by Jim Bottorff
The hint comes that something might be different at the Oakton Community Center when you see the unique “Exploritorium” sign on the outside of the building and again at the top of the lobby stairs. After paying the modest admission and proceeding down those stairs, you enter a large modern open space. And while not exactly Disney World, a young child will most certainly be enthralled after laying eyes on the venue’s five distinct play areas.
Built in 1998, the newer, more contemporary 2016 facility still features play-based learning, now driven by current child development research.
“Small children can very easily be overstimulated,” said Mary Amato, child development specialist and Exploritorium manager. “With that in mind, we made a very deliberate decision to design the facility with fewer, well-chosen attractions and activities, as well as a muted, warm color scheme, providing a space that is calm and comforting for children while they explore and play."
Perhaps nowhere is that new philosophy more apparent than in the toddler area, where six month to three-yearolds engage in a wide variety of sensory wall panels at just the right height for children to run their fingers over cool, hinged moving pieces and textures. The zone also features tiny ride-on toys, as well as low-hanging mirrors for self-identification. When a child feels the need to run and climb, the area also features a small climbing structure with a slide.
Tubes & Tunnels
On the opposite end of the tranquil play spectrum, a large-motor skill area for older children offers a place to run, climb and play. The area features unique, giant interlocking building blocks, as well as a massive tubes-and-tunnels structure that rises to the height of the entire two-story Oakton Center, offering older children a place to explore and get lost with new-found friends, while parents wait patiently down below.
Center Play Area
A few smaller attractions are situated in the center play area, with a train table that promotes sharing and socialization, a giant chalkboard, and an oversized magnet and gear table that tests hand strength, and fosters fine-motor and sensory skills. At the center of it all is the Exploritorium’s most popular attraction — the five-foot-tall Lite Brite Wall. The wall is not only the most exciting visual component of the facility, it allows everyone from tots to parents to use their fine motor and pincer grip skills to create pictures and letters in various colors.
“Even babies who cannot yet walk are able to use the lighted pegs to stand up while they interact at the wall,” said Amato.
Under a small overhead lighted marquee, evocative of Chicago’s theater district, children can play dress-up in front of giant changeable stage backgrounds.
“The stage area gives children the freedom to create their own stories and role-play, while parents step back and become the audience,” said Amato.
The area is adjacent to a book nook, home of monthly ‘Storybook Corner’ readings. Next to that are coloring tables, where both kids and parents can quietly engage crayons and coloring books, with the latter taking advantage of the newest trend in relaxation therapy.
The Water Zone
Perhaps the most dynamic play area in the place, the water play area, features a waterfall, river, fishing pond and submerged toddler seats. In this area, kids don raincoats and then use their imaginations while fishing, throwing fish, transporting water, “painting” on a colored tile water wall, or discovering a secret spot directly under the waterfall.
“The entire venue was built according to a ‘discovery’ model,” said Amato, “where children learn concepts by working with materials, rather than by direct adult instruction. With each areas so closely grouped, children can experience a freedom of movement and mixed-age play in a safe and clean environment.”
Amato and the park district plan to allow the facility to evolve naturally, letting child development research drive new attractions and ideas for the education-based venue over the coming years.
While the Exploritorium is recommended for infants to eight-year-olds, older children and adults will also find a favorite fun spot during their visit. For more information, birthday parties or special rates/passes, please call (847) 929-7744, or visit http://www.exploritorium.org.