Discovery Playhouse opens new water play exhibit

Friday, April 22, 2011
Terry McDowell stands next to "Kim's Secret Water Garden," the newest exhibit at Discovery Playhouse in Cape Girardeau. The exhibit will open Friday and honors the memory of Terry's late wife, Kim McDowell. (Kristin Eberts)

It all began with a little girl in a red petticoat. That little girl, Kim Kurka McDowell, paved the way for Discovery Playhouse's new exhibit Kim's Secret Water Garden.

As a child, McDowell enjoyed making secret water gardens, and as she grew older, she continued to do so with her nieces and nephews, said Jennifer Mullix, executive director of Discovery Playhouse in downtown Cape Girardeau.

Kim's Secret Water Garden, an interactive water play exhibit at the museum, opens today. The area honors the memory of the late newspaper executive who, along with her husband Terry McDowell, was an active donor at Discovery Playhouse.

McDowell served as design consultant for the exhibit and included much of his late wife in the details.

On the logo for Kim's Secret Water Garden, the three girls following behind the leader represent important friends and family of Kim McDowell, and the dog, Strong Heart, Terry McDowell said was her faithful companion. He said the first girl leading the pack with the red petticoat and doll stuck in a holster, represents Kim as a little girl.

"She was fearless," McDowell said. "That's why she's the leader of the pack. It's all about going on an adventure and she was always on an adventure."

They modeled the water play areas after other children's museums, like St. Louis' Magic House, Chicago Children's Museum and the Boston Children's Museum. Mullix said Discovery Playhouse's new water play exhibit compares both in size and quality to any of those metropolitan museums.

"This exhibit really highlights what we are and where we are going," she said.

The exhibit features four interactive tables, which Mullix said offer open-ended, child-driven and problem-solving activities appropriate for infants to elementary age children.

"Kim's Secret Water Garden," is the newest exhibit at Discovery Playhouse in Cape Girardeau. The exhibit will open Friday and honors the memory of the late Kim McDowell. (Kristin Eberts)

Each table allows for different experiments using water. Older children can work with pipes to control water pressure and direction of water flow, interact with boats and dams with an underwater current and use water squirters and spinners to develop hand-eye coordination and learn cause and effect and problem solving skills. One of the four tables is also geared toward infants and toddlers to explore with water using cups, funnels, water wheels and scoops.

A water filtration system in the basement of the Discovery Playhouse constantly drains, cleans and pumps the water for the exhibit, which provides a clean and sanitary environment. Mullix said children should wear play clothes and expect to get wet but not soaked. The museum will provide raincoats.

She said parents are encouraged to participate with their children and "take a front seat to their child's education."

The museum, and especially the new water play exhibit, is based on adults and children learning together, she said.

"The overall feel and theme of the exhibit environment is honoring Kim's life as a child and as she grew up, how she stayed a child at heart," she said.

Terry McDowell said Kim McDowell touched many lives throughout her life, and he viewed her as an unsung hero, who was always willing to help but never wanted acknowledgment. He said he is very touched the exhibit could be done in her honor.

"I think if there was something to be in her honor, she would be pleased with this -- because it is for children," he said.

To design the exhibit, McDowell said he opened his heart and mind to find what best resembled his wife.

He also incorporated the existing elements of the space. He used the brick wall to represent a house and added a large shade tree and fencing to give the illusion of a hidden and private backyard. The sun in the exhibit is Kim McDowell's design created as a teenager, and the cats along the fence represent pets of hers.

"I tried to incorporate a lot of things that say Kim to me," he said.

Funding for Kim's Secret Water Garden was provided by Gary and Wendy Rust and Jon and Victoria Rust who supplied $58,000 for the fabrication of the exhibit. Terry and Kim McDowell provided a donation of about $10,000 for the cost of the design elements.

The exhibit is in a front window on the first floor. Mullix said it originally was planned for the second floor, but with the current renovations to the upstairs, the available and ready space on the main floor was chosen so they could move forward with the project.

Renovations to the second floor are set to be completed by April 30, in time for the second annual FUNdraiser. The newly renovated space includes new carpet, electrical, drywall and paint. Terry and Kim McDowell and Rust and Martin provided $20,000 for the carpet and labor.

"She felt it was great for the community," McDowell said. "She wanted to see it prosper and do well."

Mullix said the April 30 event is the museum's biggest fundraiser. Proceeds from the event help support operations all year. Guests will be offered sneak peaks to upcoming exhibits and potential donors will have the opportunity to learn of exhibits and projects that need sponsorship, like an elevator, which would make the museum handicap accessible.

Along with Kim's Secret Water Garden, another upcoming exhibit is the Renew Children's Theatre, set to open on the second floor by the end of summer. The multipurpose children's theater stage will be fabricated from repurposed material and allow children to dress up, use face paint and put on impromptu plays. Magicians and musicians will also perform in the theater.

Discovery Playhouse will soon host Digitarium, a traveling program provided by the NASA Educator Resource Center at Southeast Missouri State University, that will provide an opportunity for students and guests to learn about the stars while inside of an inflated planetarium. The program will be available to the public with limited space during Science Afternoon at 3:30 p.m. May 5.

Mullix said the museum plans to establish the first floor as appropriate for children ages 6 and under and gear the second floor for children ages 6 to 12, while still offering interactions between both levels.

As the museum continues to grow, Mullix said she is excited to be a part of what the future holds for the museum.

"To see the progress of what we've been able to achieve already and to have our future so close in our grasp," she said. "It's really a thrilling feeling."

A ribbon-cutting ceremony hosted by the Cape Girardeau Chamber of Commerce to present Kim's Secret Water Garden, will take place today at 9:45 a.m. All museum members are invited to attend for a sneak peak of the exhibit at 9 a.m. For tickets or more information on the FUNdraiser, call 335-7529.

rrolwing@semissourian.com

388-3654

Pertinent address: 502 Broadway, Cape Girardeau, MO

Map of pertinent addresses

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