Hands-on museums are in touch with what makes science fun

TAKING THE KIDS

June 05, 1994|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Los Angeles Times Syndicate

"Follow us," the kids command and lead the way as we slide, crawl and climb through the small chambers of the pitch-black dome. The darkness is overpowering. My pulse is racing. We feel our way along the narrow passageways, touching who-knows-what -- a spoon here, a rubber mat there, blocks, a chain or a bicycle seat. Will we ever find the end?

Finally, we slide out into the light and a vat of beans. Ten-year-old Matt and 8-year-old Reggie can't wait to start through the Tactile Dome again.

Welcome to San Francisco's Exploratorium, considered by many be the nation's premier science museum and the model for hundreds of interactive and innovative museum exhibits around the world.

Everywhere in the cavernous 2-acre space science is happening. Children race from area to area, designing a giant bubble, humming into an echo chamber, finger painting on a computer.

"No one has ever flunked a science museum," Exploratorium founder (and physics professor) Frank Oppenheimer once wrote. Twenty-five years ago, he conceived a place where adults and children alike could experience scientific phenomena, making their own discoveries along the way about light or color, motion, electricity, heat, the weather, among other things.

"This doesn't look like a museum," Matt announces, taking in the noisy, bustling scene. The Exploratorium doesn't look like a museum on the outside, either. It's housed right at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge in the domed, neoclassical Palace of Fine Arts, built for San Francisco's 1915 Panamanian-Pacific Exposition. (General museum admission is $8.50 for adults, $4.50 for children 6 through 17 and people with disabilities, $2 for children 3 through 5, and $6.50 for seniors and students with ID. Call [415] 561-0360.)

Inside, there are no walls -- just concrete floors and open space filled with more than 650 "stations." We step onto the Shadow Box, where a phosphorescent material lets us leave a shadow. We watch ourselves shrink and grow in the Distorted Room. We stand inside a tornado.

The focus is on perception as much as pure science: How do we see or hear, smell or feel -- that is, how do we experience the world around us?

The Tactile Dome is a case in point. (Reservations are a must for the dome. It costs $8 -- $10 as of July 1 -- and includes museum entrance. Children under 7 are not admitted to the dome. For reservations, call [415] 561-0362.)

Exploratorium officials explain the free-wheeling environment may look chaotic but actually is carefully planned to provide learning experiences for grade-school children.

While preschoolers may enjoy the swirl of activity at the Exploratorium, they really get their due at the Bay Area Discovery Museum near Sausalito, just across the Golden Gate Bridge.

Housed in seven historic turn-of-the-century buildings on Fort Baker, the Bay Area Discovery Museum hums with indoor as well as outdoor activities guaranteed to amuse the diaper set as well as their older brothers and sisters.

The small fry happily "fish" from a Discovery Boat or crawl through a "sea tunnel" in the San Francisco Bay Hall, build skyscrapers from plastic bricks, play instruments in the Tot Spot or climb around the old Model T.

The grade-school crowd, meanwhile, can get lost in the Maze of Illusions, make videos in the Media Center, take nature hikes or design bridges. (Admission is $5 for adults and children. Call [415] 487-4398.)

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