My Head Fall Off: A Look at Knoxville’s Muse

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The other day, my nearly 2-year-old son woke me up before dawn, repeatedly saying, “ … my head fall off … my head fall off” in that curiously halting cadence of improvisation as he twisted and turned between my wife and me in bed.


I’m not sure how he got there. I might have brought him into our bed in the middle of the night after he cried for another bottle of goat’s milk. After about the 15th repetition of “ … my head fall off,” I realized the little guy was telling me there was room neither on my nor my wife’s pillow for him to rest his head.


The lesson here is this: A perfectly articulate toddler can seem inscrutably cryptic to a parent, but only because, in the cause-and-effect equation, the child cares only about effect.


And therein lies the story of the Muse, Knoxville’s most interesting destination for parents and younger kids.


The last print issue of BLANK had two ads for music retailers, four ads for music festivals, and 16 ads for bars, clubs and restaurants. There were no ads for OB/GYN services, reusable diapers, Babies”R”Us, Toys”R”Us or Eat/Sleep/Poop”R”Us.


But I’m willing to bet that nearly 50 percent of BLANK’s readers are parents … even the ones who manage to survive Brewfest, eat at Barley’s, drink at Jig & Reel, brunch at Crown & Goose, and rock the Shed.


Me? I’ve got two boys, one going on 4 and my “head fall off” 2-year-old, and we’re expecting a daughter by July 4. (But both boys were three weeks early, so my money’s on mid-June for this little girl’s arrival.)


And did I mention I’m 65? That puts me in a parental category I share with, like, nobody. If you average the ages of every parent in Knoxville with three kids, it’d probably be 29 to 31. (In other parts of East Tennessee, it might be significantly younger.)


For me, a big night out is dinner at my mother-in-law’s and a small glass of wine from a box, which I feel guilty having because my wife doesn’t drink while pregnant. On these big nights out, someone else cooks, someone else cleans up and someone else may change a diaper. Sweet.


My wife, bless her heart and soul, is a physician in an integrative medical practice, and even a beach ball-sized belly can’t stop her from seeing 10 to 12 patients per day, four days a week. So for four days a week, I have the kids.


I’ve had difficult jobs in the past; jobs that regularly presented life-or-death challenges; jobs where literally a million eyes were on every move I made; jobs where “the show must go on” pressure could have crushed me if I slipped up.


But in terms of challenges, risks and rewards, nothing compares to full-time parenting. Because this job doesn’t just shape me – it shapes little lives and dreams with more promise than mine. And the pressure isn’t that an audience is watching. It’s that God is. And He sees everything.


So thank God for places like the Muse, the children’s science museum tucked into the western edge of Chilhowee Park by the duck pond. I think of it as the anti-Internet. Whereas a child’s Internet experiences (games and videos) are numbingly passive, the Muse experience is totally immersive, active and physically hands-on. Given the choice, passivity loses every time. The Muse breathes.


Most parents will tell you that a key to survival is establishing and maintaining a routine. But not just any routine. Hell, video games and wearing pajamas all day is a routine; it just isn’t one for my kids.


I mean a routine of imaginative curiosity. Routine isn’t about repetition. It’s about self-discipline. And at the Muse, imaginatively and curiously enough, the focus is on the self-discipline of free-range learning. So once a week, we go to the Muse … usually on Tuesday, which is home-school day.


Go to the Muse Knoxville website to get the timeline of their 50-year history, see their mission statement, check out the staff and board of directors and do all that other due-diligence stuff. Then pack up your kids and go there.


The basic philosophy behind the Muse is that science, technology, engineering, arts and math are the touchstones for curiosity and critical path-finding. Free-range learning. There’s no one there to tell you what to do, but there’s help if you need it. It’s a playground for the mind and hands, on a scale for toddlers to pre-teens.


In a typical visit, my kids are engaged for three to four hours. They balance plastic spheres on invisible jets of air. They navigate the space shuttle to a landing on Saturn. They figure out how to spin hula hoops so they’ll return like boomerangs. They build undreamt-of vehicles with tiny Legos. They envelop each other in huge bubbles. They bliss out in the planetarium. They whisper into parabolas and communicate across a span of 50 feet. Then they go out to the Muse playground and take risks that make my head spin. It’s a Sandy Smith seminar for preschoolers. And Knoxville is so fortunate to have this gem right next to Zoo Knoxville.


But the Muse carries a very heavy burden, a responsibility that escapes the hippie home-schooler moms who take their kids there, a job unimagined by the county school systems sending their students to the Muse by the busloads week after week. And that burden is the future.


In case no one has noticed, the space shuttle is in mothballs. So a children’s science museum that hopes to stimulate innovative thinking and creative exploration beyond Earth-bound drawing boards with a simulated spaceship is just plain handicapped. It’s like trying to design a car that will go 200 miles on a gallon of gas by studying covered wagons.


So this is a call to action, to every science-based company in Knoxville, Oak Ridge, Maryville and the surrounding counties. Every digital video production group. Every aircraft or locomotive maker. Every medical group. Every TDoT bridge designer. Every nuclear energy innovator. Every grass-fed beef raiser and organic-milk bottler. Every 3D builder, text wrangler, and Notepad++ junkie. Visit the Muse and see how you can get involved in the critical task of bringing young thinkers into your world.


Here’s another lesson I learned from my 2-year-old. The other day, he was going on and on about laughing strawberries. Wouldn’t stop saying it. “Laughing strawberries … laugh-ing straw-berries … ” over and over.


He was carrying around a tube of children’s toothpaste, threatening to squeeze it all out on the couch (which is already nicely decorated with dried goat’s milk, thank you). Strawberry-flavored Tom’s of Maine children’s natural toothpaste. Sure enough, there on the label were three strawberries, and, when I put my reading glasses on, I could see thin white lines defining facial features. They were all laughing.


Now, when we go to the Fruit and Berry Patch, my little one won’t have to bend over to find strawberries. He’ll just listen for laughter. That’s a Muse brain explosion.


And here’s the show-stopper: I had my 4-year-old on my lap at a workstation at the Muse that has all the materials you need to make a paper rocket … instructions, paper, a tube form, Scotch tape, scissors, a pencil for graphics etc. And as I was trying to cut out a nose cone, my son asked where the feet where. “Feet? What feet, Sam?” He said, “You know, Dad, the feet so it can come back and land on the launching pad.”



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