Along with the exhibit, which is located in the multimedia gallery, several new dino-themed features were added to the main floor of the Discovery Center, as well. One of those additions – a long, wooden table with a built-in landscape and a painted mural as the background – was created by a pair of employees with a flair for artistic expression.
Maya Beyer, a part-time gallery assistant and student at Johnson County Community College, teamed up with Draque Carver, who has worked for the Discovery Center since 2014 as the exhibit and facilities maintenance manager, to create the popular attraction.
Beyer was commissioned by the Discovery Center to paint the mural, a process that took between 16 and 20 hours to complete. Carver then created the table out of wood and built a colorful landscape for the dinosaur toys to stomp around on.
“I was so thrilled when KCDC asked me to paint for them,” Beyer said. “It’s an honor to have my work featured in the museum. My mural is a landscape that guests can interact with.”
According to Dr. Rachel E. White, playing with objects such as toy dinosaurs gives children a chance to practice both fine and gross motor skills, depending on the size of the objects. It also contributes to cognitive development, including learning about the nature of objects, problem-solving, creativity and foundational skills for science, technology, engineering and mathematics.
The table is located near the art pavilion at the back of the Discovery Center.
‘It makes my heart sing’
A swirl of colors creates a prehistoric portrait for children to visualize as they play in front of the mural.
But before the paint was added, Beyer first sketched out the basic outlines of how she wanted the mural to look.
“I was asked to paint a landscape with dinosaurs and from there I got to sketching,” Beyer said. “I have a very ‘go-with-the-flow’ kind of style. I just dive right in to my paintings and let the subjects and details come to me as I go.”
Part of that process was figuring out which dinosaurs to include in the background.
“I really liked our Tiny Titans theme, so I wanted to paint some baby dinos,” Beyer said. “I painted a complimenting baby dino next to most of the big ones. For the large dinos that kind of lead the show, I picked my favorite dinosaurs. Of course, I had to include a maiasauras (pronounced Maya-saurus). I enjoyed using my colorful painting style on each one. I haven’t painted dinosaurs before and it was a lot of fun.”
Beyer, who graduated from Topeka High School in 2021, has been making art for seven years now. She said she took every art class the high school offered, multiple times, before going to JCCC. Painting has been her primary medium for a long time, but she also started making sculptures this year at college.
“I have just started to get my art out into the world,” Beyer said. “Right now, I have a large-scale soft sculpture installation hanging from the ceiling at the Fine Arts and Design Studios at JCCC, and I have many murals painted on my home.”
Getting to collaborate with a fellow employee to make the table was a positive experience, as well.
“When I talked to Maya about it, she seemed rather excited that we were collaborating together and coming up with a piece that both of our ideas would come together, and I think it came together rather well,” Carver said. “I can tell by the wear and tear of the landscape that the pretend dinosaurs have really played a lot on there.”
Beyer began working at the Discovery Center in November 2021 as a gallery assistant.
“It is my first job and it is the best job,” Beyer said. “I have so much fun while working on the floor. Kids have a special way of thinking and being that us as adults don’t quite remember, but we can always come back to when we let kids show us. The joy that we experience as kids is joy that we can always return to. That is my favorite part of working at KCDC.”
She said getting to see the kids interact with her artwork is a rewarding experience.
“When the dinosaur mural was finished and I saw it on the museum floor, I felt excited seeing the kids interact with it,” Beyer said. “While I’m working, I see hundreds of children every day, and out of all the things there are to do at the Discovery Center, it makes my heart sing when people choose my exhibit. I am proud of my work and grateful for the opportunity to share my art with my community.”
‘Kids just line up’
Complementing the gorgeous backdrop is a rough, rugged landscape dotted with dinosaur nests and features that add another layer of immersion during play, helping their imaginations flourish.
That’s where Carver’s unique skillset truly shined through.
The table itself took a good deal of woodworking expertise, as well as the use of other objects and materials to create texture on the play area for the dinosaurs to stomp around on and interact with. Carver said he wanted to make sure the table was at least 8 feet long to fit the mural on it, and then he had to shrink the base and backdrop, both made of plywood. Then he built a frame for the base where he could add his landscape and where Maya’s mural would go.
“For my part, on the base I painted it kind of a hunter green with the legs and then just a natural wood tone stain around the basic structure that held the plywood for my base,” Carver said. “And then on the base to create the texture that’s on top, I took ceramic tile thinset and mixed a concrete color into it to give it kind of the reddish look to resemble like a hard clay surface and then I was able to find a couple of the plastic dinosaur skeletons and literally cut them in half with a jigsaw to embed them into the thinset to make them look like dinosaur fossils and then start applying thinset and adding the texture.”
“I made kind of a makeshift nest,” Carver added. “Rolled up some of the thinset into little eggs and stuck them in and also made kind of a pool to where the pretend dinosaurs could actually drink water.”
After it was all dried, he went over the thinset with different colors of spray paint to color the grass, water and dirt. He also created footprints in the thinset using some of the bigger dinosaur toys before it dried.
Carver said he was excited, as well, to see the kids making good use of the table during their time at the Discovery Center.
“Oh it’s great, it’s really amazing that something that you make can attract little kids to want to play on it,” Carver said. “Kids just line up and they have a dinosaur time!”
He said seeing the excitement for his and Maya’s project makes it all the more worth the time and work that went into creating it.
“I’m just glad that the kids are getting a kick out of it,” Carver said. “It makes me feel good, plus I can see the interaction and play and how I can maybe kind of work that into other projects that might come up that I might design and build.”
Other dino features
A couple of other key additions added to the Topeka Dino Days experience on the main floor, as well.
One of the more popular spots is the Dino Design station, where visitors can dig through crates of foam dinosaur bones to link together and construct their own dinosaur skeleton. Whether their creation is realistic or fantastical, it doesn’t matter, as children use the construction process and their imagination to learn key skills and important information, including how skeletons are formed and how dinosaurs used their tails to balance themselves.
Several dinosaurs have been pre-made in the area surrounding the station to give children an idea of how these pieces fit together to form a skeletal structure, making for a more fun and instructional experience.
The puppet show theater also has been retrofitted with a new prehistoric look and dinosaur puppets to create Prehistoric Productions – allowing visitors to make up their own dino-themed narrative. This sort of pretend play offers several cognitive benefits for young children, including increased creativity, language and literacy skills and improved executive function, according to Dr. White.
Carver’s other crafts
Carver, who started doing woodworking in high school, has constructed several other iconic outdoor features at the Discovery Center, including the butterfly benches, pirate ship, the bridge near the Chinese New Year Pavilion and the walkthrough shade structure near the north door, with the help of family and volunteers.
Inside the Discovery Center, he built the green Jeep and the fishing boat, as well.
Carver said his favorite feature was either the butterfly benches or the pirate ship, but leaned toward the benches.
“I would say that was pretty cool because everything I did was all handcut,” Carver said. “It’s not machine like a lot of these that you see online.”
Carver worked on the butterfly benches with his son, Ryan.
“It’s fun, we do stuff together all the time,” Carver said. “Right now we are making tables and cutting boards at the Topeka Vendors Market. We both are kind of into woodworking. At one time, we had talked about going into business together and just do remodeling, but that never transpired, so I’ve just been spending most of my time here building things.”
Topeka Dino Days
Tiny Titans will be open from February 24 to May 30 as a part of Topeka Dino Days, a community-wide dinosaur exhibition that includes Dinosaurs Alive! at the nearby Topeka Zoo and Sue: The T-Rex Experience at the Great Overland Station, as well as the Topeka Dino Days Base Camp at the Downtown Topeka Visitors Center.
Regular admission applies, which is $9 for children and adults, $8 for seniors and free for infants under 12 months and Discovery Center members. Admission also lets you play all day at the Kansas Children’s Discovery Center, with more than 15,000 square feet of indoor educational exhibits exploring science, careers, art, building and more, plus a 4.5-acre certified Nature Explore Outdoor Classroom.