The Civil War is coming to Conner Prairie in June! While the core Civil War Journey
experience has been designed with older children and adults in mind, a separate area specifically set aside for younger children is also under development. Based on the Discovery Station
model of combining children’s museum concepts with historical themes in a unique environment, the River Crossing Play Area will be an exciting area for Conner Prairie’s youngest guests to explore the past in a space designed just for them.
The team of Conner Prairie staff working on the project (me -Dave Allison-, John Elder, Mary Uminski, Julie McCarthy, Dan Freas and Carina Eizmendi) have all had extensive experience in designing programs and experiences for young children. We started designing the space by boning up on learning theory and developmental philosophy so that the experiences we provide will be grounded in research and “best practices” for the field. Then we sat down with Tom Kraemer, a designer from Cincinnati who has lots of experience designing exhibits for children’s museums, to talk through what types of experiences we could feature in this area. Using our content knowledge about the Civil War as a base, we developed ten different key ideas/experiences that we thought would both be fun as well as educational for kids ages 2 to 10. Once we had some rough drawings and fleshed out the storyline, messages and content we could tell through those concepts, we tested these ideas with a small focus group. These kids and parents really helped us to sharpen the final product and weed out the ideas that would be less popular and their enthusiasm confirmed the usefulness of this area to the final exhibit.
Once we had the core ideas in place, it has been a matter of refining the plan, creating signage text and figuring out how to orient the site so that the area will be as user-friendly as possible. The final plan includes a water-table, a large climbable steamboat that will look like the one that ferried General Morgan and his men across the Ohio River into Indiana, water cannons in a splash park-style area, try-on Civil War-era clothing, a play-table with wooden trains and Civil War toys, an indoor “barrack-type” climbing structure and small pretend soldier’s tents complete with a “campfire.”
We hope that this area will provide an enjoyable spot for our youngest guests to make easy and fun connections to Civil War history. As the parent of three girls ranging in age from 4 years down to 4 months old, I am also personally excited for my daughters’ wide-eyed wonderment as they interact and play in the new River Crossing Play Area in June 2011.