Exhibits for young hands and minds Museums: Children and parents have new places to learn together -- and to have fun.

September 24, 1998|By TaNoah Morgan | TaNoah Morgan,SUN STAFF

Isabel Mangana was a steamboat captain, a New York fashion model and a Pablo Picasso protege all in one day. It was more than she expected from a trip to the museum.

"I had too much fun," 4-year-old Isabel said. "I want to stay here forever."

Fun is the point at Chesapeake Children's Museum in Annapolis, where the exhibits are meant to be climbed on, sniffed, touched and rolled by little ones as young as age 1.

There, at the Festival at Riva shopping center, are aquariums for hissing cockroaches and Maryland diamondback terrapins; ties, hats, wigs and shoes for playing dress-up; and yarn, beads, paints and glue for crafts. The idea is to inject a little fun into the lives of stressed-out children.

"Their days are rushed because of their parents' work schedules," said Debbie Wood, the museum's director. "All the things we used to do 'just because' is all structured. They go to soccer practice -- they don't just go and gather up a bunch of friends because they want to and the weather is right. And then you can't miss practice because the coach will get on you. Children don't need jobs yet."

Crabbing and computers

At the 4-year-old museum, youngsters can climb into an 8-foot wooden boat, strap on a child-sized life jacket, get behind the silver steering wheel and imagine themselves crabbing on the Chesapeake Bay.

On the other side of the room are assorted stuffed animals, hand puppets and a patch of soft, fluffy rabbit fur where toddlers can explore their sense of touch. That's next to the aquarium of Madagascar -- hissing cockroaches -- where children have witnessed a mating dance.

Other areas include a computer room, a hygiene room where young ones learn about their body parts from a 7-foot stuffed doll whose stomach unzips, center stage for dress-up games and an arts and crafts area.

But youth museums are more than just indoor playgrounds, Wood said. They've come to be a place where families can bond and parents can relax and talk.

'Community connection'

"Someone said it's a place where children play to learn and adults learn to play," Wood said, sitting on a pier that extends from a wall in the museum. "They provide a community connection. Children's museums have become the kind of centers where children and parents just hang out."

The nation's first children's museum, founded in in Brooklyn in 1899, housed collections of dolls, Native American artifacts and other items of interest to children. Even then, children's museums were a little different.

Changed with workplace

"What they did that was innovative at the time was take these collections from behind the display cases and allow children to handle them," said Janet Rice Elman, executive director of the Association of Youth Museums.

The museum in Brooklyn and one in Boston, which was established a few years later, still have extensive collections, Elman said.

Children's museums changed and proliferated in the 1960s and 1970s as more women joined the work force and museum directors began to rethink whom children's museums are for and what children should get from the experience. The association estimates there are 250 to 300 youth museums nationwide.

Working with parents

Many of the museums have floors of activities, open spaces, larger-than-life exhibits and computer-aided projects children can work on with their parents.

There are five children's museums in the Baltimore-Washington area, including the $32 million Port Discovery in Baltimore, which is to open in December.

The Annapolis museum is markedly smaller than many of its counterparts, with 1,875 square feet of floor space, but it offers foreign language and music classes and toddler day trips.

On a recent trip to the museum, 11-month-old Jake Costello felt the fluff of a rabbit's fur, explored minnows, and ran a train over tracks through a village.

"I think it's just important for him to explore," said Mike Costello, Jake's father, during their first visit. "He was never that close to a bunny rabbit before, or turtles."

Florence August, mother of 1-year-old triplets Olivia, Toby and Mary and 3-year-old Tierney, said she likes seeing her children play freely at the museum. "They can touch and they can pick up anything," she said.

"That's the biggest worry when they go out -- 'Put that down!' 'Don't do this!' 'Don't do that!' -- and here everything is available."

Eva Mangana, Isabel's mother, said indoor playgrounds at retail outlets don't allow children to be creative.

"It's nothing like this," the Columbia resident said, as Isabel took a seat on the boat. "They can do more or less what they want. It encourages creativity and you never could have all this junk in the house."

Children's museums:

Chesapeake Children's Museum: 2331D Forest Drive, Annapolis. Open from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily except Wednesdays. Admission is $3 for children 1 and older. The museum has special hours for groups. Information: 410-266-0677 or e-mail at ccoad.net.

Port Discovery: The children's museum at the Market Place in Baltimore is scheduled to open Dec. 12. Hours and admission prices have not been set. Information: 410-727-8120 or e-mail at Portdiscol.com.

The Good Knight Kingdom: 11001 Rhode Island Ave., Beltsville. Runs programs for groups and the general public. Hours and admission prices -- $5 to $7 -- vary by program. Information: 301-595-8989.

Discovery Creek: 4954 MacArthur Blvd. N.W., Washington. Offers weekend programs for the public by reservation. Programs this season begin Oct. 3. Admission is $6 for members and $8 for nonmembers. Information: 202-364-3111.

Capital Children's Museum: 800 Third St. N.E., Washington. Open 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily. Admission is $6 for age 3 to adult, and $4 for senior citizens. Children younger than 2 are admitted free. Information: 202-675-4120 or www.ccm.org.

Pub Date: 9/24/98

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