Kidzu Children's Museum in Chapel Hill has been grabbing headlines lately for record attendance numbers and a big grant that will allow it to expand even outside the walls of its museum later this year.
Last month, Kidzu recorded its 300,000th visitor since opening in 2006 - more than 16 percent came between April and October after the museum opened in new, bigger space at University Place (formerly University Mall). This week, it announced that it had received a grant to expand its programs on pollinators and build play pieces designed to look like beehives both inside and outside the museum.
The good news comes after a nomadic few years for the museum as it moved from space on Franklin Street to inside another space at the mall.
For now, Kidzu is staying put. The current lease extends through 2018 when leaders hope to find a permanent space for Kidzu. (Plans to build atop a parking deck in downtown Chapel Hill have fallen through). The mall destination definitely makes a trip to Kidzu from other parts of the Triangle even more appealing. Once you're done playing, you can head to Southern Season for lunch or a treat and Glee Kids or Red Hen for clothes and other gear for kids. There's also a Chick-fil-A, a kiosk selling Maple View Farm ice cream and the new Silverspot Cinema, an upscale theater with food, plush seats and more.
Regardless of what happens next as far as its location, the folks who run Kidzu are hard at work to fill out the current space with exhibits that will appeal to babies, grade schoolers, tweens and their adults. The desire is to get families away from their various electronic devices and encourage them to play together.
"Our goal is to be as family inclusive as possible," said Candace King, Kidzu's communications manager. "We are a children's museum, but you're never too old to play."
The new space includes some of Kidzu's long-time favorite exhibits - the Gravitron, which uses a huge Archimedes' Screw to move balls, and the farm and farmer's market. A theater features dress up clothes for kids, lights and a background that they can manipulate through a projection system. A quiet Book Nook offers a space for reading, puzzles and quiet activities. There also is a dedicated space for little ones who aren't walking yet.
But Kidzu also combines newer exhibits, especially some that have proven popular with older children. There's a 2.5-story tree house, rock climbing wall and The Makery, where kids, especially tweens, can experiment and get creative with a variety of different tools - from hammers and nails to glue and string. My 10-year-old stayed busy for more than an hour, bouncing between the rock wall and The Makery.
Next year will offer more change for Kidzu, King said. In the spring, they hope to open the pollinator-based exhibits. The outdoor hive play piece will sit just outside Kidzu next to the mall entrance where Alfredo's Pizza Villa is located. It will be free for all to play outside.
Also in the works: A Zoom Wall with race cars and a race track should open in the next few months. And the museum is raising money to add a pulley system to the Gravitron.
The museum also offers regular free and paid activities - from storytimes and crafts to, this month, a puppetry workshop and farmers' market excursions. For Christmas, the museum will host a Wonder Workshop and Breakfast on Dec. 19, which will include crafts that kids can make to give to loved ones for Christmas and breakfast. Tickets are $35 per child (including one adult) and $15 for additional adults. It's free for kids under 2.
The activities, programs and new exhibits will help build on what Kidzu already has - a solid following of visitors and members.
"We want people to keep coming back and adding new things to be excited about," King said. "We're trying to get the most out of every nook and cranny. And the kids love it."
Kidzu is closed Mondays, open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday; and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday. The first Sunday of each month is pay what you can admission.
Admission is $7.50 per adult or child over 12 months. Members are free. Memberships start at $115 a year. A punch pass for $55 covers 10 visits (a great stocking stuffer!).