Recreation & Destinations

Thomas the Tank Engine Comes To Life at Discovery Center Museum

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The “Thomas & Friends” exhibit at the Discovery Center Museum encourages children to play while learning valuable concepts in science, technology, engineering and math. Learn what else awaits for kids and adults this winter.

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Say hello to Thomas the Tank Engine and his rail yard friends when the “Thomas & Friends: Explore the Rails” children’s exhibit visits the Discovery Center Museum, in Rockford, beginning Jan. 12. (Discovery Center Museum photo)

Apopular, unmistakable blue train and his pals are steamrolling into Discovery Center Museum, 711 N. Main St., Rockford, this winter for a four-month stay.

“Thomas & Friends: Explore the Rails” is an interactive exhibit that allows children ages 2 to 7 to explore and engage with the familiar faces from the classic children’s series.

More importantly, the exhibit combines playful opportunities with valuable concepts in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM). These subjects are sprinkled throughout the exhibit, creating an experience suitable for students and their various learning styles.

The traveling exhibit has graced children’s museums all across the country and now, it’ll be in Rockford from Jan. 12 through May 12.

“A popular children’s exhibit that is full of science content is a perfect fit for our museum,” says Ann Marie Walker, the museum’s marketing director.

The transportation adventures of Thomas the Tank Engine and his rail yard friends, including Percy, James and Gordon, among others, have entertained children for years with books, movies, a well-known television show and now, a traveling exhibit.

Both children and adults are amused when they experience the fun, educational displays of all kinds at the museum, Walker says. “Thomas & Friends” is no exception, especially since it’s designed to spark children’s learning through play.

“Thomas & Friends” is an attractive topic, Walker adds. The fictional cartoon characters deal with everyday struggles and obstacles, and overcome them through problem-solving, fair play and friendship, which are important, relatable lessons, especially in a child’s early years.

As they peruse through the displays, children are able to help Thomas and his friends overcome a variety of challenges.

“For toddlers, there are simple activities like sorting colors and identifying shapes,” Walker says. “For the older kids, the exhibit has more complicated engineering obstacles and activities, such as completing a train track using track pieces with various levels of elevation.”

Sodor – where Thomas and his friends live – has held a special place in the hearts and imaginations of children for generations. That land is brought to life throughout the exhibit. Children can climb into Thomas’s cab and explore the engine’s inner workings; they can flip levers and investigate movable parts that create train noises, including braking, whistles and steam; and they can also fix Percy’s broken, wobbly wheel by removing and replacing parts and experimenting to find a mixture of wheels, rods and bolts that work.

“His wheels are a little shaky and kids are supposed to fix them and tighten them up so he can run down the track,” Walker says. “More importantly, it gets children thinking about the technology behind steam engines.”

Guests who explore the exhibit, held in a 5,000-square-foot space in the museum, continuously find themselves surrounded by train parts.

“Every person has a purpose and with a train, every part has a purpose,” Walker says. “We’ll have a 3-D wall with funnels, lanterns and buffers. It lets visitors know what each part is and how they’re used in trains. Children can take old parts off Percy and replace them with new parts.”

Visitors can also explore the various Sodor destinations including the Sodor Search & Rescue Station on an oversized Thomas Wooden Railway train table.

“Kids can use that table to build train routes, and that uses problem-solving and engineering skills,” Walker says.

“Thomas & Friends” also gives children the chance to work with one another. They can make new friends while loading luggage, livestock and other freight into the coaches of two train cars. They can also work with others to load coal into Percy’s coal box and fill his tank with water.

Children can also suit up as a train conductor to exchange money and sell tickets to other visitors taking a ride on the train, and they can help set up a train schedule.
“Those activities are going to require some basic math skills,” Walker says. “This exhibit will definitely keep a little one’s minds and hands busy.”

Visitors can also explore measurements, conduct magnetic experiments and search for vocabulary words.

Guests who are unfamiliar with the characters, or who want to learn more, can wander through a “Thomas & Friends” retrospective, which features model train engines from the original live action series. There are also copies of the original drawings and manuscripts from the Rev. W. Awdry, who created the series for his young son 70 years ago, along with a collection of memorabilia documenting the history and evolution of “Thomas & Friends” through books, television and toys.

As of 2014, “Thomas & Friends” typically reaches 110 million households across the United States and an even larger audience through internet streaming, DVDs and toys.

This exhibit was designed and developed by the Minnesota Children’s Museum with help from HIT Entertainment, a subsidiary of Mattel, Inc.

“It’s a fun, adorable exhibit and we think it’ll be very popular,” Walker says.

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