Tot Spot Metamorphosis
The children of Delaware County, Indiana, unwrapped a big present during the 2010 holiday season, left under the tree at the Muncie Children's Museum by immersive learning students in the College of Architecture and Planning (CAP) at Ball State.

Part of the present, in fact, is the tree. The stylized creation forms a corner of a new Tot Spot, which was dedicated November 11, 2011. The popular local attraction was conceived, designed, and constructed by students under the guidance of architecture professor Pamela Harwood.

The story tree was the first of several installations that successive teams of students fabricated and assembled in 2010-11. It also encloses the only remaining component of the previous Tot Spot, a steps and slide playground unit that, Harwood says, for sentimental reasons museum employees couldn’t bear to see go.

"And that's one of the big things these students learn," says Harwood. "Clients have a lot of things that are important to them. Our job is to balance the clients' needs with our design intent as much as possible and try to produce some creative options."

Also making up the first stage of the Tot Spot makeover is a multipiece caterpillar that went through enough research, development, and testing to do Caterpillar proud. Especially troublesome was what to use to span the several links comprising each body section, each painted in a primary color to facilitate color recognition and differentiation among the toddlers expected crawl back and forth through the hollow creature's length.

"It was the little ones crawling under there that had us up at night," Harwood recounts. "We didn't want anything that might snag a child or that could wear or flake off over time, leading to a child maybe picking something up and swallowing it. But it also needed to be strong and light because the sections are meant to be portable. It needed to be easy to work with. It had to be readily available and inexpensive. All things these students will contend with again later as professionals."

After a number of "focus groups" (design reviews and prototype testing) with mockups of the caterpillar, the team eventually settled on 5/8-inch aluminum wiring conduit—smooth (once the end cuts are deburred), strong, bendable and durable—to hold the critter together.

Not Just Anywhere

The evening's color is yellow. Sitting cross-legged on the floor of the museum's cavernous display shop and storage area below the Tot Spot exhibition space, Cassondra DeMerchant patiently applies another coat of paint to another link of that pesky caterpillar. It's the simple reward of more than one all nighter on the project for DeMerchant.

 "It was the little ones crawling under there that had us up at night," says architecture professor Pam Harwood about the Tot Spot’s multipiece caterpillar that went through enough research, development and testing to do Caterpillar proud.
Ask about it and she's up in a flash, laptop open, flipping through the electronic pages that record the various stages of the Tot Spot's renewal, from concept to prototype and model to design, testing, fabrication, and now installation. When not painting large replicas of insects, DeMerchant also had important responsibilities as one the project's client communicators, formally keeping museum representatives abreast of the team's progress on the revamp.

"This is so atypical," DeMerchant says, pausing her screen occasionally to point out other critical steps in bringing the story tree and caterpillar to realization. "We're learning about aesthetics, but also about things like durability, economy, and usability. We even talked with some marketing people about what toys to include that support the specific kinds of activity we see for the space we've created.

"You can’t just find this anywhere in a design studio experience."

Initial funding for the project came from a $25,000 grant from the Boren Foundation. Additional funding came from grants from the George and Frances Ball Foundation for $25,000, The Community Foundation of Muncie and Delaware County for $15,000, and the Robert A. and Beverly D. Terhune Fund for $5,000.

In these increasingly difficult economic times for many municipal agencies and nonprofits across the country, meanwhile, children's museum officials also appreciate the opportunity to renovate a major portion of the facility that Ball State's involvement helps make possible.

"The Muncie Children's Museum is grateful for the tremendous resources Ball State University provides," says Mary Slofkosky, executive director. "Without its commitment and sense of community, these wonderful collaborations might not have happened."

The students spent spring 2011 designing and building a reading area—resembling a large hot-air balloon—and creative arts space in the form of a tugboat. That fall, students created new areas for nesting/resting and dramatic play.

More in Making an Impact

"This is so atypical. We're learning about aesthetics, but also about things like durability, economy, and usability. You can't just find this anywhere in a design studio experience."

—Cassondra DeMerchant, ’11