Back to Basics in the Barnyard with the Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota

The popular Children’s Museum of Southern Minnesota is surely geared to its target audience of children from birth through 10. The Mankato museum offers numerous indoor and outdoor displays and gardens, opportunities to see live animals up close, and child-sized garden tools available for those who want to dig in.

One of the organization’s clear goals is to teach children and families the importance of agriculture to the region and where their food comes from, according to Deb Johnson, the museum’s senior director of exhibits and education.

“The tomato gets picked from a plant, goes to the market or the store, and ends up on your plate. It does not come out of the refrigerator; it comes out of the ground,” Johnson explains.

The museum plays another role, sparking important conversations among kids and their parents as consumers and community members within a complex community of commodity farmers, local growers, organics advocates and business interests.

“The more people are educated, the smarter they will be as citizens and in the process of decision-making about taking care of our resources. Where does our food come, from what does a plant need to survive, what do farmers need to run their business?” Johnson said.

But first, the fun – and the facts.

Indoors, the Grow It Gallery recreates the experience of a farm garden using fabric vegetables and fruits, carefully crafted by local sewers and artists.

“They are very realistic, even weighted,” Johnson said. The watermelon actually feels like a watermelon. The green onions have little threads to feel like the roots from the white bulbs and twist-ties for the green sprouts. There’s a chicken coop with wooden eggs; fabric pumpkins as big as 20 inches in diameter, tomatoes, corn, root vegetables.

In the AgLab seedlings are started, then planted when frost danger is over. Lettuce, herbs and vegetables grow hydroponically. Rotating tabletop learning displays crafted in-house feature topics such as egg incubation, the life cycle of a pumpkin, a pond life exhibit, and even “What’s the scoop on animal poop?”

Live gardening is in full swing from May through October’s harvest fest. Kids may get their hands in the soil using child-sized wheelbarrows and garden tools. There are wheelchair-accessible raised beds; an organic garden planted with heirloom seeds; a traditional “three sisters” garden (with seeds handed down from the Dakota people) combining plantings of squash, beans and corn that work together to grow. There are strawberries, string beans, cherry tomatoes, peas. There are commodity crops from GMO seeds. There are table grapes, an apple tree, a popcorn patch, and a potato patch.

“The kids were not interested in the potato patch until harvest time, then it was like digging for gold,” said farm manager Rochelle Koberoski.

Visiting and resident animals delight visitors: dairy calves, a pony, sheep, goats, ducks, geese, alpaca, along with guest farmers to speak and teach things like making butter. This year they’ll be incubating chicks and raising them. And last year visitors could track the progress of three piglets raised to market size. (Their meat was eventually donated to a local food shelf.)

Outside its own walls, the museum is a community presence, participating regularly in local food, arts or manufacturing events; a regional wellness committee; and connects with local and regional agriculture groups and businesses such as Angie’s BOOMCHICKAPOP or the Minnesota Pork Producers Association.

All this begins with the basics, Johnson concludes: “It’s us bringing opportunities for children to get outside in the dirt, digging a potato, picking a cherry tomato, watering, weeding, getting outside in nature. That’s important to us.”