Editor’s Note: Since writing this review, Erin writes: “I have been back to the Spark Lab four more time since I wrote that, bringing friends each time. It’s always enjoyed by all.”
PITTSFIELD — I love educational toys and games. I am thrilled when my kids learn through playing, so I was very excited to hear about the Smithsonian SparkLab exhibit at The Berkshire Museum. My 6 year old son, Liam, has a very curious mind and great joy for exploring the world around him. When we arrived at the exhibit, we were greeted by a member of the staff who pointed out some of the different stations. She was active and involved the whole time we were there, offering plenty of suggestions, enthusiasm, and smiles.
Liam went right over to a long table with marble run building pieces. Along with the usual grooved pieces you would expect to find, there were different musical elements. There was a series of five steps for the marble to go down, but the steps were notes from a xylophone. There was another piece with a wiggly groove that made the marble ping against thin metal bars on it’s journey through. Each station in the exhibit had challenge cards to help direct your play. The marble build area had one that challenged the builder to ring the bell at the end of your run. Liam enjoyed the challenge, and spent the most time at this station.
While Liam was engrossed with the marble build area, Dad sat down at the electronic station to try his hand at making a musical doorbell. This station had Snap Circuits components and several project cards. Snap Circuits are one of my favorite educational toys. Liam did not use this area during our visit, but we own this toy and he has already built the projects. Kids love Snap Circuits, and it is amazing what can be built with them.
The wind tunnel station was a hit with every kid we saw at the exhibit. It had a building area with various materials like paper cups, string, pipe cleaners, construction paper, and foam sheets with which to build a flying machine. Once built, kids could put it at the base of the wind tunnel (a clear plastic column powered by a fan) and watch it soar up and out the top. I watched kids run back and forth between flying their creations, and making modifications to get a better result.
Later, we wandered over to the light table to build with Magnatiles. There was already a very impressive castle built, so Liam and Dad started adding onto it. I saw a separate bin of transparent colored shapes, and started stacking colors together. Liam noticed, and started making combinations also. He was proud to show me how he could make green with the yellow and blue tiles.
From there, we slid down the bench against the wall, and found a small game. It was a wooden rectangle with holes that were filled with various materials (dried beans, paper clip, rubber band, etc), all sealed behind plastic. It had an attached wooden wand topped with a magnet. We asked Liam if each item was magnetic and why. He quickly went through every one, and tested his hypothesis with the magnet.
From there, the three of us sat down on the floor and began making individual creations with the colorful straws and connectors. I made cubes and stacked them until they were taller than me. Liam tried guessing how many squares it would take to reach the ceiling. Another boy came over and told me that I needed stabilizer legs to keep my building from falling over, and started building some. Liam built a “ninja weapon” which looked like an umbrella without fabric, and began spinning it to knock down my building. Meanwhile, Dad quietly worked on his own sculpture that resembled a DNA strand.
In the back corner of the exhibit was a table with colorful wooden building blocks. In the middle of the table was an elevated surface that could tilt in any direction. I pressed on the surface, and didn’t think it moved easily enough to be a challenge, but was proved wrong. Periodically, the sound of wooden blocks crashing down rang through the exhibit. Liam didn’t get around to playing with the blocks and teetering table, but I know he will the next time we go.
I will admit, in the two hours we spent playing together in the SparkLab, we did not play with everything. There was another area with measuring tools and recipes. We also didn’t play at the sound wall. That was a frame with different items hanging from it that could be banged on to make a sound. I was glad to learn that they rotate activities in the exhibit, too. In the end, we decided to get a family membership so we can go back and play often. I may be buying some straws and connectors for Liam for Christmas, too. Like I said, I love educational toys!
To learn more about the Berkshire Museum and it’s Spark Lab go online to berkshiremuseum.org. The annual Festival of Trees is also on view through Jan. 4, and school break performances of Berkshire Children’s Theater’s “Winnie the Pooh,” making this the perfect time to explore all the museum has to offer.