CULTURE- BUZZBOX- Bricks & mortar: 'Busy builders' puts kids to work

Sam, age 3, digs dirt.
Photo by Linda Kobert

"Caution!" warns a sign just inside the door of the Virginia Discovery Museum's Back Gallery: "Hard Hat Area." The latest rotating exhibit "Busy Builders" is the perfect play space for kid-sized contractors. 

Kids like three-year-old steam-shovel operator Sam– who has stopped by to dig some foundations– eagerly don the bright yellow helmets, day-glow safety vests, goggles, and work gloves that transform them into construction workers. Four-year-old Mica loads up her tool belt with plastic pliers, screwdrivers, and a power drill before heading off to build the next new house. 

With the sounds of power saws and drills in the background, young workers can be part of the building boom with all kinds of construction materials and machines. Young architects, for example, can practice their design skills at the drafting table or learn about plumb lines, levels, and measuring. A table of Duplo blocks begs young engineers to build a skyscraper, while mini masons stack cardboard concrete blocks for the basement walls of an apartment complex. 

A pile of PVC pipes and elbows lies next to a schematic drawing ready for a young plumber to puzzle it together. And the carpenter's apprentice can stack and re-stack five-inch bits of lumber to create an entire housing development.  

The earth moves as young workers maneuver heavy equipment through the construction area, loading blocks into dump trucks with Tonka front loaders. Kid contractors learn about simple machines as they use ropes and pulleys to raise buckets of bricks and push a bulldozer up an incline plane. 

While the kids crawl around in construction debris, tag-along adults can linger along the periphery where they'll find interesting displays for grown-ups. Several aerial photographs of downtown Charlottesville, for example, document the evolution of the city through years of development and redevelopment. Blueprints, architectural drawings, and a scale model show the design process for a new house. And a video describes the construction of UVA's John Paul Jones Arena.

This work in process is another popular VDM exhibit that gives little laborers all the tools they need to imagine themselves in the big world of work. 

"Busy Builders" is under construction now through October 19 at the Virginia Discovery Museum on the east end of the Downtown Mall. Included in the price of museum admission.