Kids can now explore the beauty of the desert through 6,000 square feet of outdoor spaces and classic exhibits while visiting the Children’s Museum at Tohono Chul in Oro Valley.
Nature-based programming and the expansive outdoor space welcomed visitors for the first time on Jan. 3.
“It was beautiful. It was chilly but the rain was out of the forecast,” said Teresa Truelsen, the museum’s marketing director.
“It was great. We had so many families, I think more than 200 visitors this first day; lots of families and kids coming to Tohono Chul, which I think was kind of a new experience for them, especially on a Tuesday morning. It worked out exactly as it was supposed to.”
Children’s Museum Oro Valley opened in 2015 in the Steam Pump Village shopping center. It closed in November 2022, moved to Tohono Chul in December, and opened Jan. 3, Truelsen said.
“We were shut down for a month as we made the move to Tohono Chul,” she said. “We have a whole lot of new exhibits…Everything is kind of tied to the fact we are within Tohono Chul now.”
To tie in with the natural surroundings of Tohono Chul, Truelsen said the outdoor space has a mud kitchen, clay studio, water table and outdoor painting areas.
“There is a little planting station where they can protect plants. It’s not real dirt, it is like bark (mulch), that they can dig into,” she said. “There’s a fort building area with blocks.”
“Some older kids were hanging out, playing around in the mud garden, which is actually a sand garden at this point in time. It was fun to watch them. It’s not something kids in Tucson are generally used to playing with…you really can’t dig up mud in your backyard.”
The Children’s Museum at Tohono Chul also includes the meditation garden and the buddha water painting station.
The Tohono Chul meditation garden is “actually within our space,” she explained. A xylophone is available in the meditation garden, where children can make gentle music.
The buddha boards are slate tiles that are painted on with water. Slate tile painted with water will change color and darken.
“It’s just water painting on slate tile,” Truelsen said of the buddha water painting station. “It’s a little more thoughtful.”
The museum’s Nature Niños Educators offer daily programming with themes inspired by the surrounding garden. Story time at 9:30 a.m. is followed by nature-based movement, with a related arts and crafts activity at an open table for creativity throughout the morning. New outdoor exhibits and activity spaces also include an art studio — everything is designed to inspire interactive play for kids.
Highlights include indoor exhibits from the original space, “airways” which are air float tubes, and Peek-a-Boo Palace, an indoor climbing area.
She said the indoor play areas are designed for children ages 0 to 5. However, Truelsen said they are looking to expand the age range for their outdoor space.
“If you are playing with clay, anyone can have fun creating with clay, or playing in the mud garden, or painting,” Truelsen said. “There’s the blocks, the big Fort Building blocks interlocking blocks you can build huge structures with. There’s a lot of stuff they can do, plus the walk up there is beautiful.”
Hilary Van Alsburg, the museum’s executive director, said she’s excited the facility is open.
“This is an exciting collaboration,” Van Alsburg said. “We look forward to welcoming families to a beautiful new setting where they can explore, learn about the Sonoran Desert and (have) fun in nature, right in our urban core.”