Omaha Children's Museum

Omaha, Nebraska

Reviewed by Nwanua Elumeze

During Spring Break, I happened to come across the Omaha Children's Museum on the local pages of the city's website. As it was only a few blocks from where I was staying, I decided to take a little visit.

What I liked about this museum from the start was that it catered primarily and entirely to children, unlike the usual situation where a section for children has been begrudgingly carved out of an obviously adult museum: even the water fountains were at child height.a

There was quite a lot to see and do, as this intrepid reporter will show, which is why this report does not focus on only one exhibit.

Most of the museum space was dedicated to exhibits featuring local Omaha companies:

Of all the major exhibits, I found the one of the farm most intriguing. First, there was a relief of Nebraska, its rivers and hills, and what farm product was produced where. Next to it was an interesting painting of a wheat farm. Someplace off center was a model tractor with a television screen in front of it. The idea was, the child could ride on the tractor, and watch a video of a simulated tractor on the screen. Naturally, one feels as if one is actually riding a real tractor on a real farm. As a child, I always enjoyed reading about how food was produced. For instance, for bread:

  • farmer sows wheat/potato/cassava,
  • then harvests them and send them to a mill
  • flour is transported elsewhere to be baked
  • supermarket stocks it; then finally I get to eat it.

To a lesser extent, the map was illustrating the same thing I've put in words above.

To the left of the tractor was an area that had life-size pictures of "typical" farm animals and their offspring: sheep & lamb, cow & calf. The sight of a towering Clysdale horse might make a child uneasy, particularly those who are used to squirrels and dogs. I found the organization of this exhibit to be particularly elegant in its simple, yet , ability to get its point across. At child height (attention to detail here), each panel had a red button that could be pressed to reveal a realistically sounding moo, bark, crow, etc. Further up on each panel would be a short description of its name, the age of its offspring and their weights. (refer to the progressive zoom on the cow/calf). There was also a scale for children to accurately measure their heights in comparison with the animals. In spite of the excellent presentation, I must say I was less than impressed by the fact that these labels were a bit too high for a child to read comfortably, and not all the animals had offspring (wha', goats don't have kids?).

All around the museum were little stations where children could dabble in a bit of hand painting, weather prediction and gravity simulation.

Around the corner was a small exhibit of a post office and just what happens with a letter from posting to delivery. The illustrations of mailbox, sorter, plane, etc. were nice to look at, but the descriptions were a bit verbose, and inspite of my age and interest, I got bored just after step 8 (of 15). There was a scale and sorting boxes, but the whole thing was rather dry... the product of too little imagination.

The gravity simulation is a very popular one in which a spinning coin spirals towards the event horizon: not particularly educational for a 5 year old... but a nice way to pry loose change from parent's pockets nonetheless.

In addition, I was lucky to see the "Energy show", which was held once a week. Apart from the various experiments, what I enjoyed about the show was the chance to appreciate the level of scientific sophistication these children had at such tender ages. A rough estimate showed a room of about 60 children (school groups, methinks), all enthusiastic to assist the presenter.

The usual concepts were explored here: static electricity, potential-kinetic energy conversion, chemical reactions.

Static Electricity

a balloon well rubbed against some polyester raised a child's hair (whose face had been painted resembling a butterfly - always something to do in that place, there was). This demonstrated that (as the children all yelled out): opposites attract.

Next, a Vandergraph machine was used to make [packaging] peanuts jump out of child's hand while raising her hair: they now know what "repel" means. The same machine was used to light a neon bulb held close to it in the dark (yep, in the dark; my camera's flash is a bit too bright, eh?). I forget what exactly made the bulb glow, but it was still pretty impressive at any rate.

"Where does lightening come from?" asked the demonstrator. Some insisted it came from the sky, others were adamant that it came from the ground. Apparently, lightening happens when the air burns from the exchange of energy between the ground and the sky. And how were we (the audience) supposed to know that it's not electricity we see, it's the plasma (I do wish somebody will clarify that plasma in the sky is not the same as plasma in your veins: one is rather dangerous to touch).

Chemical reactions:

Not a few children were convinced that fire needs wood, air, and a lighter to start. I was constantly surprised by the level of knowledge they possessed, afterall, a fire needs [in format terms] fuel, oxygen, spark to start and burn. When asked if you can you have fire in space, a resounding "Nooooo!" shook the rafters.

There was much more to see and do at this museum, but I fear there would be no end to what I'd want to describe; so I must stop here, urging you to pay it a visit.

This museum was built with ages 3 - 8 in mind, and it shows: no sooner did a child's attention waver from one exhibit than it was grabbed by another. And there were little tidbit here and there, even an unexpected model train chugging along the ceiling.

The Omaha Children's Museum is located at 500 South 20th (at the Northwest Corner of Howard St. and 20th; 5 blocks south of Dodge St.) Its operating hours are Tuesday through Saturday, from 10am to 5pm, and admission is a generous $4. For more information, call (402)342-6164