Life from a New Perspective
Some things have the uncanny ability to transport you back to a very specific place in your childhood. Model trains take me back to lying underneath the Christmas tree. I vividly remember resting my head on the knitted tree skirt as a five-year old looking up through the evergreen branches. My family’s singletrack electric train looping around me as I smell the fresh scent of indoor douglas fir. While I never personally took to model train building, I did revel in the experience of playing the role of holiday giant sprawled out across the railway fantasy under my Christmas tree. Nowadays I find that my face flashes a nostalgic smile whenever I see a model train.
It was this same smile that made an appearance at the world’s largest model train exhibit in Hamburg, Germany. Since The Hopper is all about inspiring wonder and awe in the next generation of problem solvers, I decided to investigate this exhibit through the lens of my inner kiddo that is still enamored with anything railroad-related and shifting my perspective to see our world from new angles.
Miniatur Wunderland isn’t just some dusty, hobby basement. You are literally a gigantic visitor surrounded by hundreds of little interconnected stories just waiting to be discovered. The train Wunderland showcases 15,400 meters of model train tracks spanning two floors of exhibition space. For those of you allergic to the metric system, that’s approximately 10 miles of model train tracks. The museum plans to expand that length even further to 20,000 meters – adding two extra miles of track – when all of their planned model projects are completed.
The exhibit is exquisitely divided into 13 different global locales including the city of Hamburg, Germany’s Bavaria region, Switzerland, Austria, Italy, Scandinavia, the Grand Canyon, and even Miami Beach. It even touts a fully-functional Flughafen (airport) where you can watch model planes and space shuttles take-off and land. Not sure when a plane is taking off? No worries! Simply reference the fully-functional “Arrivals/Departures” screen above you!
Miniatur Wunderland captures the imagination of every age group. While the sheer construction of these scaled models is something to geek out about, it’s the little stories playing out in the model environments that really put a smile on your face. I witnessed parents and children pointing and sharing a giggle about the FKK Strand (nude beach) tucked away along one of the hidden ponds in the Bavaria region. In the Volksparkstadion (Hamburg’s soccer stadium) visitors peered into a football match frozen in time. Designers even took the time to construct a summer concert venue with thousands of plastic model onlookers (concert First Aid Station included!). Over and over again, visitors to this exhibition stumble upon cheeky little narratives.
The most magical moment of my visit began with a bell that rang throughout the exhibit halls. It signaled the onset of evening. As the lights overhead dimmed the miniature worlds lit up! All of the environments completely transformed as things became internally illuminated. The Hamburg Opera House (Die Elbphilharmonie) opened up to a mini symphony performing the theme to Peter and the Wolf. The snowy Swiss mountain environment shifted from white to blue as train headlights reflected off of the sparkling artificial snow. It was absolutely charming. It makes you wonder how your daily experiences can be changed by the inclusion and absence of light.
I left Miniatur Wunderland, inspired by a deep, palpable collective curiosity that I have yet to observe anywhere else in the German museum community. Everyone seemed to flaunt different kinds of judicial displays of creative satisfaction. Children climbed railings and dove deep into their own imaginative subconscious, self-narrating a myriad of situations in every model location. Older visitors appeared to express a keener interest in the engineering and operational aspects of each exhibit model.
Bringing this experience home, to the future execution of The Hopper experience, I started to think about the social and cognitive benefits of scale model building – and its appeal to all ages! How does the hobby of model construction contribute to the development of children and adults? Planning, painting, and placing 26,000 plastic figures, 10,000 train cars, 130,000 trees, and programming 1,380 coordinating signal switches must have some added benefits.
It appears there exist some correlations.
According to research by Professor Kelly G. Lambert of Randolph-Macon College, the kinesthetic benefits of model building are quite positive for older folks. “A lot of our brain is devoted to movement…So hobbies and activities that use our hands are engaging more of our brain’s real estate. Gardening, building model airplanes, and knitting could be the key to mental health because they activate a lot of our brain.” Check out the full article here.
The childhood benefits of manipulative toys (building blocks, legos, etc.) have been studied in depth. The creative self-narration expressed by children exploring the models at Miniatur Wunderland actually has an official term. It’s called “private speech” and it’s directly connected to the human executive function of self-regulation. In an interview with NPR, Illinois State University researcher Laura Berk explained how creative play assists with the development of a child’s executive functions. “We find that this self-regulating language is highest during make believe play. And this type of self-regulating language, which we call private speech, has been shown in many studies to be predictive of executive functions…If we look at our own use of private speech, what we find is that we are often using it to surmount obstacles to master cognitive and social skills, and to manage our emotion.”
In short, engaging in imaginative play can help children develop better self-regulatory mechanisms.
As I exited Miniatur Wunderland and walked the canals and bridges of Hamburg’s Hafencity, a part of the museum brochure caught my attention. “Sometimes the nicest details are discovered only at second glance, so we suggest you take a closer look.” It made me wonder. If I was ever watched by a hypothetical giant in the sky, what would she think? Would my miniature actions earn a quiet chuckle? Would my scene draw a flutter of attention, imagination, and excited finger-pointing from giants young and old? Here’s to hoping…
Many greetings / Schӧne Grüsse to The Hopper from / aus Hamburg,