People think most museums are places where you can’t touch anything. Merced’s new Kids Discovery Station is the opposite of that. Pretending is fine.
Dr. Mayya Tokman, executive director and president of the eight-member board for the new children’s museum, gets animated when she describes the mission of the museum located at 350 W. Yosemite Ave., directly across from Merced College.
“We insist on you touching everything, exploring and playing with everything. This is an opportunity to learn new things, discover and play. The focus is on the kids and their families,” Tokman said. She is a professor of applied mathematics at the University of California, Merced who has been in education for nearly 30 years.
At the Kids Discovery Station, children up to 12 years of age are encouraged to pretend. Students are welcome to play with most exhibits by themselves or with their families.
“Our goal is to inspire kids, have them learn when they may not notice they are learning. Research in education shows a majority of education happens informally and a majority of things they learn are outside school in an informal environment. We want to inspire curiosity and imagination. The kids think they are playing,” Tokman says.
Informal education is no less important than formal education. Children are inspired but they are learning in the process. It’s where imagination can soar and creativity is fostered and nurtured, she says.
Kids Discovery Station was launched on Sept. 25. It is housed in a complex owned by the Merced County Office of Education. The property originally belonged to St. Luke’s Episcopal Church and its private school.
“Our educational activities are more like games. They are engaging kids who are in the process of learning something. Our place is for everybody in Merced County,” Tokman says.
The museum includes an illuminated topographical map fashioned with sand, a coding exhibit, flight simulator, kaleidoscope, health center, arts and crafts area, agricultural exhibits including “Maggie” the cow and a kitchen area for food preparation.
Scheduled educational programs and guided activities in agriculture, art, mathematics, science, engineering and technology are offered, in collaboration with educational institutions in this area.
Museum staff members try to let children know what professional opportunities are available in the subject areas. Field trips aligned to current educational standards are available for schools, groups or individuals.
Jim Fagan of Merced brings his three grandchildren ages 4 to 7 to the museum most every day. A retired fourth and fifth grade teacher at St. Luke’s School, Fagan says he is glad to see something useful taking place on this site.
“It’s amazing. They can play with stuff you wouldn’t think they would play with. It’s amazing while I am sitting at this desk the kids are bouncing from one station to another,” Fagan says.
A staff of five people, led by operations manager Karrie Moua, runs the Kids Discovery Station. She said they all are young and passionate about what they are doing. Some of the employees are pursuing degrees in the medical field or in child development careers.
Children of all abilities and walks of life are welcome at the Kids Discovery Station. Tokman said the average stay for youthful visitors and their families is about two hours. Tears often result when children learn they have to leave the museum for the day.
Tokman said her 9-year-old son Kiki was the inspiration for the museum.
“He was the inspiration for creating this. I realized we absolutely need a place like this,” Tokman says. “We are equal opportunity; we want kids to explore the world and its diversity. They are building skills you don’t have in a classroom setting.”
Moua was born and raised in Merced. She has five younger siblings. She echoes Tokman’s thoughts about the value of play.
“This was designed for kids to learn, play and explore, with everything in between,” Moua says. When Moua was hired, Tokman says they ended up with a whole family of eager volunteers.
The Kids Discovery Station is basically anything that’s fun and is interesting in the world. The guiding principle is discovery and exploration and the museum is constantly looking for ways to create a hub for learning, according to Tokman.
Children are the best sales people for the Kids Discovery Station. The museum’s board is looking for partners to help develop an outdoor area outside the MCOE buildings. The group is focusing on fund-raising activities and is working on being affordable and accessible to everybody.
“What we really need is community support. We are looking for individuals, clubs, organizations, businesses and agencies to help us build this up,” Tokman says.
The Kids Discovery Station has been in development three years. Typically it takes four or five years for something like this to open and this was accomplished in only three years, in the midst of a pandemic, Tokman says.