Like a child traipsing through C.S. Lewis’ magical wardrobe, you climb the familiar blue stairs in the middle of the Omaha Children’s Museum. The playful bustle of the ground floor grows fainter – step-by-step – as you come upon something unique, something inviting, something … enchanted.
A young dragon, Peri, welcomes you to this place, this kingdom, which counts among its inhabitants Peri’s book-loving grandmother, Thistle; Sampson, a hardworking stone grinder (who’s made of stone); and one self-assured unicorn.
“If anyone is going to wear the studded Harley jacket, it’s Bentley,” says Hillary Saalfeld, the museum’s director of education.
The museum’s education team conceived the idea for and designed the Enchanted Kingdom exhibition, including the animatronic cast of characters — proof that children aren’t the only ones letting imagination run wild at 20th Street and St. Mary’s Avenue.
“I’ve been here almost four years, and I’ve loved everything we’ve done, but this exhibit has my heart and soul,” Saalfeld says.
Activities abound — from the lush, hedge-inspired mirror maze to Sampson’s puzzle-focused Family Smithy, the Alchemy Alcove and Bentley’s Botanical Wonders, where kids can create hybrid crops. At the heart of it all is a quest — not simply to entertain but also to enhance literacy among the kingdom’s young visitors.
“We like to encourage literacy in everything we do throughout the museum, but we really wanted to focus on it here,” Saalfeld says.
Under the watch of head-librarian Thistle — glasses perched on the bridge of her nose — the kingdom includes a reading room “castle” filled with books, including “Tabitha’s Tale,” a story written by the museum’s education team to promote inclusivity and to celebrate the characters of the Enchanted Kingdom. The castle’s goal is to encourage family reading time.
“We found that 30 minutes each day of reading, sharing stories or singing really helps to develop vocabularies,” Saalfeld says.
Even those enchanted activities that might not seem to focus on literacy — do.
“Mazes have been shown to increase reading skills because they encourage scanning of future possibilities. Puzzles, the same concept,” Saalfeld says. “You need to think ahead about where you’re going and that can help build literacy skills.”
The undercurrent throughout this exhibit — and the entire museum — is the proven connection between dramatic play and learning.
“You’re developing your own story, and there is this added element of doing it as a character. You need to speak as the character would speak, which helps increase new terminology and vocabulary words,” Saalfeld says.
To help enhance that literacy and early language development in the Enchanted Kingdom, the museum summoned the expertise of the Omaha Public Library in their most extensive collaboration to date. (The two regularly work hand-in-hand through the Library Partnership Pass program.)
“The Omaha Children’s Museum has a similar mission: They really want to educate children through creative play, and that is a very big component to early literacy. We support them in that,” says Julie Humphrey, youth and family services manager at W. Dale Clark Main Library.
The Association for Library Service to Children’s “Every Child Ready to Read” initiative says parents can help develop their child’s literacy skills through five simple activities: reading, singing, talking, writing and playing.
“The one that always throws people is playing,” Humphrey says. “Studies have shown that play is really critical. … Even younger children can learn through play — simple things like matching and sorting can help with pattern recognition, which they’ll need when they start learning to read and write.”
Saalfeld, who helped write the “story” of Enchanted Kingdom, hopes there will be chapters to come: “I’d love it if, later on, I find out that some little one came up with a whole new story of Peri that continues where we started; if these characters lived on for them” – and inspire new literary adventures in Narnia, Hogwarts or enchanted kingdoms of their own design.