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Just Kidding

Keeping a non-profit alive for 25 years is far from child's play. The Children's Museum of Denver spent its first couple of years in a truck carrying arts, crafts and science exhibits around Denver and Adams counties. In 1975 the museum settled in rented space on Bannock Street, where it...
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Keeping a non-profit alive for 25 years is far from child's play.
The Children's Museum of Denver spent its first couple of years in a truck carrying arts, crafts and science exhibits around Denver and Adams counties. In 1975 the museum settled in rented space on Bannock Street, where it stayed until 1984, when it moved to the now-familiar purple pyramid-topped structure that it built just off I-25 in the then-slumbering Platte Valley. But over the years, one thing has remained constant: At this museum, not only are touching and other forms of rambunctiousness allowed, they're encouraged.

The museum has always been a physical experience for children--one with rounded, soft edges. Children jumped in a room full of plastic balls, crawled through plastic cylinders and handled plants, sticky chemical goop and other usually off-limits substances.

Today, patrons learn about ecology by sinking their hands into black soil. To learn about spinal injuries, they tool around playing wheelchair basketball. They drill holes in wooden blocks. Most of the exhibits call for pretending, which, of course, comes naturally to kids.

"You get two pieces of fruit, and let me pour your milk," Kristen Edgerton, setting out the plastic food, says to her mom.

"OK, so what food groups do you have here?" asks Kristen's mom, Kathy. The family, including Kristen's bother Zach, has a membership to the museum and visits about four times a year.

"They don't know they're learning, and that's the best kind of play," Edgerton says.

The museum's kid-sized supermarket has small grocery carts, selections of fake vegetables, hamburger, chicken, hot dogs and shish kebab, and a checkout stand. Sponsored by Wild Oats Market, some of the store's plastic products sport Wild Oats brand names. The corporate sponsorship of the exhibit is proof that kids aren't the only ones who learn at this museum: Its administrators have become very savvy about how to market themselves and stay alive through tough times.

The late Eighties, when the Denver economy was still in the dirt, were particularly tough, and the Children's Museum had to cope with low attendance and a tight budget. But through belt-tightening, some restructuring and a lot of hard work, the museum not only survived but thrived. Now it's bouncing right along, as are most children's museums around the country. Denver's has seen a 43 percent increase in membership over the last year, and a 40 percent increase in attendance--about 273,000 patrons for the year ending June 30.

Such numbers, however, don't mean the museum gets to stop practicing addition in the financial area. Of the museum's $2.2 million annual budget, one-third comes from the Scientific and Cultural Facilities district. Most of the rest is from corporate sponsorship and memberships. Admission to the museum is cheap at $2 for children age two and under, $5 for those over three.

This weekend, the museum will celebrate its quarter century of tactile and cerebral stimulation with a fundraising party at the Adam's Mark Hotel. Prices for the gala start at the very-adult rate of $250; museum officials hope to raise money for an exhibit for children from infancy to three. "We used to focus on when they learn to crawl and walk," says the museum's Jan Wondra, adding that as a result of recent research on how children learn, "we know there's a lot more important things going on."

Titled "Spend a Night in Their Shoes," the evening features mimes, juggling, toys, games and a silent auction. It could be just the thing for adults who need some hard-core playtime.

--Perry Swanson

Spend a Night in Their Shoes, 6 p.m.-midnight, October 3, Adam's Mark Hotel, 1550 Court Place, 303-433-7444.

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