Olympia’s Hands On Children’s Museum: Big Changes Underway for the Popular Downtown Destination

Photos courtesy of the Hands On Children’s Museum

When a child walks into Olympia’s Hands On Children’s Museum, they have an important decision to make: Should they run right, left, or straight ahead? Choosing which fantastic interactive exhibit to visit first is all that matters.

Olympia’s museum has long been one of the most popular children’s museums in the Northwest, a veritable wonderland of hands-on science and art education. The museum’s mission is to stimulate curiosity, creativity, and learning through fun, interactive exhibits and programs.

While you could chalk up its popularity, in small part, to Thurston County’s year-round bouts of inclement weather, creativity and strength of the museum’s exhibits are what really keep kids and parents coming back. In fact, 150,000 visitors enjoy the museum every year.

And with construction of its new, much larger building well underway, the future of the Hands On Children’s Museum has never been more exciting.

In nearly 25 years of simultaneously entertaining and educating children, the Hands On Children’s Museum has outgrown its space three times. But this fourth move – with an anticipated opening date of next summer – is meant to be its last.

According to executive director Patty Belmonte, the projected opening for the new space is July 2012. “We gave ourselves a generous cushion,” she says, “So we think we can keep to that.”

The museum’s first iteration was a demonstration site at the South Sound Center in Lacey in 1987. After a brief stint there, the museum moved to downtown Olympia, where Old School Pizzeria now resides.

“That space was about 2,400 square feet,” says Belmonte. The museum couldn’t even hold one busload of 80 school children. “We learned right away that it wasn’t large enough.”

The museum moved to its current site at the corner of 11th Avenue Southwest and Capitol Way South in 1998, in the shadow of the state Capitol building. This version was not the same space you see today as you enter the museum; the organization then occupied just the front half of its current building.

“We doubled our space,” says Belmonte. “But within the first six months in that location, we’d outgrown it.”

Within three years of moving to the Capitol Campus space, the museum welcomed more visitors per square foot than any other children’s museum in the Pacific Northwest.

In 2001, a state agency located in the same building vacated and the museum took over the space, doubling in size yet again. It has remained in that current 10,000 square foot space for the past decade, often bursting at the seams, teeming with kids, families, and school groups.

“One of our guiding philosophies, from the beginning, is that we never wanted to be the largest children’s museum in the state or the nation,” says Belmonte. “But we did want to be a premium quality children’s museum. That’s always been our focus.”

And yet, with construction well under way on its new 28,000-square-foot building – the completed shell sits between Marine Drive and Jefferson Street – the museum is indeed becoming one of the largest in our region.

“Since we’ve already outgrown our facility three times in the last 13 years or so, we designed it not only for the size we felt we’d need within the next 20 years,” says Belmonte, “but also so we could expand the building if we need to in the future. We knew this was our permanent home.”

And Belmonte and her staff of 40 part- and full-time employees plan to fill his new, expandable space with a mix of old favorites and new knock-your-socks-off interactive exhibits.

New interactive exhibits


“We know some kids have a lot of concern about what will happen with their favorite exhibits at the current museum,” says Belmonte. “So we’re taking over the best of our exhibits and upgrading them, redesigning them, and putting them in the new space.”

Extensive research went into the planning of the new museum. Belmonte and her staff interviewed hundreds of families at the museum’s annual Sand in the City event, asking what they’d like to see in the new space. The team also conducted dozens of focus groups with families, various community groups, teachers, and artists.

“We toured around the country,” Belmonte continues, “to botanical gardens, interpretive centers, natural history museums, science centers, and other children’s museums.” The team pulled together what they thought were the very best ideas from those facilities.


Photos courtesy of the Hands On Children’s Museum

The new museum, located next to the LOTT Clean Water Alliance, carries a theme of water throughout. “We believe water is the essential natural resource for this century these kids are growing up in, and they need to understand and appreciate how important water is,” says Belmonte.

One of the highlight exhibits for the new museum will be a two-story stair climber and slide space, dubbed the Tides to Trees Trail.

Kids begin on the first floor, in Puget Sound, and hike up a climber that simulates walking along a stream. As they reach the second floor, or tree canopy, they find themselves in an eagle’s nest, looking out over the entire museum. They then travel down a watershed slide, as water, returning to the Sound.

“We can teach kids in a really fun way about the connection between Puget Sound and our watersheds, and what happens when you become water,” says Belmonte. “You pick up everything, whether it’s pollutants or dirt or whatever’s in the air. All of that gets taken back down into Puget Sound.”

In the Puget Sound gallery of the new museum, kids can explore a crawl-through under a ship. A diorama will set the stage as though they’re actually submerged in the Sound, showing them all the life living in our waters.

“We’re trying to connect them with the area they live in, which is all about trees and the Sound,” says Belmonte, “and help them care more about their natural environment and take care of it as they grow up.”

Other new exhibits include a 25-foot-high air wave in the building’s iconic water tower, where kids can insert Nerf balls and scarves and such to see what happens when the wind blows them into various directions and shoots them out. Kids can also build their own racecars and race them down tracks in the middle of the water tower.

The museum moves outdoors


The biggest change in the new museum, aside from its nearly tripled square footage, is the addition of a half-acre, ground-level outdoor space. “We really wanted to find a space where we could develop an outdoor exhibit area,” says Belmonte. “This will really make us unique in the Northwest.”

She and her team have closely followed the research on outdoor learning for many years.

“We know that young kids, even in a place as beautiful and mild as the Northwest, aren’t getting outside as much as they need to for their physical health, but also for their emotional and learning health,” says Belmonte. “Unstructured outdoor play is critical to a child’s healthy development.”

The water feature in the outdoor exhibit space is 130 feet long and allows kids to actually get submerged up to their ankles. “They can build boats in the Puget Sound gallery, and then bring them out to float them down the water table,” explains Belmonte.

In other words, imagine the current museum’s fantastic water table, only outdoors, ten times longer, basically on steroids.

“When we open, we will really be a destination outdoor exhibit space for the entire Northwest,” says Belmonte. “We’re very excited about that.”

Sand in the City also sees changes


The Hands On Children’s Museum’s popular summer event, Sand in the City, will also get a makeover, moving next summer from its previous home at the Port Plaza to the museum’s new site.

“It’ll be great,” says Belmonte. “It means families can access the museum as well as all the exterior exhibits.”


Hands On Children’s Museum

106 11th Ave SW
Olympia, WA 98501

Phone: 360.956.0818

Fax 360.754.8626