Looking for ideas to keep kids occupied this summer? Wonder Works has it covered. Following a lengthy closure due to COVID-19, the children’s museum, located at 6445 W. North Ave., has reopened its doors and is ready to welcome its young guests to play inside.
“I cannot wait until there’s noise and happiness and kids running around and building things again,” said Julianne Nery, Wonder Works board president.
The museum’s reopening was marked with a little outdoor celebration held early Friday, June 11. Play sessions began the next day at Wonder Works, which is dedicating the entire month of June to exclusively serving its membership, the cost of which is $140 per year.
Come July, the children’s museum will open to those who are not members, charging a daily admission price of $11 per person.
Those who return to Wonder Works will be greeted with some exciting changes, such as a touchless membership system that allows patrons to scan QR codes with their cell phones to register for play times.
Wonder Works has also undergone something of a makeover, including the renovation of the office spaces and lighting, as well as the installation of air scrubbers in the museum’s ventilation system.
“The facilities got a facelift inside and out,” said Nery.
The newly constructed lobby helps to corral kids before entering the museum, which will help in maintaining COVID-19 safety precautions, she said. The museum also has a brand-new outdoor garden area and a different management system overseen by the board of directors.
“Instead of having an executive director, we have three top managers in charge of various aspects of museum systems,” she told Wednesday Journal. “We have a great team now. I love the three people we have in place.”
Two of the managers are completely new to Wonder Works, but all three are local. Colette Anderson, formerly of Pleasant Home Foundation, is serving as the manager of visitor experience. River Forest resident Erin Dowdall is the museum’s new program and education manager. Dowdall has an extensive background in educational programming, according to Nery.
The only veteran Wonder Works staffer to join the management triumvirate is David Hoambrecker, who has worked with the museum for about 15 years, even volunteering his time to the museum during the closure. Hoambrecker is now the manager of operations.
“He’s stuck with us through it all,” said Nery.
Wonder Work’s new garden was paid for in part by a donation from the museum’s former executive director, Rachel Rettburg, whose sister died during the pandemic. Rettberg’s sister lived in England; travel restrictions prevented Rettberg from being with her sister at the time of her death. The donation was made in her sister’s memory.
“Her sister’s name was Becky Boyce, so we call it the Becky Boyce Nature Play Space,” said Nery of the garden, which she called the museum’s “biggest” improvement.
The fenced-in area will allow children to explore nature safely. Wonder Works will conduct outdoor programming, much of it will be water play and STEM-related, said Nery.
Inside programming will revolve around music, arts and literacy. The “loose parts” are also available for children’s use inside the building. Loose parts include toys, but also building materials, dress up clothes and other hands-on creative items.
Wonder Works was able to cover the costs of the facility’s improvements, as well as keep the museum afloat, through donations and grants, both federal and local. Nery called the Oak Park-River Forest Community Foundation a “huge force” in getting the museum through the pandemic.
As the threat of COVID-19 has not completely subsided, Wonder Works is requiring the wearing of masks, as well as prohibiting guests from consuming food on the premises. Only 40 people are allowed inside the museum at one time. These are only temporary requirements and are likely to change over time.
The excitement surrounding the return of Wonder Works is being felt throughout the community. Spots have already been reserved for camp and daycare field trips. Parents have already started reaching out about hosting birthday parties at the museum. Nery couldn’t be happier about the way the public has responded to the reopening.
“Everything’s going back to normal,” Nery said. “It’s really a great feeling.”