Bella Drago sat cross-legged on the floor of the Children’s Museum of St. Tammany with the solar system laid out before her.
In this case, the solar system was a circle suspended about a foot off the ground; it was the size of a Hula Hoop, with black fabric stretched tight across its surface.
The dark material was meant to be deep space, and the 2-pound Gold’s Gym weight Bella placed in the circle’s center stood for the sun.
As she spun small multicolored balls onto the fabric, they each began to spiral closer and closer to the weight, demonstrating the gravitational pull the sun places upon the planets (in this case, Superballs and marbles) spinning in orbit.
It was a fitting scene considering the 11-year-old Bella dreams of being a NASA astronomer one day. After all, the display at the museum may have signified the Milky Way, but the figurative universe seems within reach at a place such as the Children’s Museum of St. Tammany, which opened its doors for the first time on July 17.
Bella was one of a dozen campers who took part in Astro Camp, an element of NASA's Out of School Learning Network. But more importantly, she was part of the first bit of programming ever held at the long-awaited children’s museum — a tidy 3,000-square-foot structure that sits near the end of Koop Drive just north of Mandeville.
Astro Camp was held July 17-21 for fifth- through seventh-graders, and younger children attend the week of July 24. The camp not only gave youngsters a chance to engage in hands-on science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) projects, but also was a sneak peek into what the museum can offer local children when it opens officially in September, as directors plan.
It was an eye-opening experience for Bella, who loves all things astronomical (though she was quick to note the moon is her favorite heavenly body.)
“What matters most is the mass and the size of the ball to see which one rotates longer,” Bella said.
The Mandeville resident and incoming sixth-grader said she knew that before she got to the Children’s Museum, but she added that places like the museum will give her and other kids a gathering place to share many other intelligent and creative ideas.
That’s music to the ears of Children’s Museum of St. Tammany Executive Director Amy Fresh, who is part of a group that has waited patiently for more than a decade for the museum to open.
Though Astro Camp was not the museum’s formal grand opening, it still was extremely exciting.
“It’s such a special day,” Fresh said. “The motto for our capital campaign has been ‘The Power of Play.’ Seeing the children here today shows that the possibilities here are endless. We want them to make memories here.”
The theme of Astro Camp was “Next Generation to Mars: Full Steam Ahead!” Youngsters learned about gravity, space flight, the International Space Station and computer coding, and spoke with a NASA astronaut via video chat.
Explanatory videos preceded hands-on activities that allowed campers to work with imagination-inspiring tools. During free time, they played with a Rigamajig, which is a first-class toy-building kit.
Cash Montalbano, 10, used the kit to build a “monster human” as he called it, with arms, legs and torso — part Transformer, part cyborg. Bryce Bossy, also 10, built a flying vehicle that looked like something out of a "Mad Max" movie.
Even kids who were taking a break from creative play entertained themselves with a game of Jenga, a longtime kids' favorite that reinforces architectural skills and requires a good deal of dexterity and forward thinking to prevent a tower of blocks from tumbling to the ground.
Everett Dodds played Jenga with four other boys on July 17, but he wanted to talk more about the computer coding he would get to do later in the week. Everett said he writes some of his own gaming code at home, though he also enjoys playing numerous sports and hanging out with friends in his free time.
“I’m sure I’ll come back here,” Everett said. “It’s cool to learn important things about life.”
Permanent displays were not installed at the museum in time for Astro Camp, but Fresh said that work will take place soon. She anticipates having many different types of programming at the museum, with most displays geared to children 7 and younger.
She said there will be family days, “Mommy and Me”-type programs for young parents and their toddlers, as well space that can be rented for birthday parties and the like.
Members of the Junior League of Greater Covington brainstormed the museum idea, and a board to develop the plan was established in 2003. Hurricane Katrina delayed progress, and fundraising took some time.
The museum's current building (which is being leased from the parish and the Tammany Trace Foundation, Fresh said,) will be the home of many great things for the children of St. Tammany. It’s a temporary space until a 30,000-square-foot museum opens near Covington in three to five years, Fresh said.
“It’s amazing to be here,” Fresh said. “It’s kids learning outside the classroom, and that’s our goal. We’re an extension of their traditional learning. We’re so excited to be here for them.”
For more information on the museum and its pending grand opening, go online to www.cmstkids.org.