At Wonder Universe, the newly revamped children’s museum now open at New River Valley Mall, 5-year-old Merriweather Skabelund points to Blacksburg Fire Department’s Engine 3 and asks: “Can I go in that, Mom?” The shiny red kid magnet parked inside Wonder Universe is the front half of an honest-to-goodness fire truck, and yes, you can go in it. Merriweather and two of her siblings — 6-year-old Marta and 3-year-old Thomas — clamber into the truck’s cab and bounce on the seats, barely able to contain their glee. “Oh, this is magical,” says their mom, Melinda.
On a Montgomery County School District snow day, the museum is hopping, and the Skabelund kids are soon dashing among more than a dozen other exhibits. At the veterinarian exhibit, Marta dons a white coat and feeds medicine with a plastic syringe to a stuffed sloth. For a solid 15 minutes at the post office exhibit, Thomas tirelessly stuffs letters and packages into an old-fashioned metal mailbox. If some children are plainly ignoring a sign requesting that “inside voices” be used, well, it’s hard not to scream with delight when the air tube exhibit sucks up multi-colored pom-poms and spits them out high overhead.
Of the more than a dozen exhibits that constitute Wonder Universe, very few were present in the museum’s original incarnation as the Blacksburg Children’s Museum. Opened in 2014 by a handful of local mothers, including original director Julene Rice, the children’s museum eventually outgrew its storefront in the First & Main shopping center. The hunt was on for a new home that would be bigger, more centrally located, and easier to access for people across the New River Valley.
The space at the NRV Mall fit the bill, and thus began a nearly year-long build-out of the former Charlotte Russe store and the food court. Finally open in November 2019, Wonder Universe boasts more than 14,500 square feet — quadruple the old size. There’s room to roam, as well as space for more immersive exhibits.
For instance, an infant-toddler space called The Meadow is stocked with climbing and crawling toys, mirrors and manipulatives for the three-and-under crowd. At the farmer’s market stand, kids can grow, pick, sell and eat play food. An Art Bar in the back brings to mind its food court origins, with 12 metal stools sidled up to a long butcher-block countertop for kids to craft and create with recycled art supplies.
There are also more exhibits geared toward kids up to age 12, including a miniature Motor Mile Speedway where children assemble cars, hook them to a manually cranked air compressor, then let them zoom down the track (while they learn about STEM standards like velocity and air pressure). Open hours have tripled, and with the new location in the heart of the New River Valley, the number of visitors is expected to shoot from 23,000 to 65,000 this year. “We think we’re bringing something really awesome to the NRV that’s new and innovative and exciting for children,” says Kristin Kirk, volunteer chair of Wonder Universe’s board of directors. “My hope is that we are able to deliver on a place that children and families feel like they can come on a regular basis to play and learn and have fun together.”
The new name, Wonder Universe, reflects the museum’s approach to education that masquerades as pure fun. In the New River Valley, 75 percent of three- and four-year-olds are not enrolled in any early childhood education program, while more than 6,100 children live in poverty and may not have access to educational resources at home. The hope is that Wonder Universe will spur a focus on childhood learning that prepares children in the New River Valley for learning success. “These kids will test better and be better ready for being an adult,” says Sarah Nucci, the executive director of Wonder Universe. “I’m hoping the community will see this as a place to invest in the future that will pay back in the long run.”
What Nucci and Kirk suspect that most residents don’t know is that Wonder Universe is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit that draws more than half its operating budget from donations and grants. The rest comes primarily from admission ($8 over the age of 1) and membership fees (between $150 and $195 annually, depending on family size). “We’re not a business, not a school, not a for-profit daycare,” points out Kirk. “We’re a charity.”
Wonder Universe’s grand plans — more activities, more exhibits, more field trips, more offerings for kids from different backgrounds and ages — all hinge on community support. Organizers are eager for families to book birthday parties in Wonder Universe’s dedicated event space (complete with a Gothic-style throne), for volunteers to teach visitors the science behind exhibits, and for kids to show up and play. “In the long run,” says Kirk, “we want to be a lighthouse for early childhood development, to have that model of learning through play. Play is powerful.”
Right now, play is energizing Melinda Skabelund’s three oldest kids, who have moved on to the Build It Toolbox exhibit. Wearing hard hats, they screw together a giant erector set and collect nuts and bolts with a powerful magnet. Watching them, Skabelund says she’s grateful to have a local place where her kids can play without hearing “don’t touch” all the time. “They’re figuring out stuff that I would never even dream of. That chance to build and create is one of my favorite things.”
To plan your visit, volunteer or donate, visit WonderUniverse.com.
Text by Melody Warnick
Photos by Kristie Lea Photography