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Black Earth Children's Museum

Karen Carlock (second from right) poses in front of the BECM with a donation from the State Bank of Cross Plains.

One of the only “small-town” children’s museums in the nation, the Black Earth Children’s Museum offers engaging and unique play experiences for children ages two to ten. The brainchild of Black Earth residents and parents Aaron and Karen Carlock, the museum is designed to be a community resource and anchor point for downtown revitalization efforts.

“We recognized that western Dane County lacks a really great educational place base,” says Karen, and the couple saw an opportunity to “breathe new life to the downtown [through] a museum that can really help youth in the community.”

Located in the historic Patron’s Mercantile Co-Op Building, the Black Earth Children’s Museum contains 7,000 square feet of exhibition space designed to encourage active learning and exploration with an emphasis on local content. A toddler barn has toy animals and tools, and a garden out front can be “planted” and “harvested” and produce brought to the adjacent restaurant, which has scaled-down kitchen implements. For children a little older the museum features a Cave of the Mounds tunnel (complete with fossils) and a miniature version of the observation tower at Blue Mounds State Park with a telescope on top.

A pump circulates a few inches of water through the trout steam exhibit, propelling foam trout with magnets through the current. Older kids can get a “fishing license” and fly rod with a line and magnetic cork fly. Younger kids can use the fixed fishing pole at the end of the stream to catch fish. Of course fishing vests and hats are available for dress up. Other exhibits include a wetland made from foam floatation noodles, a night-sky viewing dome, a reading loft, and a forest treehouse. 

While the Carlocks are the driving force behind the museum, a committed group of community volunteers are working to develop exhibits and construct the space. For instance, local designer Gary Cox created the floor plan, and area educator Kay Butcher developed some of the exhibit learning components. 

Karen Carlock says that future programming plans include summer workshops such as robotics and journalism for middle school- to high school-age kids. But, for now, she and Aaron are furiously working with their board and community volunteers to get everything installed by the opening date: June 12, 2017.

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Jason A. Smith is the associate director of the Wisconsin Academy and editor of the organization's quarterly magazine of Wisconsin thought and culture, Wisconsin People & Ideas.

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