The Phelps Youth Pavilion | A Magical Place for Kids to Create & Learn

Pavilion manager Carolyn Carpenter (left) points out a wall of drawings from the "Painted Pages" exhibit.

Some place in Iowa, over 80 hands-on art stations foster children’s creativity while furthering their understanding of history, world cultures, and themselves.

Where is this magical place? In downtown Waterloo along the Cedar River in the Phelps Youth Pavilion of the Waterloo Center for the Arts. Completed in 2008, this three-floor, 39,000-square-foot expansion includes gallery space, a ceramics studio, a digital arts lab, a visual arts studio, a gift store, and a café. 

It also boasts many unusual features.  After visiting an Art History Time Travel machine (equipped with flashing lights, a shaking floor, and sound effects), children stamp a hieroglyphic version of their names onto paper to create cartouches like the ones Egyptian pharaohs used. They paw through chopped bits of rubber to unearth replicated coins and pottery shards from the ancient Greek, Indian, Mayan, Roman, and African cultures. 

In the “Creativity Across Cultures” exhibit, children wander through rooms outfitted to resemble family homes in Ghana, Iran, Mexico, India, and China. In each room, they dress up in that country’s clothing, play its games or musical instruments, sit at a typical eating area, handle wooden cutouts of traditional foods, and learn to speak the language.

Now is an especially appealing time to visit the Phelps Youth Pavilion. On display through August 31, 2011, is a special exhibit, “Painted Pages: Children’s Books Illustrated by Iowa Artists,” featuring the work of Jeni Reeves, Gary Kelley, Bonnie Koloc, and Chaveevah Banks Ferguson. For Reeves alone, over 40 original illustrations are displayed from eight of the 15 children’s books she’s illustrated. The illustrators’ books are displayed, as well, and children can read copies tucked into reading cubbies stocked with beanbag chairs.

For each illustrator’s work, museum staff, led by Pavilion manager Carolyn Carpenter, designed hands-on games, puzzles, music, and craft activities. For Reeves’ book Colors of Kenya (written by Fran Sammis), children sort wood blocks based on the book’s illustrations. For Reeve’s book Passover (written by Cathy Goldberg Fishman), they play in a mini-kitchen with toy foods and utensils used during Jewish holidays.

Children don earphones and listen to music related to Gary Kelley’s books, Dark Fiddler: The Life and Legend of Nicolo Paganini (written by Aaron Frisch), Black Cat Bone: The Life of Blues Legend Robert Johnson (written by J. Patrick Lewis), and Tallchief: America’s Prima Ballerina (written by Osage Indian dancer Maria Tallchief and Rosemary Wells). Children also twirl around in child-sized tutus or Native American vests and headpieces while admiring themselves in a handily placed mirror.  

Activities based on Chaveevah Banks Ferguson’s books include paper dolls for Good Morning, Lovey (written by Joshalyn M. Hickey) and stickers for a good/bad behavior chart related to That’s What Gentlemen Do (written by Jeffrey Ferguson).  

Special events in connection with the “Painted Pages” exhibit include a free gallery talk and vocal performance by artist and folk singer Bonnie Koloc at 3:00 p.m. on Sunday, July 10, 2011. Featured in the exhibit is Koloc’s work, A Bestiary: Beasts of the Farm. This multimedia installation includes a series of linoleum block prints depicting 13 farm animals, with a poem and musical setting for each illustration. Originally from Waterloo, Koloc created the prints, wrote the music and poems, and sings the songs that children access by pushing a button. Children, too, can make music with the glockenspiel the Pavilion provides.

For details on exhibits, classes, workshops, room rentals, and events at the Pavilion and the Center, visit                               

Admission to the Pavilion is $5 with special $1 days the third Thursday of the month.  (No charge for children under age one.)  Closed Mondays, the Pavilion is open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday, and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays.  Third Thursday hours are 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.  Note that the Phelps Youth Pavilion safety policy requires one adult for every six children. All children under 12 must be accompanied by an adult, and all adults must either be accompanied by a child or request a tour by a staff member.  Adults with or without children will enjoy the equally impressive exhibits in other parts of the Waterloo Center for the Arts, such as the largest public collection of Haitian art in North America. 

© 2011 Cheryl Fusco Johnson

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