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May 20, 2022

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Columbia Play Project’s at-home kits give young kids a boost

By , Columbian staff writer
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Jamie Bennett loves the critters included with his at-home play kit from Columbia Play Project.
Jamie Bennett loves the critters included with his at-home play kit from Columbia Play Project. (Columbia Play Project) Photo Gallery

When the Portland Children’s Museum closed its doors in May, kids throughout the metro area and Clark County were left without a place where education and fun come together. Columbia Play Project is working to change that.

“There is no exploratory play space between Olympia and Salem for kids,” said Jeanne Bennett, board chair for Columbia Play Project. “We’re talking about a full-scale space with permanent and rotating exhibits with art, science and music labs.”

Columbia Play Project’s ultimate goal is to create a brick-and-mortar children’s museum in Vancouver, but those plans had to be put on hold when the pandemic hit. Instead, its members began looking for other ways to reach young children.

“We agreed it was still our goal. In the meantime, we needed to come up with some other things that would be beneficial for families, especially families stuck at home,” Bennett said.

In December, the organization launched its first at-home play kit. The kits are designed to combine education with fun and are geared toward ages 3 to 7.

“It follows our same theme of science, technology, reading, engineering and math — or STREAM. This first one is called ‘Welcome to the Ecosystem.’ It introduces our six characters as well as the idea of the ecosystem and how plants and animals, and water, land and sky work together to create amazing habitats,” Bennett said.

Columbia Play Project’s six “cast” members — Doug the Slug, Gale the Goldfinch, Bess the Beaver, Ryder the Spider, Si the Sturgeon and Mo the Mountain Goat — help introduce children to more complex subjects, like an ecosystem, in a fun and approachable way.

“We wanted something that kids could play with by themselves, or play with other kids or adults. … It has a lot of reading but it’s designed in a way that even little ones will be able to grow their language skills,” Bennett added.

For example, a page describing the anatomy of each of the six characters includes words like fin or scales, and then includes descriptions and definitions for those words. Those words then go in a “word bank.”

“They help a child to develop the language necessary to understand what’s happening in the book. Little ones are like little sponges, so it doesn’t take much for them to gain a word and be able to use it in their daily lives,” Bennett said.

Combining education with fun is especially meaningful and important for younger children.

“In the early years, children’s brains are really primed to learn through play. And even beyond the early years play is critical to exploring and making sense of STREAM concepts,” said Molly Daley, regional mathematics coordinator for Educational Service District 112 in Vancouver.

Daley explained that an individual’s attitude on academic subjects, along with the sense of ourselves as capable of learning those subjects, can form early and be strongly influenced by families.

“Engaging families in playful learning — especially with young children who have so much capacity and curiosity, well before they are learning formally at school — can build positive dispositions about the STREAM disciplines and a sense of confidence among young learners,” Daley said.

It’s not just a child’s ability to learn now that’s affected. Bennett said scientific evidence has shown that combining education with fun at a young age creates synapses in the brain that allow children to learn things more easily and more in-depth as they get older.

The at-home kit was developed in partnership with Riff Creative Studio, a Vancouver-based creative agency that provides design, development and strategy services. Depending on interest and feedback from this first kit, Columbia Play Project will consider making other play kits available on different subjects. Some topics being considered include bridges and dams.

“Later on, when we do those other ideas, our characters will still have roles but they’ll have roles parallel to what kids will normally think of as a bridge. For example, Bess the Beaver regularly makes bridges (and dams) in his world, but they don’t look like our bridges,” Bennett said.

After the first of the year, Columbia Play Project will turn its focus to its mobile unit and getting ready for summer activities. Last summer, Columbia Play Project partnered with Vancouver Parks and Recreation to do pop-up parties in parks and served more than 2,500 families, Bennett said.

The mobile unit will travel into communities to provide educational and exploratory play experiences involving the same characters.

“The plan is to have our mobile unit in a designated area a couple of times a week. The rest of the week, it would travel to specific sites,” Bennett explained. “We’re really thinking of partnering with organizations already serving kids, like Boys & Girls Clubs, Equal Opportunity for Children and Families, Support for Early Learning and Families and Friends of the Children.”

Columbia Play Project hasn’t given up on building a permanent museum. The group will conduct a feasibility study next year.

“It will tell us whether we’re ready to begin the work of building that project. That’s a $30 million project. We’re going to need a lot of help to make that happen,” Bennett said. “We want to make sure the community is ready.”

More recently, Columbia Play Project announced its “Wiggles and Giggles” series at the Kiggins Theatre in Vancouver. The first of the four-event series, “The Amazing Bubble Man,” is scheduled for 10:30 a.m. Jan. 8. Other events are set for Feb. 12, March 12 and April 9. For details or to register, go to

The at-home play kits are available now and can be purchased online for $45, plus $7.95 for shipping. In-person pickup can also be arranged. For more information or to purchase a kit, go to

“I know Columbia Play Project encourages families to engage in play together and is great about meeting families in the places they go in the community,” Daley said. “Developing a resource that invites families to engage with and talk about STREAM ideas at home creates a sense that STREAM learning can be a joyful family activity that doesn’t have to happen exclusively at school.”

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