Seventy-five years ago, Reverend Wilbert Awdry’s 4-year-old son Christopher came down with a bout of the measles. To amuse him, the reverend began making up stories based on his memories of hearing steam engines whistling and puffing up a steep hill near his house.
Those evenings of make-believe stories delighted and distracted his family from the anxiety of dealing with a contagious disease by regaling them with tales of talking steam engines, including kindhearted Edward, blustery Gordon and the one that would become most famous of all, the No. 1 blue Thomas the Tank Engine.
Today, those stories — which Awdry collected into a 26-book series — are the basis of another oasis of family fun now available at Kohl Children’s Museum to charm, engross, and educate young children during a completely different pandemic.
Thomas & Friends: Explore the Rails! makes its debut at Kohl Children’s Museum in Glenview on Oct. 1, where it will run through Jan. 3, 2021. Designed and developed by Minnesota Children’s Museum in partnership with HIT Entertainment, a subsidiary of Mattel Inc., the exhibit immerses families in the magical world of the Island of Sodor and its helpful railway residents. Fisher-Price, the No. 1 Infant/Preschool Toys manufacturer, is the presenting sponsor for the exhibit. 3M is the national tour sponsor.
Featuring the favorite engines and destinations from the PBS TV classic Thomas & Friends, the STEM-focused exhibit seeks to engage children 8 and younger in foundational skills that foster science, math, and engineering literacy through playful learning experiences.
Because of its highly hands-on nature (typical of all the research-based interactive exhibits that Kohl boasts), Thomas & Friends will only be available to small groups of 10 or fewer guests at a time under the Museum’s V.I.P. (Very Important Play) program. This allows visitors to welcome trusted members of their family or social pod for exclusive access to the exhibit for 90 minutes of play. After each session, the Museum’s Super Scrub Squad descends on the exhibit, disinfecting and sanitizing all elements and surfaces for the next group.
In the exhibit, children help Thomas and his friends solve a variety of challenges, from a simple sorting and shape identification activity to more complex engineering obstacles, such as completing a train track using track pieces with different levels of elevation. As children confront new challenges and test their abilities, the smiling faces of Thomas, Percy, Henry and others are there to offer encouragement and remind children how “really useful” they all are — one of the recurring themes from Awdry’s characters.
Not only does the Thomas exhibit bring beloved characters to life, children’s brains are stimulated with learning activities like:
• Climbing into Thomas’ cab and explore the engine’s inner workings. Flip levers and investigate other movable parts that trigger train noises such as braking, whistles and steam.
• Fixing Percy’s wobbly wheel by removing and replacing parts and experimenting to find a combination of wheels, rods and bolts that work.
• Exploring Sodor destinations on a supersized Thomas Wooden Railway train table.
• Loading luggage, livestock and other freight into the coaches of two train cars.
• Collaborating with others to get Percy moving by loading coal into his coal box and filling his tank with water from a water tower.
• Working the ticket counter at Knapford Station.
For grown-ups, the exhibit includes a Thomas & Friends retrospective featuring model engines from the original live action series produced in London, copies of Awdry’s original drawings and manuscripts, and a collection of memorabilia documenting the history and evolution of Thomas & Friends through books, television, and toys.
“At 1,500 square feet, this is the largest special exhibit we have hosted in our history,” said Mike Delfini, Kohl Children’s Museum President & CEO at Kohl. “We’ve been preparing for Thomas’s arrival for more than three years. While it’s disappointing to not be able to welcome the thousands of guests we’d hoped this fall, it is a testament to the faithful support of the community and the tremendous talents of our dedicated Museum team that we’ve been able to develop safe processes to welcome those we can.
“Our sincere hope is that later in the year we can provide a safe and robust plan to increase the number of guests we can welcome to Sodor.” Reservations for the V.I.P. sessions with Thomas & Friends are currently available Tuesday through Sunday at www.kcmgc.org/vip-sessions.
Three other V.I.P. packages are also available for reservation. Two include select zones of familiar favorite exhibits in the Museum, while the [email protected] package includes a special art project in the Museum’s art studio and exploration of the held-over special exhibit Framed: Step into Art. Framed lets children explore elements of visual art including color, composition, and perspective while playing within oversized tableaus of famous artists such as Leonardo da Vinci, Grant Wood, and Diego Rivera.
Packages are affordably priced, including some with member discounts as low as $10 per person.
• The Kohl Children’s Museum of Greater Chicago, 2100 Patriot Blvd., Glenview, offers 17 interactive, hands-on exhibits for children 8 and younger. For information, call (847) 832-6600 or visit kohlchildrensmuseum.org.