Exposing kids to engaging, hands-on STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering and Math) activities is a big priority for parents in our increasingly tech-driven world. So it's no surprise that the New York Hall of Science, already one of the best places in NYC to get geeky with kids, is jumping on the trend with its brand-new permanent installation Design Lab.
Comprised of five distinct activity areas, NYSCI's Design Lab invites families to get creative with projects that give your engineering and design skills a real workout. After visiting on opening weekend with my three children ages 7, 10 and 14, I'd actually argue that it's a STEAM'D-themed workspace (Science, Technology, Engineering, Art, Math and Design). However you define it, the goal is clear: to inspire kids (and grown-ups) of all scientific backgrounds to be inventive with everyday materials.
Designed and fabricated by the innovative SITU Studio, the sleek, 10,000-square-foot Design Lab is located on NYSCI's lower level and organized into five distinct pods. The Sandbox is a penned-in oval where kids can build oversize structures out of skinny wooden dowels and rubber bands. Facilitators were on hand to show kids how the sticks fit together, and then they were free to make anything they wanted. Some children built teepees, others focused on three-dimensional squares and still others went for skyscrapers. My seven-year-old made a six-point Star of David so she could stand and pose in the middle.
Behind the Sandbox is the Studio, where kids can work on smaller, tabletop-based projects using cardboard, pipe cleaners, circuits, motors and LED lights. When we visited, the Studio was hosting an ongoing collaborative project called Happy City where kids were encouraged to create things that would improve a miniature town. Children were building houses, bridges, playgrounds and even a few businesses (as evidenced by the words "Happy City Corp." written in marker on the side of one of the structures). When my 14-year-old couldn't get his LED light to work on his creation, he quipped, "Oh, well, I'm contributing by saving energy."
The Backstage area is dedicated to art and performance-based activities. My kids fashioned shadow puppets out of card stock and hinges so the limbs could move (or, in my daughter's case, a Pac-Man-style mouth that opened and closed). Afterward, they mounted them on plastic straws and held them up behind a back-lit screen and performed their own shadow-puppet show.
The split-level Treehouse can accommodate experiments that require a vertical drop, pulleys or zip lines. Here, kids are asked to imagine themselves stranded anywhere in the world (or the galaxy), and then use aluminum foil, tape and pipe cleaners to design something that will help them escape or survive. My seven-year-old—proving that she took the museum's directive to think outside the box to heart—announced that she would be building a boat... to get out of the desert.
The final section is the Maker Space, which originally debuted back in 2012. Some of the activities described in our original post, such as the LED light engineering, seem to have shifted over to the Studio. The day we visited, woodworking was on offer. It's important to note that while the activities in the Sandbox, Studio, Backstage and Treehouse are always free with museum admission, the Maker Space projects are supervised and cost a small fee. You can find a complete lineup of Maker Space workshops on the website.
While my oldest and youngest children enjoyed all of the activities, my middle one (the one who fancies himself a "hard" scientist) complained that some of them seemed like "arts and crafts." But to me, that's what makes the Design Lab so great: You don't need to be an obsessed science geek to get into the wide array of projects on offer. And most kids will be having so much fun tinkering, building and creating, they won't even realize they're learning about some pretty complex concepts.
The Design Lab is located at the New York Hall of Science in Flushing Meadows Corona Park, 47-01 111th Street near 47th Avenue in Corona, Queens. Save for the Maker Space workshops, the Design Lab is free with admission: $15 for adults and $12 for children ages 2-17. Check the website for up-to-date hours and activities.
Find out about other exceptional science spots for NYC kids in our Geek Guide.