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Children's museum celebrates 35 years of play

SALT LAKE CITY — Jacob Nielsen remembers only a couple exhibits from a school field trip he took to the Children's Museum of Utah decades ago. Now, with an annual membership, he takes his own children to Discovery Gateway on a regular basis.

"We like it," the 37-year-old father of six said while touring the museum's newest exhibit on Saturday. "It's a lot of fun and they always learn something."

The museum, housed in its fairly new digs at the Gateway shopping center since 2006, is celebrating 35 years of existence, with a special temporary exhibit containing items formerly on display at the museum's original location on Beck Street.

Through February, parents can take their kids to discover the same things that they also played with as kids, "remembering old memories while creating new ones," said Discover Gateway's assistant director of operations Tammy Spicer.

"It just says who we are here," she said. "Play is timeless."

Some of the original exhibits have been donated to smaller museums outside of Utah over the years, but other, more popular ones have been stored at the old facility and are included in the special retrospective exhibit.

A timeline depicts the museum's biggest feats, including its humble beginnings in 1978, and the annual cookie fundraisers that provided money to keep it functioning for several years in the mid-80s.

Local bakeries and businesses donated the cookies and kids came from all over to decorate them before they were sold for profit, which benefited the museum.

The science outreach program sponsored by the museum began in 1996, serving about 2,800 students from 38 schools in 15 districts. In the past year, the mobile exhibit reached more than 43,300 students at 530 schools in 41 districts across the state.

In 2002, voters decided to support the museum's capital campaign and a move to its 60,000 square-foot facility at the Gateway, which Spicer said has allowed them to offer more opportunities for hands-on learning. Exhibits also changed some over the years.

"Children have always played the same way, but the way they play has been impacted by technology," Spicer said. "Technology is a major tool that helps to enhance play."

She said the museum emphasizes hands-on interaction with its exhibits, allowing children an opportunity to learn skills that involve problem-solving, role play, storytelling and more.

"The museum offers something for everybody," Spicer said. The museum was founded by a group of parents, educators and community leaders who believed that children learn best through doing.

Museum member Mary Nicole Barber said that touring the museum as a child taught her important life lessons.

"I learned that it was OK to be a smart curious girl – that simple truth is one of my greatest treasures in life," she said. Her words and a photo of her as a young child hang on the walls in the historical exhibit.

In addition to seeing mementos of the past, patrons can explore a full-size Boeing 727 cockpit, which was procured by the museum in 1998; they can sift through a dig pit full of engineered sand, and tour an old cabin or teepee, representative of Utah's Nine Mile Canyon, which was the focus of an entire wing of the old museum; or experience a display on perspectives, which includes the Shadow Wall, allowing people to capture the image of their own shadow on a phosphorescent wall through a timed lighting feature.

"It is something kids of all ages can get into," Spicer said, adding that the museum "helps kids play to learn and helps adults learn to play."

The museum, at 444 W. 100 South, is anticipating heavy traffic through the duration of its 35 Years of Play exhibit, which opened Saturday and is included in regular admission prices. It closes Feb. 28.

Visitors who are returning to re-experience the original showpieces are encouraged to leave hand-written memories along a colorful and photo-filled timeline on the wall. Anyone who can't visit during the special exhibit can also leave messages including their memories on the museum's Facebook page, at

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