I spent last Saturday bonding with young people, pre-school through high-school, via my hands-on children’s book readings at the Danville Science Center (DSC). While driving to Virginia from my home in Durham, NC, I worried that my kids, who accompanied me, would get bored in one place all day and would consequently interfere with my program and my sanity.
When we arrived, I was directed to Sproutsville, an area designed particularly for pre- and elementary-school kids. Most of the children visiting this area were lured by the Treehouse, a bunkbed-style wooden structure housing a diverse array of stuffed animals. But my kids preferred the Theater — where they devised a puppet show starring a Venus fly-trap that, after trying comically to eat a turtle, ended up being the turtle’s meal instead. The rest of the floor’s interactive exhibits were for all ages. My kids generated magnetism using electricity, simulated chemical bonds with giant Tinker Toys, examined aerodynamics using an air tunnel and an inflatable ball, took their heart rates before and after exercise, examined balance and gravity using their own bodies, watched videos on a giant revolving sphere, and that’s not even the half of it.
I stayed in Sproutsville most the day, introducing kids to electronic circuitry, my tadpole buddies and my children’s books (available in the DSC gift shop), while my kids explored the rest of the museum.
Downstairs were sport-themed activities, including building and racing Lego cars, throwing tennis balls at a sensor to determine your pitch speed, looking and feeling the inside of sports equipment, and trying different angles to achieve the perfect pass with basketballs of varying sizes. Off the back was the signature DSC digital dome theater, hosting several movies throughout the day.
After Zula Patrol (http://www.dsc.smv.org/digitaldome.html), we walked across the street for lunch at locally owned Brewed Awakening (http://brewedawakening.org). Brewed Awakening also provided yummy coffee, smoothies, and hand-dipped ice-cream for morning and mid-day snacks. It was a treat to park our car in the morning and not return to it all day.
During other breaks, I trailed my kids to exhibits they insisted I see. These numbered more than a few and were located in several different buildings, so I got some exercise to boot.
Across the parking lot from the DSC’s main entrance was my family’s favorite part: the historic Danville Amtrak Station (http://www.greatamericanstations.com/Stations/DAN). This elegant stone building, built in 1899 by the Southern Railway, burned and was reconstructed in 1922. It maintains its original walls and remains in operation, thanks to 1996 renovations funded by Amtrak, Pepsi-Cola, and the Virginia Department of Transportation. The adjoining historic freight station now houses a community center (http://www.playdanvilleva.com/Facilities/Facility/Details/7) that hosts Saturday Farmers Markets and is rented for events and fundraisers throughout the year. It’s a nice mesh of past and future history, as demonstrated by the delightfully anachronistic array of solar panels on the freight-station roof. (Two daily trains serve the facility via Lynchburg (VA) and Greensboro (NC); https://www.amtrak.com/servlet/ContentServer?pagename=am/am2Station/Station_Page&code=DAN.)
Upon walking into the train station, we met an enthusiastic, gray-haired man who urged us to “water the iguana” and lead us out the back door, where we took turns misting an orange-crested, dragon-like reptile sunning in a large cage. Back inside, we met Spike, an inquisitive bearded dragon behind the main desk, and passed several other live creatures before turning the corner into the most extensive and professionally crafted taxidermy exhibit I’ve seen in such a space. From a towering polar bear to an eye-level water buffalo, we had close-up views of animals spanning continents. Looking straight into the eyes of a once-live tiger, teeth bared, bestowed greater appreciation of the white-tailed deer and turkeys common to nature exhibits including this one.
The Estelle H. Womack Natural History Collection extends vastly beyond taxidermy. The low-ceiling stairwell to the basement made me feel like I was stepping back in time, as did the display cases housing an impressive collection of rocks and fossils at the bottom. There was a small play area to occupy younger children, so parents could intermittently investigate the surrounding natural curiosities, many of which were touchable. Nothing attracts a kid’s attention more than something their parents are interested in.
Back outside, beyond the iguana, was the Amtrak station platform and a small side track housing a fully restored (and fully accessible) Norfolk and Western caboose. Beyond the caboose was a netted seasonal butterfly garden hosting a plethora of native plants and associated butterflies, as well as two beautiful little ponds – great examples for those thinking of building ponds of their own. Needless to say, we spent a great deal of time in this area.
If the Danville Science Center had not occupied us all day, we could have investigated the surrounding historic Tobacco Warehouse District (http://www.danville-va.gov/1182/Historical-Sites), the easily accessible 7.5-mile paved Riverwalk trail (http://www.traillink.com/trail/riverwalk-trail-(va).aspx) along the Dan River, and/or the Carrington Pavilion, which, with its surrounding green fields, accommodates 5600 people during concerts and performances (http://www.playdanvilleva.com/Facilities/Facility/Details/6), all within easy walking distance of the Danville Science Center. We look forward to investigating these areas when we return to Danville, which won’t be long.
I’ll be at the DSC again on July 16 from 10 AM to 4 PM (http://dsc.smv.org/events.html). I hope you’ll visit and let me entertain your kids with science-based activities and conversation. You can engage as well, or you can use the time to check out the plethora of beautiful and thought-provoking exhibits in the Danville Science Center. Spend a couple hours or the whole day. Just come out and play!