Backstage Pass to North Dakota History

This blog takes you behind the scenes of the State Historical Society of North Dakota. Get a glimpse at a day-in-the-life of the staff, volunteers, and partners who make it all possible. Discover what it takes to preserve North Dakota's natural and cultural history.

A Treehouse

A tree house, a free house,
A secret you and me house,
A high up in the leafy branches
Cozy as can be house.
-Shel Silverstein

To me tree houses are the epitome of what childhood can be. Whether the tree house is a real structure in the backyard or made of pillows and blankets in the basement, it lives largest in the imagination. It’s a place to dream, to play, to read, to talk, to simply be. It’s safe and fun, and always carries the whiff of hot summer afternoons and the stickiness of melted cherry popsicles.

Almost four years ago we started planning how to take this ephemeral nostalgia and transform it into a museum space just for kids at the North Dakota Heritage Center & State Museum. The old museum had an exhibit space called Dakota Kids. Although it was updated periodically, there were a number of elements that young parents remembered (fondly) from when they were kids. It was popular and had lots of repeat visitation, but it had drawbacks too. We wanted the new kids’ area – the Treehouse – to incorporate the beloved elements of Dakota Kids, but update it and correct problems.

So what did we do?

-Plan for the caregivers as well as the kids
Dakota Kids had only two chairs for caregivers and lots of nooks and crannies. The Treehouse will integrate multiple seating areas so caregivers can both keep an eye on their kids AND take a short rest. There will also be open sight-lines to easily keep track of active and fast-moving younglings. Adjacent to the Treehouse entrance will be cubbies for bags, hooks for coats, and parking space for strollers. 

-Emphasize exploration and imagination
For safety, many things in the rest of the museum can’t be touched. In the Treehouse we want kids to not just touch, but to push, pull, spin, steer, climb, and slide – in short, to touch and DO things. The Treehouse can provide the beginning, but the kids will tell the rest of the story. We’ll give you a plane to sit in, but only you and your co-pilot (maybe it’s Chewbacca?) will decide where it will fly, or if it’s a spaceship, or what adventures are encountered along the way.

-Make it fun and durable
No doubt, kids are hard on things. We want LOTS of kids to visit and use the Treehouse, so it’s designed to be tough and easily-repaired. You won’t find modern technology up in the Treehouse, but you will find timeless design and tried-and-true construction methods. Just like in Dakota Kids, we want today’s pint-sized visitors to bring their kids back in twenty years to the Treehouse they remember.

The Treehouse will open in about three months. We hope you are as excited as we are!

Artist's rendering of the Treehouse

Artist’s rendering of the new Treehouse area.

How Is a Video Game Like the Fur Trade?

I have written before about the SEND program. SEND trunks provide objects to classrooms throughout the state. Students can touch real things that represent and interpret the history they are learning about. Once in a while I get a chance to see how teachers and kids are using the trunks. Recently I overheard a group of fourth graders using the fur trade SEND trunk exclaim with excitement, “Hey, it’s just like Minecraft!” For those of you not familiar with the phenomenon of Minecraft, it is one of the most popular video games in the world having sold more than 60 million copies as of October 2014.

Minecraft Landscape

Minecraft Landscape

Minecraft is a world made up of colorful cubes that players use as resources to find, mine, and craft into other resources. Hit a block from a tree enough times and it turns into wood. Make enough wood and you can build a house. Two key features of Minecraft are that it is open ended and non-linear, and that it allows for social interaction with other players. The open-ended/non-linear format can be seen in a variety of other video games including Farmville and the Sims. Rather than having to achieve something specific to get to the next level, Minecraft players simply have to stay alive and keep crafting new things. The concept gives players an incredible amount of freedom and independence, and allows for a great deal of creativity in a game. The social aspect of the game allows players to interact with each other, create communities, and trade things. One player might be the best person among a group of friends at providing food, while someone else excels at building shelter. Playing together produces a stronger community.

Disneyworld rendered in Minecraft

Disneyworld rendered in Minecraft

While much has been written about the evils and dangers of video games, there is a lot of new research focused on how games like Minecraft encourage learning and social interaction among players. The multi-player mode allows kids to form communities and play together in one world. This gives socially awkward kids an opportunity to socialize and make friends. It also fosters an interest in STEM (science, technology, engineering, and math). One company, MinecraftEdu, makes affordable versions of the game available to schools. Websites like Minecraft Teacher ( and Teaching with MinecraftEdu ( help teachers develop lesson plans based on the game. For example, teachers have created lesson plans using Minecraft to teach math and scale by constructing buildings in the game. Others teachers have taught architecture, geography, and history by having students build entire cities in the game.

The Eiffel Tower rendered in Minecraft

The Eiffel Tower rendered in Minecraft

What does all of this mean for our fur trade trunk? Education department staff are exploring ways in which we can take advantage of the open ended and social gaming aspects of Minecraft to teach about the fur trade. Maybe our game could have students acquire furs faster for every ten Objibwe words they learn. This doesn’t mean we have to sacrifice education for entertainment, but rather we can enhance education by making it engaging.