By Missy Wattenbarger
For years Highland View Elementary School served as a place of learning for the children of Oak Ridge. These days all children of Tennessee and beyond are invited inside, where classroom learning is supplemented, imaginations are kindled and learning opportunities in the arts, sciences and history abound.
Approximately 45,000 visitors a year visit the former school building, now called the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge, which is the only one of its kind in the Knoxville-Oak Ridge region. Once there, play and learning come together in hands-on opportunities that encourage everyone to understand their cultural heritage, environment and the world around them.
The children's museum was created in 1973, as a project for the Oak Ridge Girl Scout Troop 69. It opened on March 11, 1973, in 2,000 square feet of space in the former Jefferson Junior High School, with the help of a $500 grant from the Reader's Digest Foundation. The museum moved to its current location in January 1974 and purchased the school building and grounds from the city of Oak Ridge in 1983.
The Children's Museum of Oak Ridge now comprises 54,000 square feet, with more than 20 exhibits, six classrooms and two gardens. These are divided into two segments called the East Wing and Selma Shapiro Educational Wing, with a gym and snack area in between.
The East Wing can be entered either through the front lobby or to the left through the Arctic area, which houses artifacts from northern neighbors. A looming Nanook, a stuffed polar bear on loan from the Tennessee State Museum, greets visitors and guards the area as they make their way to the next room called the International Gallery.
This shortcut immediately leads to the At Home in Appalachia exhibit, where cabins and objects tell the story of two fictional children named Sarah and Jonah during the summer of 1865. There, children are given the opportunity to dress up in clothing of the time and learn about quilting, weaving, planting vegetables and building cabins out of Lincoln Logs. Period crafts and musical instruments, which can be heard with a push of a button, are also on display.
Across the hall from the Appalachia exhibit are the Knoxville in the 1910s exhibit (consisting of two period rooms juxtaposed for visitors to compare the city and country life at the time), the Bird Room and the Rocketship and Playscape Room. The hallway showcases the diversity of the animal kingdom in this segment of the East Wing; however, as visitors make their way past the front lobby, they are given tidbits about the “Secret City” and its involvement with the atomic bomb during World War II.
One nearby room is solely dedicated to the coal mining industry. Among the artifacts lining the walls, including a prop from the movie October Skies, are plaques explaining everything from roof bolts to the various equipment used by coal miners past and present. A replica of a pony mine was built into one wall, giving children a glimpse of what it was like to be a coal miner in the early 20th century.
A turn down another hallway takes visitors by the Ed Wescott Exhibit, where children can act like Secret City security guards. A unique guard tower was built for the museum allowing children to find five hidden spies throughout the room. An glass-enclosed area also shows them what life was like for one young family living in a government-supplied house called a cemesto in Oak Ridge in April 1945.
Excitement builds as large water droplet shaped facts on the floor lead the way to the TVA Waterworks Exhibit. Imagery showing how water moves in the area gets little attention at first as children make their way to the hands-on flume that demonstrates the lock system on the Tennessee River. Small wooden boats wait inside to be sent down channels and through various locks that can be operated by children. Definitions of key elements can be found in the water as well. The Waterworks exhibit, which recently reopened after some renovation, also features Franky the Tugboat, a replica built to give children the experience of operating a tugboat on the river.
A walk by the museum’s gym and concessions area takes visitors to the Selma Shapiro Educational Wing, which houses some of the most popular attractions at the Children’s Museum of Oak Ridge. First up are a life-size dollhouse and the Century Toy Store. A small collection located in the hallway hints at what awaits inside.
The dollhouse is a two-story structure built for visitors five feet tall or less. Parents aren’t allowed inside, but the dollhouse is opened up in the back so they can watch their children “cook” in the kitchen, play in the living room or put dolls to bed upstairs.
Older visitors can reminisce about their childhood by stepping into the Century Toy Store, which displays a sampling of the museum’s toys and dolls from 1900-‘99. Many can be seen pointing out the toys and games that were popular when they were little to the younger generation.
The end of the Educational Wing houses the popular World of Trains, which was inspired by models donated by longtime Oak Ridge model railroader Milton Lloyd and built by members of the Knoxville Area Model Railroaders (KAMR). Like other model railroad exhibits, this one features a large HO scale layout called Lloydstown and a hands-on play area for small children.
What makes this exhibit unique is a mock-up of a real diesel engine on which children can climb aboard and blow the horn with a push of a button. In addition, the wing contains the club rooms of KAMR, a full-size Norfolk Southern caboose and a garden railroad which are open to museum visitors the third Sunday of each month.
Although exhibits and attractions like these make up the bulk of the Children's Museum of Oak Ridge, there are plenty of other activities for all ages. Classes are presented year-round in the visual arts, music, environmental studies, healthy living, history, world cultures and other fun and engaging subjects. School and summer camp tours from surrounding counties are booked throughout the year, and traveling trunks are available for teachers that correspond to museum exhibits filled with artifacts, lesson plans and other activities.
Special events for 2014 include the popular International Festival on Feb. 15, the annual Volunteer Appreciation Dinner and Meeting in March, Celebration of the Young Child in April, Imagination Station Summer Camp (seven weeks, beginning June 9 — no camp the week of July 4) and the museum's annual gala on Dec. 5 (the theme for this year is “Ireland”).
“We will hold our third annual Tribute to Selma Shapiro sometime this year, date to be determined,” said Pam Williams, administrative assistant to the executive director. “Selma was the executive director of the museum from 1973 to 2004. She was considered the heart and soul of the museum during the 31 years she provided leadership here, expanding the museum from a group of small exhibits established by Girl Scouts into a regional center of learning and play that now fills the former Highland View Elementary School.
“Our current dreams for the museum are the renovation of the Rocket Room, for which exciting plans already are under way, and the construction of a new healthy living exhibit, which would provide nutritional information and exercise opportunities for children and their families,” she added.
The Children's Museum of Oak Ridge is open all year from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday and 1 to 4 p.m. Sunday (Eastern time). It is open on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. only in June, July and August. Tickets are free for children under age 3, $5 for older children, $6 for seniors and $7 for adults. For more information about the museum and its programs, visit www.childrensmuseumofoakridge.org or call (865) 482-1074.