Celebrating Nine Years at the Aquarium – Adding a Kids' Corner

This is the second installment of a four-part series on the many changes the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium has undergone since Heal the Bay took over management and ownership of the marine education center.  Aquarium Director Vicki Wawerchak shares her memories of the first major change in the space, which were designed to make our space more child-friendly.

One of the first, staff-driven, facility enhancement projects was retiring the UCLA Ocean Discovery Center’s giftshop/bookstore and creating the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium’s Kids’ Corner in its place.

After the transfer of management from UCLA to Heal the Bay in 2003, Heal the Bay closed the Aquarium to the general public (but continued to offer previously scheduled field trip education programs) and during that time, we reorganized both our exhibits and organizational structure. The Kids’ Corner was created as an interactive space to engage families and some of our youngest visitors, encouraging them to understand the ocean environment and become pint-sized stewards. In that spirit, the space was converted to inspire the next generation of marine biologists and the corner has undergone many changes since 2003 (including our notorious octopus-triggered flood).

The first iteration included two exhibits—an octopus and a phylum discovery tank, IKEA kid-sized furniture and rugs, a small selection of environmentally-themed books, a chalkboard wall in the shape of a fish and a puppet theater. The entire corner was prepped, painted, stocked and maintained by staff and the reaction from the public was overwhelming. Since that time we were able to hire HOK, the global architecture firm specializing in planning and design, to design a Kids’ Corner that is now one of the more popular areas of the Aquarium for families with young children.

SMPA Kid's Corner before and after

The Kids’ Corner before and after renovation

The space is supplied with marine-themed books (in both English and Spanish), puzzles and games and young visitors delight in discovering the toys stashed in pint-sized drawers designed for their exploration, or putting on a puppet show using a barrel full of sea creature puppets. It provides a fun, interactive, educational experience that is different and yet complements what’s happening in the other areas of the Aquarium.

The Kids’ Corner has become instrumental to the Aquarium’s success at reaching a wider variety of audiences. It allows families an area for younger children to play or read a story, while older siblings explore more advanced displays or interact with volunteers in the Aquarium gallery. When I see siblings sitting together on the bench reading stories to each other or hear an elaborate puppet show taking place with different voices and names of puppet characters, I know the facility has succeeded in reaching this younger set of visitors. This is an important task for the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium as we understand that it is these younger visitors who educate their parents on environmental issues and on whom we are going to rely in the future to continue to conserve and preserve the ocean environment.

Read part one of the four part series.