Playing with the Future of Farming

a man and woman cut a ribbon at a children's museum

By Jennifer Howard

Who says you can’t play with your food? Marbles Kids Museum is planting the seeds of curiosity with a new exhibit on the future of North Carolina farming.

Since 2012, Marbles’ On the Farm exhibit has been a kid-favorite part of the museum’s Around Town pretend play space. Children (of all ages) have enjoyed harvesting felt vegetables and loading the livestock feed hopper with brightly colored balls. 

But as agriculture evolves, so does the play experience.

NC State University’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences has partnered with the NC Soybean Producers Association and Marbles Kids Museum to refresh the college’s sponsored exhibit and infuse farm technology into the action.

“This partnership showcases the dynamic evolution of North Carolina agriculture and NC State’s commitment to fostering STEM learning,” said Rich Bonanno, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences associate dean and director of NC State Extension.

“Through interactive play, children will explore the connectedness of modern farming, from the technology of harvesting multiple North Carolina crops to understanding the farm-to-table journey,” Bonanno added. “The collaboration underscores our dedication to promoting agricultural literacy and inspiring the next generation of North Carolina’s agricultural leaders.”

a woman points at a screen of a combine in a crop field
A child watches a video in the combine display of the On the Farm exhibit. Photos by Jennifer Howard
three women wearing NC State T-shirts
4-H specialist Liz Driscoll and CALS students Caitlin Kestell and Raine Lookabill at the ribbon cutting of the On the Farm exhibit.
two children load up felt corn on a pretend conveyor at the On the Farm exhibit
Children load up felt corn onto a conveyor belt at the On the Farm exhibit.

Fun and Food Combined

The expanded crop field exploration space allows children to learn about multiple North Carolina crops. Through sensory pretend play, they can investigate various crops’ textures, colors and characteristics by planting and harvesting sweet potatoes, corn, beets, soybeans and squash.

But technology is an industry game changer that can ignite imagination. 

The exhibit’s show-stopper is the new 15-foot-long interactive combine where children can experience the power and role of technology in modern farming equipment. From the combine’s cab, the driver interacts with multiple screens, providing a first-person perspective on machine operation and plant growth. 

Meanwhile, children learn about harvesting on a farm by loading felt crops up a manually cranked escalator onto an elevated conveyor belt. Others can oversee harvest totals from a computer vision model that counts unique crops – while ignoring the random stuffed animal or doll from different parts of the museum.

“With 1,500 pictures of plush corn, soybeans, beets and squash, we have trained a computer vision model to recognize our plush crops,” said Jeff Highsmith, Marbles’ director of exhibits. “We’ve programmed a computer to track and count recognized crops as they move by on a conveyor belt and to display the crop totals on a monitor inside the combine.”

The refreshed exhibit dramatically expands the farm space footprint and seamlessly aligns with the adjacent grocery store area. Through problem-solving and gross motor skill activities, children learn how harvesting, processing and delivering crops creates an interconnected food system.

Behind the Scenes

Marbles’ exhibit design team spent months researching and brainstorming with the NC Soybean Producers Association and university faculty.

Chris Alexander, a 1993 NC State College of Design graduate and Marbles’ vice president of exhibits, was part of the build team.

“As modern farming includes more machinery and technology, we talked to experts and researched ways to update our play with exciting and engaging new props and exhibit components,” Alexander said. “Marbles has a great team with diverse backgrounds and skills, allowing us to dream big, iterate through many design possibilities, and refine our solution as we build an immersive environment for kids to learn and grow together through play.”

CALS Extension provided harvest video for the combine display screens.

“The updated On the Farm exhibit reflects NC State’s commitment to expand agricultural outreach and nurture STEM interests at every age,” said CALS 4-H specialist Liz Driscoll. “Extension’s 4-H youth programming recognizes that it’s never too early to plant the seeds of agricultural science.”

On the Farm reopened on April 26 with a ribbon cutting and special activities led by NC State Extension staff and CALS students Caitlin Kestell and Raine Lookabill from the Department of Crop and Soil Sciences and Nyssa Ndey-Bongo from the Department of Horticultural Science

The exhibit will be a fixture in the museum’s first-floor Around Town play space.

“We’re excited to partner with NC State’s College of Agriculture and Life Sciences to expand our farm play at Marbles,” said Hardin Engelhardt, Marbles’ chief learning officer. “Play in On the Farm enables kids to learn about modern agriculture, careers in farming, and where our food comes from. As they collaborate to harvest native crops and send them to our new combine and on to the grocery store, kids immerse themselves in a key industry in North Carolina.”

This post was originally published in College of Agriculture and Life Sciences News.