Mall Wonders: The Museum at the Mall is Santa Cruz's Hidden Gem
By Patrice Keet
Growing Up in Santa Cruz has been a big fan of the Children’s Museum of Discovery for years and we’d always assumed it was run by some big corporation or was a franchise. Turns out, we were completely wrong. Although the exhibits in this 7,000-square foot store front near the food court at the Capitola Mall are as well-designed and compelling as those in bigger museums, like San Francisco’s Exploratorium, it’s really a locally-based nonprofit steered by a volunteer Board of Directors, Executive Director, Patrice Keet, 70, and a dedicated staff. And while it’s relatively small, there is enough there to keep both our 3 year old and our 11 year old occupied for hours.
Here’s Patrice’s Story
I was standing with my 2 and 4- year-old granddaughters at the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito when I realized that Santa Cruz needed a children’s museum of its own. As a former Marriage Family Therapist with a teaching background I knew young families need all the support their community can provide and that most parents have precious little quality time with their children.
I pitched the idea of a large, safe space where the littlest learners could explore at their own pace and have hands-on engagement with science, the arts and fantasy play to my husband, Bob, and niece, Bonnie Keet. They both jumped on the idea, and before I knew it we had a white board in front of us and were outlining the steps in forming a board of directors and becoming a nonprofit organization.
Fast forward to November 2014. We knew we had to keep costs down in opening MOD, so we relied heavily on donated labor. My husband, a full-time doctor, has kept himself busy for the past four years designing and building exhibits for the Museum. At last count he had created 14 exhibits with some new ones in the pipeline. It’s been challenging since all exhibits have to meet rigorous safety and engagement standards. Some exhibits have been collaborations with our talented founding Board member, Jim Felich, whose talents are only exceeded by his enthusiasm for educating children through hands-on activities. After two years of intensive planning, MOD opened its doors. Not knowing whether the idea would resonate with the community, we did double takes as huge lines formed outside our doors on opening day. By the end of the day we had had over 2,000 visitors. Since then we have welcomed over 220,000 visitors among them 1200 families who are current MOD members.
Each day in the Museum we hold story time and two free classes in art and science for our visitors. “My favorite thing about MOD is the Toddler workshops. I always learn something new” says one new mom of our Packard Foundation-funded Infant-Toddler workshops held twice a week.
We started out with a mission to be accessible to all young families. Through the generosity of the Ed Newman Family Foundation, we have been able to offer funded memberships to families in need. Applications are on our website www.sccmod.org or interested families can come to our front desk and ask about Family Access memberships.
Children from all different backgrounds and circumstances learn to cooperate, share and play together while parents and grandparents get the chance to meet each other over the common experience of watching their children have fun. Grandparents are admitted free every Wednesday, and our floor staff love watching the smiles of joy and pride come over their faces as they watch their littles ones learn while they play.
MOD, however, is not confined to our bricks and mortar space but also takes its show on the road with its mobile van. We are a welcome presence at many fairs, elementary schools and community events as well as at our free monthly Citizen Science program at the public library in downtown Santa Cruz. The addition of the Puppetry Institute at MOD around the corner from the Museum has brought creative classes for all ages in the art of puppet-making and many types of animation.
MOD is open weekdays and Saturdays from 10 – 5 and Sundays from 12 – 5 all year except major holidays. Birthday parties and field trips are popular offerings. In addition to memberships, visitors can pay the daily admission fee of $8.00 for adults and $5.00 for children. Children under one year are free. Our Museum gift shop is always filled to the gills with educational and fun toys designed to foster creativity and discovery.
With exhibits and programs changing on a regular basis, MOD is the go- to place for families with young children to laugh and learn together. Families can look forward to our upcoming Eco-home exhibit focused on sustainable living and a new agriculture themed exhibit.
Exhibits start out as a burst of light in someone’s imagination. The idea gets thoroughly jostled around in our Exhibit Steering Committee, morphed and then prototyped on our exhibit floor. Some make it; some don’t and are tossed back to the design team. It’s not easy finding the right mix of an exhibit that is safe for all ages, interesting and engaging, educational and practical to build and maintain. Imagine at least 2,000 children per month doing their best to be exhibit testers.
MOD’s Augmented Reality sandbox allows children to learn about geology and manipulate the sandbox terrain while watching the results on an adjacent monitor. We saw this exhibit at another museum and thought it spoke to Santa Cruz.
There is no end of creative cooking in MOD’s authentic pizza parlor with child-sized prep and serving areas and a realistic pizza oven. We love to partner with local businesses and were very happy when Pizza My Heart helped make this exhibit a reality.
We’ve seen many air walls at other Museums; many of them serve as money catchers. Ours, the first exhibit built for MOD, catches scarves and takes them on a twisty, turn-filled ride delighting children when they reappear and float to the ground.
Our original Museum theme was exploring the wonders of Santa Cruz County, and camping was a natural for inclusion in MOD. Too rainy for a real camping trip, MOD’s realistic camping exhibit offers children the chance to practice time in the wild or cozy up with a book in our tent.
The lighted blocks are a favorite and kids build lighted castles and towers for hours. This exhibit was inspired by a set of LED Lego’s we saw at a Museum shop. We made a large base by combining sets, and it’s turned into a crowd-pleaser. Visitors can buy a smaller version in our Museum store.
The long car racing ramp and the large wooden train tables are original designs by Bob and have weathered the test of time.
MOD by the Numbers
Since opening in November 2014, MOD has:
Welcomed over 220,000 visitors
Offered over 2,700 free daily, educational arts and science
Provided over 750 funded memberships to families in need
Reached over 3,000 elementary students through individual classroom presentations annually
Formed collaborations with dozens of community organizations