“Play is our brain's favorite way of learning.”
– Diane Ackerman
Saranac Lake will be home to the first children’s museum of the Adirondacks. Upon completion, Play ADK will be a 15,000-square-foot state-of-the-art children’s museum and family resource center. The project is currently working to renovate a historic, two-story warehouse and large industrial site on Depot Street — creating a family-focused corridor in the heart of Saranac Lake.
Play ADK’s executive director, Rob Carr first realized the need for a children’s museum in the region when he became a parent himself. “I remember taking my son to Coakley’s during the winter to play in the aisle with all the screws and bolts because that was one of the only places available indoors during the winter to engage my toddler in meaningful activity.” (Rob wished to thank the staff for being so patient and accommodating to them.)
Apart from being an innovative Dad, what makes Rob so qualified to head a project like this?
It turns out, quite a lot…
Rob has close to 20 years of experience in interpretive writing, design and planning, including: exhibit planning and design, graphic design, program management, facilitation, master site planning, interpretive programming, evaluation, interpretive writing, interpretive programming, grant writing, visitor services management and training.
After receiving his master's degree, Rob worked as an educator and exhibit designer in various places around the country, including The Wild Center in neighboring Tupper Lake. In 2016 he started Darwin Design, an exhibit design, graphic design, and interpretive planning company, working full-time as a freelance interpretive specialist, graphic designer and exhibit designer on projects all over the country ranging from logo design and branding to $25 million capital exhibit projects. He now splits his time between that and the development of Play ADK. “I have learned a lot in the last six years working on this project – but I definitely still have more to learn in areas. I have a wonderful board of directors with a diverse mix of professional experiences, who have been absolutely invaluable. I lean on [them] heavily and [they] help tremendously to fill in the gaps to help propel the project forward.”
Rob has spent the majority of his career working in museums as an exhibit designer, educator and administrator. “Most of my work has been designing programs and experiences for older audiences with a more cognitive objective. To be honest, I sort of thumbed my nose at children’s museums and looked at them as glorified playgrounds. I didn’t completely understand their value. I was more interested in developing creative ways to educate audiences about natural science, heritage and history. But, then I had a child.”
“Through the experience of being a new parent I learned pretty quickly how important children’s museums are. In fact, I believe now they are the most effective and worthwhile informal education institutions that exist because they support an essential developmental need for a vulnerable and often under-served audience. Opportunities for young children to engage in meaningful and developmentally appropriate play and exploration are critical to their healthy social, emotional, and cognitive development. Play is the real work of childhood, and children’s museums are designed specifically to meet this essential community need. Through play, children have their best chance at becoming whole, happy adults. A children’s museum is uniquely situated to nurture not only healthier children but also better parents and, ultimately, stronger communities.”
Strong community is what made Rob decide to call Saranac Lake home. He says “the people, the sense of community, the creative energy, and the fact that [Saranac Lake is] surrounded by boundless nature and opportunities to recreate outside” are what he loves best about it here.
Rob first came to the area as an intern at Great Camp Sagamore in Raquette Lake close to 25 years ago, and fell in love with the Adirondacks. “I would travel over to Saranac Lake on my days off and was enamored. I never connected with a community so strongly and I knew then that I ultimately wanted to make Saranac Lake my home.” He was offered a job at The Wild Center in Tupper Lake in 2010 and moved to Saranac Lake full time. “Saranac Lake has always felt like home to me, more than any place I’ve lived or spent time.”
When asked about the work that’s gone into the project, Rob explained that it’s been in the works for about 6 years now.
“I started in 2016 working with the Adirondack Birth to Three Alliance, the Adirondack Foundation, the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country, the Association of Children’s Museums, multiple established children’s museums from around the country, local politicians, and childcare professionals to develop an in-depth feasibility study, needs assessment, and business plan for the development of a play center/children’s museum in Saranac Lake, NY. It would be the first children’s museum in the Adirondacks. In 2017, I began began to explore possible properties in downtown Saranac Lake to develop a children’s museum geared towards the birth to age 6 population (BT6) and applied for a series of grants to support the development of a mobile play center as a community outreach tool that conveyed the importance for healthy development of children and that built support for a permanent play center.
Throughout 2018, I worked to recruit a founding board of directors, incorporate Play ADK as a 501c3 not-for-profit organization, secure Play ADK’s location on Depot St. in Saranac Lake, and develop preliminary architectural plans and construction cost estimates for the museum. Play ADK , INC. was incorporated at the end of 2018 and was granted its 501c3 status in the early spring of 2019. In 2019, we received a $200,000 pledge from the Cloudsplitter Foundation to leverage a $950,000 funding commitment from the $10,000,000 Saranac Lake Downtown Revitalization Initiative grant the village received in 2018. We were awarded $950,000 from the DRI grant. At the end of 2019, Play ADK was also a recipient of a $1,000,000 New York State Regional Economic Develop grant through Empire State Development. So far we have raised close to $3 million from a mixture of private and public investment in the project.”
In addition to the museum, the family resource center will be a core element and function of Play ADK. Children’s museums and family resource centers have many similarities in the way the spaces are designed and the audiences they serve, but their objectives are different. The family resource center component of Play ADK will provide a centralized space for parents to find valuable services such as infant and toddler play groups, developmental assessments, infant/child CPR training, a nutrition clinic, and a space for parents to have discussions and find support for a range of parent-specific challenges – services and resources that are taken for granted in many healthy communities, that are very limited in this region. These services will promote a strong family-centered community in the Tri-lakes region. “It feels like an ideal marriage that will establish a place where kids grow through play and child-driven exploration, and families and caregivers get the support they need.”
You may be familiar with Play ADK’s downtown location, “the Clubhouse”, located at 84 Main Street. It was home to some of my favorite ArtWalk activities during the summer! Including their interactive sidewalk art, portraits by kid artists, and more community-driven activities. This is also home to some of the initial programming that is being done to support families within our communities.
The Clubhouse started as an office space and an information outpost where people could learn more about the project. Over the last year it has grown to take over the entire storefront, including a small play space. “We offered really fun regular programming for young kids and families throughout the 2022 summer season out of the space. We are excited to continue to offer programming opportunities at the Clubhouse while we focus most of our efforts on the capital campaign for the permanent museum and family center. We hope to keep the storefront active and open throughout the development process. We are partnering with the Child Care Coordinating Council of the North Country to start offering infant and toddler play groups on a regular basis during the week, starting in early 2023. And then we plan to grow our summer programming again next season.”
2022 summer happenings included an interactive chalk mosaic, kid artists, community-wide hide-and-seek game with Bear, Lego car derby, jewelry making classes, drawing contests, and was open for free play three days a week. The Clubhouse is without a doubt the most fun place to play in Saranac Lake!
Information on family programs beginning this winter will be available soon.
To learn more about Play ADK, including the various opportunities to support the project, visit www.playadk.org. You can follow Play ADK on Facebook and Instagram where they provide regular updates about milestones, events, programs, and volunteer opportunities.
Rob is excited to speak with anyone who is interested in learning more about the project or would like to make a contribution. You can reach him at 518-304-7440, or firstname.lastname@example.org.