Alicia Bay, executive director of Gilbert House Children's Museum, in front of the outdoor play structure that's scheduled to be replaced in 2022 (Rachel Alexander/Salem Reporter)

Kids who love to run and play tag can find plenty to do in the maze-like wooden play structures outside Gilbert House Children’s Museum.

But for those who can’t walk up stairs, prefer quieter activities or just want more variety, there’s less to draw them to the museum’s backyard.

The Salem children’s museum is launching a campaign to revamp the area, taking out much of the 25-year-old wooden play structure and replacing it with six exhibits where children can excavate and build on a sand table, direct water through concrete channels or climb new climbing poles.

“For over 25 years, children have gained confidence and independence as they climbed, crawled, and slid through the Outdoor Discovery Area,” the museum said in a news release. “By providing a sensory and mobility friendly nature based playscape, all children in our community will be able to develop the confidence and compassion that comes from active play.”

Gilbert House’s goal is to raise $600,000 toward construction costs and break ground in the fall of 2022, executive director Alicia Bay said, with construction completed in February 2023.

About $100,000 was secured from donors before the public launch of the campaign this week, leaving $500,000 to go.

On Sept. 10, the museum has partnered with Dutch Bros. to raise money, with $1 per drink sold at Marion or Polk county locations being donated toward the project.

“We’re really excited,” Bay said.

Bay said compared to when the outdoor area was built 25 years ago, “we know a lot more about mobility and sensory capabilities.”

The museum, housed in two historic homes beside Riverfront Park, has upper floors that aren’t accessible by elevator and only recently added ramps allowing people who use wheelchairs or mobility devices to access the first floor.

Also added recently was a new Bill’s Bubble House, a self-contained bubble exhibit in the front of the museum area, which is ADA accessible.

The existing outdoor structure was only built to last 20 years, and as the museum’s leadership was discussing how to move forward, they wanted to make Gilbert’s House a place where “more children can access the play,” Bay said.

Salem has many playgrounds at schools and city parks where kids can climb play structures or enjoy games like tag, but few spaces available for more directed activities for kids, like designing forts or building waterways.

The new area was designed by Learning Landscapes, a Portland-based architecture firm that specializes in educational play areas.

It calls for an area where kids can race balls through a series of zig-zagging tubes, a stone pathway through a small garden featuring a rain maker and a fort-building area where kids can design and make their own structures with building posts and fabrics.

For children who do enjoy climbing, exploring and running through play structures, the existing maze, with its tall slide and nooks and crannies, will remain. The structure is shaped like an Erector Set, the popular 1950s construction set toy created by Salem native and inventor A.C. Gilbert, who the museum is named after.

The new design will also make it easier for parents to see their kids while they’re playing, and for adults who can’t walk up stairs to play alongside their children.

It’s designed to simulate nature in a way that feels safe. Museum staff hope the exhibits will help families feel more comfortable exploring the outdoors in parks or the forest.

“We want to have kids have that experience of playing outdoors and using their imagination to experience the outdoors,” said Karin Holton, the museum’s promotions coordinator.

Contact reporter Rachel Alexander: [email protected] or 503-575-1241.

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