New Columbus resident Ashley Haehl gave her two toddlers a choice on her recent day off from work. She would take them anywhere between here and Indianapolis for a few hours of fun.
The children, ages 2 and 4, chose kidscommons, located in the heart of downtown Columbus.
For those who are curious, either young or old, the lowercase k in the museum’s name is the product of a design team that also chose colors and a logo for marketing purposes.
But it is what’s beyond the front door that draws kids inside.
“(Four-year-old) McKenzie likes the art section here,” said Haehl, standing just inside the entrance of the local children’s museum. “And (2-year-old) Brennan likes the giant toilet.”
What youngster wouldn’t?
Her pair had just finished finger-painting peace doves on a recent weekday afternoon at the three-level, 12,000-square-foot facility.
Attendance has taken off since 2005, when the museum moved to its current home at 309 Washington St. In 2012, it drew 42,000 visitors, roughly the population of Columbus. That’s just beyond the one-year, 40,000 goal founder Lynne Maguire and other organizers set when they launched the museum as a pilot project in a small, one-room space at the old Commons in 1998.
“We were counting on that (number),” said Cheryl Buffo, among the group that pinpointed such a target by the end of 2013. “But I’ll be honest. We didn’t know exactly how we’d get that number.
“It certainly helps that the staff has done a great job of regional outreach.”
For instance, Haehl began visiting the museum, targeted for youngsters through age 12, when she lived in Shelbyville. Other out-of-county visitors come from Seymour, Greensburg, North Vernon and Franklin.
In fact, Johnson County and Marion County represent kidscommons’ fastest-growing customer base, according to Diane Robbins, the museum’s community relations and marketing manager.
Half of the museum’s patrons live outside Bartholomew County.
The draw is interesting because, in the museum’s planning stages, some residents wondered whether there was sufficient interest here while in the shadow of the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis, the world’s largest such facility at 472,900 square feet.
But staff and board members quickly realized the local museum offers its own worthy, small-town identity and need not compete with its well-established neighbor.
“The first time I walked in here (a few years ago) to interview, I thought, ‘This will be an easy job’ (of marketing),” Robbins said.
She mentioned it helps that the local children’s museum is located across the street from The Commons playground and almost right next door to Zaharakos, famous for its ice cream treats. Museum attractions include a 17-foot climbing wall, a soap bubble room that redefines popularity, and even a Kids on the Move healthy lifestyles space that features real, pint-sized exercise machines.
“It’s awesome for kids to be able to come here,” said Jordie Newton, a member of kidscommons’ floor staff. “There’s a good balance between the educational aspects and just plain fun.”
Actually, the whimsical place has built its foundation on a promotional push as a place “where kids play to learn and adults learn to play.”
It has received publicity near and far, including a humorous mention on “The Tonight Show With Jay Leno” of the oversized commode that children gleefully slide through in the “exploraHouse” exhibit.
“Grandparents especially love it here,” Robbins said. “The Indianapolis museum can be a little overwhelming for some of them. They tell us they really like our size.”
One Kansas City, Mo., couple posted a note online and mentioned the small size makes you “feel fine letting the kids explore more on their own.”
The museum is growing in other areas of popularity, too. After-hours rentals for events such as birthdays and family reunions, which averaged about two per month last year, saw five such gatherings in January alone.
Amid all of kidscommons’ flash, including an electronic Lightspace play wall that keeps youngsters hopping, today’s high-tech children can be remarkably old-fashioned. Robbins said the hands-on art area remains among the most popular spots.
And for a simple reason.
“All of them,” Robbins said, “still love paint and glitter.”
About kidscommons museum
309 Washington St.
Oversized toilet slide, art area, 17-foot climbing wall, bubble room, laser harp instrument, youngsters’ fitness area and more. Exhibits and activities are aimed at youngsters through age 12.
$6 per person 18 months and older (younger ones admitted free). $3 between 3:30 and 5 p.m. on Bartholomew Consolidated School Corp. full class days. Discounted rates for groups of 15 or more.
Normally 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays and 1 to 5 p.m. Sundays. But it will be closed Friday through Sunday because of the Carnivale fundraiser Saturday. Also available for private rentals for birthday and other gatherings.
‘Carnivale UK’ museum fundraiser
What: Features live music, food from chef Gethin Thomas, cash bar, auctions and more.
When: 7 to 10:30 p.m. Saturday.
Where: kidscommons, 309 Washington St.
Tickets: $75 per person, available at the door. Must be 21 and older.
Information: 378-3046, kidscommons.org.