Thursday, February 27, 2014

Child's play in Durham, NC

Other than the tornado watch we had a great time in Chapel Hill/Durham, mostly due to the awesome museum we spent a whole day in, the Museum of Life and Science. Geared towards kids of all ages, the museum is like a zoo, science center, dinosaur park and children’s museum rolled into one 84 acre package. In Greenville (SC) we have the Children’s Museum and a little zoo, but this place took fun to a whole new level. My closest comparison is to the Greensboro Science Center which we visited last year – a zoo, museum and aquarium in one.

As it was a sunny and warm day we started our adventure in the outdoor portion. Upon entering “Loblolly Park” the boys immediately were in their element, climbing and running all over the beautiful wooden play structures and giving me a few minutes rest before jumping into the giant sandbox. Plenty of places to sit and watch the kids at play, ideal but for one thing – the percussion stations set up on the outskirts! Continuous banging and clanging provided a background din that at some point had me motioning the boys on…

We zigzagged through the farmyard en route to the “Magic Wings Butterfly House,” home to 1,000 tropical butterflies as well as all sorts of other insects. We walked into the conservatory and entered a rainforest, with butterflies floating overhead and tropical plants all around, similar to the Key West Butterfly and Nature Conservatory. Although the “butterfly release” was a tad overrated (a man came out and released about a dozen butterflies), both boys were remarkably calm during the visit; I think they too were in awe of the colorful display before us. Adjacent to the conservatory is the Bayer Crop Science Insectarium, home to walking sticks, spiders of unusual size, scorpions and all other sorts of creepy crawlies the boys loved but I wasn’t so excited about.

Our next stop was “Explore the Wild,” the landscaped outdoor exhibits that host rescued black bears, a couple of red wolves and lemurs, all surrounding a large wetlands area that is home to dozens of species of birds. We couldn’t get a very good glimpse of the bear(s?) but the wolves put on a show for us, patrolling the enclosure and even giving chase to some prey while we paused for a snack. The lemurs were indoors (for the season) and napping, but the walk along the boardwalks and trails was a pleasant way to spend an hour.

We emerged into “Catch the Wind,” skipping the bungee trampolines and mist exhibits (all the water play was closed for the season) and instead tried our hand at piloting radio-controlled boats in the 5,000 square foot sailboat pond. The seed tower was also a hit, enabling the boys to launch giant seed pod models and watch them fall to the ground. This demonstration of the aerodynamic properties of seeds would have been a welcome addition to my dendrology classes back in the day…

After a nice lunch at the café we hit the Dinosaur Trail, possibly the boys’ favorite. The plaques contained a ton of information more suited to older visitors, but Lauris and Mikus were content discussing the characteristics of the various prehistoric beasts and going for an archaeological “dig” in the “fossil dig site.” Filled with dirt trucked in from a mine in Eastern NC that used to be on the ocean floor, it was full of fossils 5 million to 23 million years old: shark teeth, fish, corals and shells.

As the railroad is closed during the construction of a new exhibit, we spent some more time in Loblolly Park and then headed indoors. After some running and jumping in Soundspace (the boys’ actions were translated into visual effects) we were greeted by “The Best of Springs, Sprockets & Pulleys: The Mechanical Sculptures of Steve Gerberich.” With the press of a button the sculptures came to life, setting recycled materials including old machine parts, kitchen utensils, lighting fixtures and toys into motion. Once again some of the concepts of mechanical motion may have been over the boys’ heads, but regardless, they raced from sculpture to sculpture, watching everything move.

We checked out the Weather room and then spent some time building with giant blocks in one of the temporary exhibits. This was familiar territory as our local Children’s Museum had the same activity last year. Then we ducked into “Play to Learn,” perfect for our age group; there were building blocks, climbing walls, an animal care corner and an area for sending balls racing down tracks. Smaller nooks and crannies had legos (with the bases mounted onto walls instead of tables adding a whole new dimension to play) and other skill-building activities. If it hadn’t been for closing time quickly approaching we might have stayed longer…

The aerospace section was more for older children, but we did launch a few paper airplanes and explore the interior of a command module. The displays in “Aerospace” were impressive, featuring astronaut Alan Shepard's flight chair, a prototype of the Apollo 15 Lunar Lander, a moon rock and the actual Mercury capsule which carried the first US animal into orbit.

Every mom's dream - her kids on the moon

We ran out of time. There were a few more exhibits that we had hoped to see, but it was time to head back to the hotel and to dinner. Tired from a long day but excited about all we had seen and done, we did manage one last stop – the giant rocket out front.

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