MINOT, N.D. (KXNET) — In the past, KX News has visited some of western North Dakota’s most popular locations –including the Scandinavian Heritage Park, the state’s many sunflower fields, and the entire area of Medora. However, all of these areas have extremely long histories in the state. To kick off the final leg of One-Day ND Destinations, we only felt that it would be right to discuss a more recent addition to the state, but one that has also become a mainstay of its area. Luckily, there is one building that fits both of these requirements perfectly… the Magic City Discovery Center.
Although the building as we see it today is a recent addition to Minot — having opened in April 2023 — the history of the Discovery Center actually goes much further back than one would expect. The journey from the center’s idea to its current reality has been roughly a decade long.
“The initiative started almost ten years ago,” explains the Center’s Executive Director Wendy Keller. “The idea came up in the fall of 2013 in a listening session, where we asked people what they thought we needed in Minot. A group of us became passionate about the idea of a children’s center, and opened an interim location for the winter months in the fall of 2014. We ended up being open there four winters. We’ve been planning, raising money, and forming partnerships all this time.”
Although North Dakota is a state with a large number of families and opportunities for education, museums here are often few and far between. This is particularly the case with exhibits that appeal primarily to the younger demographic.
“One of the reasons we began with an interim location,” Keller recalls, “is because we found that many people didn’t know what a children’s museum was. North Dakota is the last state to have a large-scale children’s museum, so while people from other areas may be more familiar with them, a lot of our local population didn’t understand that they tend to be interactive and educational. The interim location was set up to help give people an idea of what it could be, and how great it could be for both our area and our children.”
In addition to serving as an excellent place to educate, though, the center is also notable for filling another much-needed role in the community: as a place for parents and children to go to learn and have fun, even during North Dakota’s colder seasons.
“Our winters are cold here,” Keller continues, “and especially in the winter there are really limited opportunities for kids. It’s also about both quality-of-life enhancements and educational opportunities. It seems like we value children and education in North Dakota, so it’s surprising that we didn’t have a large-scale children’s museum until we established the interim site.”
The center’s current staff state that the idea for the inception of the Discovery Center was meant to rectify both the void in children’s centers and the lack of indoor winter activities — but what is it that separates the Discovery Center from traditional museums, and even other children’s museums across the world? The answer lies in how the lessons here are taught.
“When you ask ‘what can kids learn here’, the answer is that they have to go and find out for themselves,” Keller states. “We say we’re for kids from birth to age 14, but really, there’s fun for all ages. Oftentimes, guests are learning while playing, and don’t even realize it. When people think of a museum, they usually have the idea of historical things behind glass, and we’d rather focus on more modern educational standards and ideas. That’s part of the reason we chose the term ‘Discovery Center’ instead — we feel like it more accurately describes what we do.”
While one can still learn about many important concepts in the building, what sets the center apart is how these lessons are taught — often being interwoven with play and artistic activities.
“One difference between us and a pure science center,” Keller continues, “is that science centers believe in S.T.E.M — Science, Technology, Engineering, and Math. Instead, we say ‘S.T.E.A.M’, and add art to the mix, as we’re very firm believers that you can’t learn without that creative part. If you see a rainbow, you know there’s science behind it, but kids only see the colors and the beauty.”
Despite how small the Discovery Center may seem on the outside, it is important to remember that looks can be deceiving — and this is certainly the case when it comes to the children’s museum. Within its walls lies an unexpectedly large host of activities for boys, girls, and children of all ages, all tightly packed into an easy-to-navigate building. For those who may have trouble using the center’s staircases, an elevator is also available that allows for easy transition between multiple floors.
The Discovery Center’s three main floors each contain a variety of different themes and activities available for visitors to enjoy, resulting in a total of twelve unique areas — and in this column, we’d like to give you a closer look at some of the entertaining and educational exhibits on display. We hope that this brief overview of what you can expect to see throughout the Discovery Center will show you that this family-focused building is a perfect place for a visit.
Although it is not obvious (and perhaps not entirely intended), many of the Discovery Center’s exhibits have a focus on the forces that make up our planet’s biosphere in some way, making themes of earth, water, and air prevalent throughout the building. When this idea takes the three different floors of the building into consideration, one may expect that the air-based exhibits would be as high as possible — but curiously enough, these are instead located on the first floor. However, this does nothing to diminish the entertainment or education that they can provide.
Throughout the building’s entrance area, guests can find a series of activities and interactive devices that use the flow of air to provide charming visuals and forceful displays of wind power. Some examples include buildable Tube Tunnels, self-contained tornadoes, customizable wind turbines, and paper airplane launchers. Of particular note is Woosh, a favorite of center visitors — who can use the exhibit’s multiple buttons and switches to guide a puffball through a series of winding wind tunnels.
After having your fill of fun in the air exhibits, one has a choice to make while in the stairwell — to journey to the building’s second floor or its basement, both of which have their own unique features to explore. Deciding to visit the basement presents one with the opportunity to view the center’s wetter attractions. Here, a large flume and accompanying apparatus teach children about how fluids flow and change through the use of devices that can be activated and adjusted at will. There’s no need to worry about stray spills, either: child-sized ponchos are available at the exhibit for free, in order to prevent kids from becoming too wet (and too wild) to continue their journey through the center.
In addition to the Water Flow shown above, the exhibit also includes a few smaller devices that provide more in-depth looks at the physics of pressurized water. Visitors can place plastic balls in a large apparatus to send them flying, or drop them into a vortex to be sucked into the depths of the machine. Other interesting water-themed exhibits — including a button to create bubble rings, a series of constructible pipelines, and a real water filtration unit — can also be viewed here.
The most down-home and distinguishable of the attractions one can find on the water floor, however, is the Wild Water play area — a miniature replica of the Souris River that helps teach about the way that dams, blockades, and natural obstacles impact the way water travels.
Both the second and first floor of the Discovery Center are home to exhibits that place a major focus on the world around us, as well as its many resources — and for the sake of convenience, it only makes sense that we should begin the land section with those you would discover first. As one of the more kid-focused sections of the building (even as far as the center is concerned), the first floor’s “Outside My Window” exhibit sheds a light on the joys that one can find out in the natural side of North Dakota through a series of attractions focused on chipmunks, bees, and other small animals — as well as full play areas themed after a campsite, a cozy cabin, a market stall, and a giant treehouse.
The second floor of the establishment, on the other hand, places more of a focus on the industrial side of the land, with exhibits titled “Move” and “Building.” The latter segment, in particular, features a large selection of types of building materials ranging from combinable bones to metal rods, planks, wooden and styrofoam blocks, and even stackable robots. Those who are looking for a much larger construction project can instead turn their eyes to the model crane present nearby — which can be moved, raised, and lowered to help carry shipments of materials throughout the area.
The Move exhibits, meanwhile, are heavily focused on showing physical science, and how speed, positioning, and mechanisms help set things in motion. Here, guests can set up roller coasters, gear chains, and pipe pathways to illustrate the properties of movement. This area’s main attraction is undoubtedly the Grain Gizmotron — a massive machine with plenty of different moving parts and functions that simulate the process of moving grain throughout its processing cycle.
In addition to the major themed areas, there are also several small laboratories scattered throughout the Discovery Center, each with a focus on creativity and ingenuity in some way. The first of these, located on the entry floor, is Pattern Place, which allows guests to study the patterns in nature using microscopes, but also create their own patterns using rotating boards, model ice creams, geometric sculpture tools, and even digital coding.
Past this area is the SPARK Lab — an area constructed directly in partnership with the Smithsonian Institute for the purpose of promoting both artistic expression and natural imagination. Here, by using cardboard, tape, string, markers, and other odds and ends, visitors can face “challenges” that encourage them to think fast and use their creativity to build all sorts of unique structures or solve tricky brain teasers. The Discovery Center states that these challenges are rotated often, meaning that there is always a reason to return and test your ability to think and build on the fly.
If one is still craving creativity after the first floor, however, they can also take a trip to the basement of the building — where a separate Creativity Studio encourages more freeform works of art as opposed to direct challenges. Here, the guided activities lean more on the side of coloring, origami, painting, and even stop-motion animation than construction and problem-solving. On certain days, guests can even leave a lasting mark on the museum (at least, for a while) by directly painting on their permanent Dala Horse sculpture, or even the center’s walls themselves.
“These labs are here to show kids that they are capable of innovation,” says .”You don’t have to be from New York City to be an inventor — you can be from a farm in Stanley, and invent the diving board. Some people think it’s odd, but it’s important to show kids that the opportunities for invention are endless, no matter where you are in the world.”
Light and Sound
On the second floor of the building, one can find two other unusual exhibit areas that do not fit into the overarching land, sea, and air themes of the Discovery Center — but still fit right in due to the number of interesting objects and phenomena on display. The first of these is the Light Lab, which showcases a selection of scientific ideas relating to how we see light, auras, and colors — including refracting prisms and color-changing items. The light exhibit also includes a small digital play area, where guests can play interactive video games projected on the floor by stomping and jumping — as well as a screen where one can create a canvas of colors through their movement.
The Sound Sensations room, meanwhile, focuses on illustrating the wonders of music and sound through a series of peculiar instruments — including a harp that uses strings of light, a group of pipes that can be struck to make sounds, and a drum that automatically pounds to the rhythm of ones’ heartbeat.
The Magic Climber
Although there are many attractions and interesting exhibits throughout the Discovery Center, there are perhaps none as well-known (and as enormous) as the Magic Climber. This massive structure, which extends from the first floor to high above the second, is a tremendous structure that can be climbed and enjoyed by children and adults alike. Venturing inside presents one with not only a series of nets and paths to navigate through, but also plenty of hidden secrets, including miniature animal homes and activities relating to the oil derrick that the climber was based on.
Should one make their way all the way to the top of the climber, they will be met with a unique feature: a replica of an airplane that features a spacious rest area, a stellar view of Minot, two ways to venture back down, and a pair of cushioned seats where visitors can watch a set of recorded flight patterns. Those on the second floor can also speak to the cockpit using an aircraft communication center located nearby.
While the Magic City Discovery Center has not been open very long, its many exhibits and programs have already allowed it to become a mainstay of Minot — and over the course of the last few months, attract huge crowds from both in and around the Peace Garden State.
“I feel like the response has been overwhelmingly positive,” says Keller. “In the past four months, we’ve had over 40,000 people — that’s about as many as the entire population of Minot. Granted, some of those are repeat visitors, but every time we talk to someone, they tell us how wonderful it is. That alone tells me that it was needed — if we wouldn’t have been busy, it would be an entirely different story.”
Despite this success, though, the Discovery Center’s work, and that of other child-focused groups throughout North Dakota, is never done. In addition to any hopeful additions that the center may have planned, they are frequently finding new ways to bring more creative outreach into the Minot community — as well as ensuring that they reach out to the right people.
“Our target market is actually 25-35-year olds,” explains the center’s Marketing and Communication Coordinator Maren Vangsness, “and females in general — I think we hit young moms the most, as they’re kind of the decision-makers when it comes to what a family does during the day. Most of our marketing is online and done via Facebook. We’re also working on getting the word out to Canada. A lot of grandparents have seen the value in it, and took their kids here in the summer. We’ve been adding plenty of new events like sensory nights, and are planning a trunk-or-treat event for Halloween, as well as a special ‘Noon Year’s Eve’ event for New Year’s Day.”
At the end of the day, although the actual area of the children’s museum is small, it’s important to remember that it’s what’s inside that counts. In the case of the Discovery Center, the tightly packed building is bursting at the seams — not only with creativity and opportunities to explore, but also with a genuine love of fostering the growth and imagination of the Magic City’s next generation.
“The core of the Discovery Center is, of course, discovery,” Keller concludes. “I think what makes all of us excited is when you see kids have that ‘a-ha!’ moment- when their eyes light up, and they understand how something works. The look in their eye, at that moment, is the heart of this entire operation.”
If you’d like to learn more about the Magic City Discovery Center, plan a trip of your own, or learn more about their events and extra services, visit their website via this link.
Although our columnist has enjoyed his travels across western North Dakota, all good things must end — and as much as he likes to hit the road in search of fantastic photo opportunities and interesting people to interview, as his op-ed makes quite clear, he is also fond of not freezing to death when faced with the winter climate of North Dakota. However, he’s not willing to put an end to these adventures just yet. There’s still one final entry into this year’s series on One-Day ND Destinations to explore, so be sure to keep an eye out for it soon!