Children ages 7 through 17 are encouraged to explore and discover on their own in the lower level of SPARK! in Dallas.

Children ages 7 through 17 are encouraged to explore and discover on their own in the lower level of SPARK! in Dallas.

Ellen Ritscher Sackett/Special Contributor

Diana Serrano peers into a hole cut into a thick cement wall barely wider than her own body. Through the opening is a dark tunnel. "What is this?" the 16-year-old asks, considering the prospect of investigating further. I point out the exit sign several feet away and reassure her that she'll be OK if she wants to find out. "Do I go head first?" she ponders. Although reticent, curiosity gets the best of her. "OK," she says. "But if I get stuck in there, you'll call my mom, right?" Seconds later, she disappears inside, like Alice down the rabbit hole.

Diana is a North Dallas High School student, spending part of an afternoon at Spark! Adventures in Creativity. The 11,000-square-foot downtown space is housed in the sub-basement of South Side on Lamar, where children from 2nd through 12th grade come to play and to learn about the creative process. The tunnel was one of four installed at Spark, donated by Neiman-Marcus. (Shoppers familiar with the retailer's flagship store downtown may remember the play tunnels, originally created for children to wind in and out of annual Christmas displays.)

The tunnels are one of many gifts to Spark. The work of artists Rolando Diaz and Pascale Pryor, welders Byron Zarrabi and James Bauer, architect Fred Peña and countless volunteers have transformed the sub-basement from a dark, dank basement to a brightly lit, inviting space where children can safely run, play and explore.

The inspiration

Spark is the brainchild of Beverly and Devon Davis. They dutifully toted their young nieces and nephews to the zoo, the sculpture parks and art, science and history museums, "hoping to see the light in their eyes ... waiting to see what would capture their imagination," Beverly explains. Instead, there were always rules. "'Don't touch that,' 'Be quiet,' 'No running,'" she says, "and the kids were never inspired."

A visit to St. Louis' City Museum several years ago changed all that. "It was so inspiring and inviting, we didn't want to leave," Beverly recalls. Their visits to the museum, which bills itself as "an eclectic mixture of children's playground, fun house, surrealistic pavilion and architectural marvel," provided the impetus to bring a similar concept to Dallas. Longtime friend Amy Hite joined them in their mission: to ignite the Spark of creativity inherent in all children.

Underground transformation

Spark opened to the public in June 2015, and Beverly became its president and CEO. The butterfly theme is apparent throughout. "Rolando Diaz came up with the analogy that Spark helps a child metamorphose into their full creative potential," Beverly says. "His mural on our front doors was the embodiment of that analogy."

Cuban-American artist Rolando Diaz created a butterfly mural for the entrance of Spark

Cuban-American artist Rolando Diaz created a butterfly mural for the entrance of Spark

Ellen Ritscher Sackett/Special Contributor

Guests descend into a gallery from a flight of stairs transformed into a waterfall that empties into a swirling turquoise and purple ocean floor. Cement columns shimmer with thousands of colorful soda-can butterflies. A mermaid mannequin gazes toward a shipwrecked in a corner of the room, where children can grab the helm to navigate imaginary waters.

It's a bedlam of noise and activity as the children make their way through the maze of physical challenges in the lower level, which features an elevated 6,000-square-foot Climb, Crawl, Slide Structure. Activity stations around the room keep children engaged with hands-on opportunities for silk-screening, recording, drumming, a Giant Light Bright board, Legos, and a musical dance floor. The rules are minimal. Kids have almost free reign.

Maria Ramirez slides down the Giant Slide

Maria Ramirez slides down the Giant Slide

Ellen Ritscher Sackett/Special Contributor

"All the kids want to get to the giant slide," says Beverly regarding Spark's most popular attraction. In order to get to the top, children must first climb the stairs and pass through a make-believe car wash, enter the mouth of a Chinese she-dragon and cross through the spider's web made of rope. Some children experience "a bit of trepidation" getting there, she says, but "most of them overcome their fears, and then they come back to do it again and again."

The structure is set up that way for a reason. "This whole room is about discovery and exploration, which are really important parts of the creative process," Beverly says. "It also works their energy off before we sit them down for their creative exercises." She explains that if a child can overcome a fear in one aspect of his life, he'll be more inclined and will have the confidence to work through creative challenges. In this environment, children may fail but are encouraged to try until they realize their goals.

"The focus of our programming is on the creative process and the thinking that goes into it more than the final product," Beverly says.

Looking ahead

Spark's current residence is the prototype for the yet-to-be-determined space that will eventually be its permanent home.

"We're already too crowded," Beverly says.

In only one year, over 10,000 visitors have walked through Spark's doors. It has engaged more than 4,500 children in creative programming that includes classes, summer camps and Spark Saturdays, which are open to the public. Already, Spark has built collaborative relationships with numerous nonprofits, including Family Gateway, Communities in Schools, Victory Meadows Eagle Scholars and Vogel Alcove, and 55 percent of the children served come from low-income homes.

"We are certainly accomplishing our goal to reach children and help them develop their creative talents" Beverly says, "however, our goal is to serve so many more, which is why we're working to secure a larger facility. We expect to serve tens of thousands of children every year in our permanent home.

"I have no doubt about the future."

By Ellen Sackett, Special Contributor

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