Today my friend Sue is guest blogging about the great day her family, including her 3 kids, had at the Early Start Discover Space. It sounds like a fabulous way to entertain the kids these holidays and an easy day trip from Sydney. Over to you Sue.
With a background as an Occupational Therapist, I am always keen to find activities for my children that are purposeful yet lots of fun at the same time. The Early Start Discovery Space at the University of Wollongong ticks all the boxes and more. I now call it ‘the place that has thought of everything’!
We were holidaying on the South Coast, and when it began to rain on my son’s 6th birthday, we quickly needed an indoor option that would create memories and be ‘special’. I had heard many people rave about the Early Start Discovery Space which hasn’t long been opened. When I explained to my children that you can crawl through an intestine which makes ‘bottom-burp’ noises as you come out the ‘rear-end’, I had all 3 kids desperate to go!
So is it like any other indoor play centre, I hear you ask? The short answer, no, not at all. Making the most of an open plan, the Space has used every inch of ‘space’ (pardon the pun) to involve all the 5 senses. Role playing, creativity, problem solving and education is behind every activity corner. I will detail below the different ‘discovery spaces’ available to give you an idea. Additional to the discovery spaces, there are several nooks of 2-4 tables joined together with logical, hands-on puzzles which particularly drew the fancy of my 7 year old. Through the day there are activities like story time in the Book Nook and craft in the Creartivity Space which are run by staff at set times. As we were there in school holidays, there were additional activities held in the Pod including dress-up and circus play time. The highlight for my eldest child was the holiday challenge to locate characters from Roald Dahl books hidden around the Space. At the end, she handed in her answers and was rewarded with a tattoo and pretend ‘Golden Ticket’.
I was very impressed at how mostly everything was wheelchair accessible, with the only exceptions really being the top of the Shipyard and part of the Cave. There is a ramp at the entrance to the centre. The ground floor was flat, open plan and room for circulation. The 2nd storey was accessed via either stairs or a lift. The activity spaces were spacious, and even though it was rather busy being school holidays, there was plenty of room to walk around. Following along from the idea that this place has thought of everything, many activities were on table top height and tables had room for a child’s wheelchair to fit under them. Many activity stations were attached to walls, with lots of buttons to press, music to play, or dials to turn. Tubs of role-playing toys were usually at waist height.
For amenities, I was pleasantly surprised that I could easily take 3 children into one large toilet cubicle all together. There are child-sized toilets and sinks available, and spacious disabled toilet rooms. They have even thought of shower facilities, and throughout the centre there are water bubblers and hand sanitiser units. There is a Cafe that can be visited from outside the Centre or from the Discovery Gardens. I found they had a good variety of healthy menu options, rather than the stock standard chicken nuggets and chips! I would go back just for the sweet potato hot chips and large soy cappuccino! The Discovery Gardens have stepping stones, musical instruments and water troughs at waist height. We initially sat on a bench we thought was broken because it was wobbly, however when we stood up it startled us with a noise. Low and behold, we were sitting on a musical bench, which brought great laughter to the children!
Located outside, the Dig is a raised sandpit where ‘fossils’ are hidden underneath the sand. Children can stand or sit on bench seats to dig them out, using shovels or little brushes. The raised pit makes it an ideal height for reaching from a wheelchair. Those keen on dressing up can also put on costumes to look like palaeontologists.
Whether it be watching marbles fall down connected pipes, making Lego on activity stations against the wall, children who like ‘making things’ would love this area. My son thought his Mummy was very clever using the prisms to make the number 6 for his birthday. An additional area of fun was a large game of snakes and ladders on the ground, where children could stand or sit on a spot before rolling a big dice to move.
The ship was the number one highlight for the birthday boy, and he would have spent all day there if possible. Although the 2nd story of the ship is not wheelchair accessible due to steep stairs, the ‘deck’ is large and it is possible to manoeuvre into the hull of the ship to find cargo. Watch out for a net of fish that may possibly come flying past and hit one in the head, as my 7 year old took great delight in doing to me! The wooden trolleys for transporting pretend food and bags of cargo were loads of fun for my son who loves anything with wheels! Sailors can dress-up as they search for land ahead!
Let’s face it – boys and girls of all ages laugh at toilet humour. Imagine the laughter then of all 5 of us crawling through a pretend mouth, through an intestine, and then squeezing our way out the bottom to the sound of rather loud digestive noises! Fortunately no methane followed, but it was apparently still hilarious 20 times later!! Having fake food through the intestine added to the experience. Apparently the children were meant to be learning how food travels through the digestive system, but I think they were having too much fun to notice! Proving the Space has thought of everything, I love that the middle of the intestine is higher with a velcro opening. This is an alternative opening for someone who is unable to crawl through, meaning they can still go into the middle of the intestine.
Before the event, I anticipated my 6 year old boy would have loved this space the most, however it was my 3 year old Little Miss who was the DIY queen! Children can put on high-vis vests and any number of accessories including helmets, toolbelts and safety goggles. Then they add to the wooden frame of a pretent house by choosing rubber tiles, foam bricks, plastic plumbing and more. The tubs for choosing the equipment and building products are mostly at a wheelchair accessible height, and although putting tiles on the ground would not be possible for some, there are many options of adding bricks and pipes at waist height.
Market Place & Critter Cafe
Creative play is often a good medium for social interaction to occur, and at the Market Place and adjacent cafe, my children connected well with another girl who was playing there. Using little trolleys, and following a ‘shopping list’, the children then went over to the cash register to pay with pretend money. They occasionally deviated from the shopping list if they wanted to ‘cook’ something specific in the cafe. Sequential planning, counting currency, communicating – perfect examples of learning through play!
Anatomy & The Cave
‘The knee bone is connected to the leg bone….’ Light boxes with Xrays, a cross-section of an eye, and a skeleton were good ways of teaching the children about different parts of their bodies. They were most excited about the oversized teeth and brushing them though!
Next door to the anatomy area was the cave. Although parts of the cave would not be easy to access due to tunnels and steps, there are still elements of this that are accessible. For the place that has thought of everything, the children can take in mini torches, and spot bats, owls and more that are lurking in the dark!
Engine Room & Galileo’s Study
Based upstairs (with lift access available), my son would have come back here time and time again. Using rigamajig or foam pieces, one room is dedicated to large-scale construction projects. Ipads are even available for children to plan out their designs. In Galileo’s study I was impressed with activities at waist height including a child-friendly dart board, light boards and magnetic construction pieces.
Book Nook, Creativity Space and Puppet Theatre
For children wishing to divulge their imaginations, there is a special room for reading books, an area for doing art works and a well equipped puppet theatre. My children loved having Mummy and Daddy sit on little cushions while they made Jaws eat the wide selection of puppets available for play!
Picture a large stage, lots of area on ground level to run around, and big white walls surrounding it. Add in digital pictures and sound effects that respond to movement, and what results is lots of jumping around and squealing! The visual displays are regularly changed, however our children were mesmorised that by raising their hands they could make ‘rain’ fall in the rainforest scene, or in the ball scene, they could bounce the balls away from their shadow. There is a hearing T-loop and ample room for circulation.
Music Wall & Lights, Sound, Action!
The Occupational Therapy mind in me loved how so many activity stations were on walls. The benefits are numerous including wrist extension exercises, standing tolerance practice, and more. The music wall had room for a number of children to stand and make their own musical number – exploring through touch and sound. Nearby this, there is a wall especially for younger children who could engage all the senses starting with touch. My children enjoyed the Lights, Sound and Action space where the oldest was able to control lighting, sound and music via a tablet. This was as the other 2 dressed-up and turned the pages of a large story book to act out a story. They certainly enjoyed being in the spotlight and taking centre stage!
Crawlers Cubby and Games Area
To cover a range of ages, there was a soft play area for crawlers/toddlers, and for the older children there were more complicated games including chess. Our children loved the oversized Connect 4 which would be ideal for children to reach from a wheelchair or to practice their reach/dynamic standing balance.
In a Nutshell…..
I LOVED this place! Having been to countless indoor play centres over the years, I must admit I am a little ‘over’ them. However, the Early Start Discovery Space totally exceeded my expectations, and my Occupational Therapy brain was in overdrive recognising the countless opportunities for purposeful play. If we lived closer, I would not hesitate to buy an annual membership, as there were so many activities where my children would have spent all day on if we hadn’t been limited for time. My oldest (7yrs) would have been the least enthused out of my 3, and looking at the other children there, most of them were younger than her. I guess that is why it is called the ‘Early Start’ Discovery Space. So the ideal age from my experience would be for babies up to Kindergarten, although there are plenty of activities to attract the older child. Make sure you check it out if you are around Wollongong!
You can check opening hours and learn more about Early Discovery Space here.
Thanks Sue for the great review, it looks like I’ll have to borrow some younger children if I want to experience crawling through an intestine.