New look, new exhibits, same wonder.
The Wonder Workshop Children’s Museum in Manhattan, a private, nonprofit organization, is open for business after a summer-long hiatus. The museum at 506 S. Fourth St. sports a fresh coat of red paint on the exterior and updated exhibits inside.
The museum’s co-director, Parre Ahmadi, said the new exhibits are centered on folk tales from India, China, West Africa and England.
“Our first room is based on the Indian story ‘One Grain of Rice’,” Ahmadi said. “We have all these great vibrant colors, all these awesome saris where kids can try them on and feel the fabric.”
The brightly colored saris hang from the ceiling along with string lights over a game called the Mumbai marble run. A hand-painted mandala adorns the floor in the center of the room and is one of the first pieces of art people see when they walk through the front door. Children can test the actual weight of a single grain of rice compared to a full bag using a pulley system.
The room adjacent to the India exhibit features activities focusing on a Chinese folk tale called “Lon Po Po,” which is the origin for the western fairy tale “Little Red Riding Hood.” Ahmadi said children can try on costumes and disguise themselves as the Big Bad Wolf from the story. There are also bins full of sensory beads that are squishy to the touch and give children a more tranquil interactive experience.
Around the corner from the Lon Po Po exhibit is a room featuring Anansi the Spider. The word “Anansi” literally translates to “spider” from the Akan language of the Ivory Coast of Africa. Ahmadi said Anansi was a trickster who used cleverness and creativity to get out of any trouble, and the exhibit incorporates those concepts into its activities.
“Kids can build their own spider webs,” Ahmadi said. “They get to throw things to test the strength of spider webs, so they can actually see that spiders are engineers themselves and how much weight the webs can hold.”
The Anansi exhibit also has drums for children to play, and every room has several books detailing its featured folk characters’ adventures. The hallway leading out of the Anansi room features a large Lite-Brite board fixed to the wall for kids to play with.
The final room is based on the English folk tale “Jack and the Beanstalk” and includes a system of ropes and pulleys to help a small figurine of Jack climb his beanstalk. Rope and pulley systems are found with every exhibit, and Ahmadi said it allows kids to have a more hands-on experience when they come to the museum.
“That’s a big thing for us,” Ahmadi said. “We just want kids to come in here and have fun. We don’t mind it getting messy. … We want people to come here to learn and explore, and we want to give kids something they can’t get at home.”
The yard on the north side of the museum has a sand pit for kids to play in and an oversized chair with a compact climbing wall attached. On the south side of the building, a painted portrait of the Wonder Workshop’s founder, Richard Pitts, shows him playing a drum in a field. Ahmadi, who is Pitts’ stepdaughter, said her stepfather “put his heart and soul” into the museum.
“He just really lived and breathed for these kids and cared about them so much, all the way up until his very last breath,” Ahmadi said. “He was just always concerned about the kids.”
Pitts died in May 2020 at age 64 after a decade-long battle with cancer. He opened the Wonder Workshop museum in 1995 and was described by friends and community members as “a champion of children.” An editorial published in The Mercury on May 12 of last year said “We’ll miss him. We’ll miss his smile and his energy, and we’ll miss the way he always made everyone feel better somehow.”
Ahmadi said she moved from Los Angeles recently to help with Wonder Workshop operations. Ahmadi is co-director of the museum along with Patsy Johnson of Manhattan Catholic Schools. Ahmadi and Johnson are filling in while they seek a full-time director to replace Suzanne Reese, who was hired to lead the Wonder Workshop after Pitts’ death. Reese left the position earlier this summer.
“With his passing, I didn’t want to see this place just leave because he did,” Ahmadi said. “It’s been around in my family for 25 years, and I love being around these kids, too. It just makes me happy.”
Wonder Workshop hosts a pre-kindergarten program Monday, Wednesday and Friday mornings. Ahmadi said the new exhibits are perfect for teachers to bring their classes to explore, or for families looking for a fun afternoon activity.
The museum is open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesdays, Thursdays and Saturdays, and 1 to 4 p.m. Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays. COVID-19 health protocols are in place, so masks are required for any person entering the museum and all touchable surfaces and items are frequently sanitized.
Cost is $10 per family, but Ahmadi said she would carry on her stepfather’s tradition of waiving fees for families in need. More information can be found on the museum’s Facebook page, TheWonderWorkshop.