, including Ackland Art Museum, Morehead Planetarium and Science Center, FRANK Gallery and Playmakers Repertory Company, along with other local artists. 

So far, the Launch Pad has been a big success, drawing nearly 1,400 people on opening weekend and staying busy. It quickly filled up when I was there with my preschooler last Friday. We had a blast. My four-year-old especially loved the Clifford exhibit and spent more than two hours there, flitting from one area to another.

"We've had great support from the community," Wall said. "I think the numbers of our first weekend being open ... shows the need for a children's museum on this side of our region." 

I highly recommend Kidzu's latest incarnation. If you're not in Chapel Hill, it is definitely worth a drive.

Watch the video for a quick walk through of the museum with Melanie Hatz Levinson. Go to Kidzu's website for more information about the Launch Pad and future plans.

Go Ask Mom features places to take kids every Friday. For more ideas, check our posts on parks and playgrounds and Triangle family destinations.

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