Play to Learn: Kidzu Children's Museum


Kidzu Children's Museum

Play to Learn

Kidzu Children’s Museum

By Tom Griffen


Early on, folks assumed Kidzu Children’s Museum was a zoo of sorts. Some would even walk in looking for the animals. But the name is a play on kudzu, a southern plant known for its rapid proliferation. It climbs and coils while accepting natural challenges with élan—all of which is a perfect metaphor for what goes on at Kidzu.

I met with Kidzu’s Executive Director, Lisa Van Deman, and Development Director Kate Sullivan. They said I’d never be able to pack all they do into my short article—they were absolutely right.

Kidzu started in 2006 at 105 E. Franklin Street and now occupies a vibrant, 8500-square foot space in University Place. Like a giant tree reaching into Chapel Hill and beyond, Kidzu co-creates a space with local businesses, artisans, and citizens while highlighting play as an important cornerstone of early childhood learning.

Kidzu’s primary goal has always been to develop a permanent museum with outdoor space to best serve children and families in Chapel Hill’s growing community. Anyone involved in the Kidzu world is fully dedicated to making this happen.

“Ours is an interactive experience for children,” said Lisa. “It’s about kinesthetically learning about the world while making community connections.”

Lisa refers to such deliberate collaboration as “a hug.”

“We are a community-centric partnership,” she said. “We absorb talents that exist in the community then share them with the children.”

The climbing wall is a great example of this joint effort. At the apex of each vertical route is a solitary iron bell. Kids ring it when they summit, marking their accomplishment for all to hear. The bell was made in the Kidzu maker-space by local blacksmith, Jim Adams.

“He came in wearing a kilt and looked like someone straight out of Braveheart,” Lisa said. “He forged the bell with the kids. This adds a different sort of meaning to making it to the top of the wall.”

The wood used to build the indoor treehouse was donated by Fitch Lumber. Seven types of Carolina lumber are represented, and it’s been decorated with literary themes by UNC graduate and local author, Mary Pope Osborne.

Kidzu is layered with contextually-rich details. Children take weekly visits to the Farmer’s Market in the University Place parking lot, then return to the museum to cook something up in a replica of the Mill House Kitchen. 

“Maybe you didn’t like carrots when you came,” Lisa said, “but once you make something yummy with carrots suddenly you’re going to eat it.”

“Our local story is never-ending,” Kate said. “We do everything we can to connect so many aspects of the community with children so they might enjoy, grow, and learn.”

Kidzu’s biggest challenge is making sure everyone has access to their services. They recently did a campaign to connect with local Karen and Syrian refugees. They also regularly put on events in various languages to serve non-English speakers.

Both Lisa and Kate insist Kidzu wouldn’t exist without partnerships. They also believe Chapel Hill is the perfect size to collaborate with everyone.

Kate admits that working in big city children’s museums spoiled her. Getting help with funding was a matter of sending out countless requests for donations. It was mostly a numbers game.

But Chapel Hill proved to be unique.

“Here we can’t sit back and expect folks to keep us afloat,” Kate said. “We need to be more involved in demonstrating to the public what we’ve got.”

Lisa’s extensive career working with children’s museums in Orlando, Washington DC, and Chicago is marked by one main inspiration—connection.

“It’s always been about providing a place where kids and families can enjoy and grow together,” she said. “I love the connection piece, that’s what does it for me—building relationships and establishing connections is really cool.”

Lisa and Kate strongly believe Kidzu aligns with Chapel Hill’s values regarding educational excellence.

“We’ve got a world-class university from which everything else stems,” Lisa said. “It’s fundamental there’s a children’s museum that’s commensurate with the town’s vibe.”

Not too long ago, UNC’s marching band showed up unexpectedly. Pounding drums and blowing horns, a pool of high knees and Carolina blue coursed through Kidzu’s space. Overjoyed children watched on excitedly.

“One of our employees, a recent graduate and music major, knew the band and brought them in,” Lisa said.

And this is how it goes with Kidzu. There’s always something happening to deepen the kinship within the community.