Toddlers, science turn out to be the best of friends

Kids: More museums are reaching out to the youngest set with new hands-on learning centers

Destination: Children's Museums

July 25, 1999|By Eileen Ogintz | Eileen Ogintz,Special to the Sun

I couldn't believe my luck. Tucked into an obscure corner of the huge science museum was parent heaven. Actually, it was just a small playroom designed for toddlers, but it sure seemed like paradise to me after chasing two busy young kids through the jammed halls of Chicago's Museum of Science and Industry, convinced they were going to get lost at every turn.

In this playroom, dubbed the Curiosity Place, 4-year-old Matt and 2-year-old Reggie couldn't get lost. There were just-the-right-size activities not too complex for them to understand or placed too high for little hands to reach.

The best part: chairs for tired parents to take a much-needed break. Aah. I could relax, for a few minutes anyway.

That afternoon, I had to drag my kids out of the place. We returned again and again, often with out-of-town visitors, even though we had to haul the stroller up and down the stairs. We couldn't understand why the place was so hidden.

Not anymore. The Curiosity Place is now the 8,000-square-foot Idea Factory smack in the middle of the museum -- a magnet for families visiting one of Chicago's top tourist draws.

"The idea is to give young children a place to explore and play at their level," explained Elaine Vinson, who oversees the enormously popular year-old Idea Factory. "They're not afraid of science at that age, and we want them to keep thinking science is fun."

Around the country, science centers have taken the same tack, reaching out like never before to the diaper crowd and their parents. They've finally realized what parents have always known: The littlest guys in the families are born scientists, sponges for information, who won't gripe that they'd rather be at a mall.

"You'd be hard pressed to find a science center these days that doesn't have a special space for the littlest explorers," says Ellen Griffee, director of ASTC, the international Association of Science and Technology Centers. (ASTC's Science Center Travel Guide can be found at and offers links to nearly 300 member museums' Web sites.)

That's good news for traveling families who are always at a loss to entertain a toddler or preschooler away from home. Those with older kids don't have to worry that they'll miss a city's stellar attraction because their littlest traveler will only get frustrated in a museum.

San Francisco's Exploratorium has just opened a Play Lab for young children. "It's ironic that we want everyone else to be curious and explore the way young children do naturally," observes Exploratorium spokesman Linda Dackman. (FROGS, the Exploratorium's newest exhibit, continues through Sept. 12. Call 415-561-0360 or

Last year, the Louisville Science Center unveiled KidZone, complete with a child-size construction area and a water-play room designed by engineers at the Louisville Water Company. (Call 502-561-6100 or

At the Boston Museum of Science's recently added Discovery Center, young children can walk alongside an 18-foot-long python skeleton or hunt for fossils at the re-creation of a dig. (Call 617-723-2500 or

The Kidspace that the Columbus, Ohio, Science Center, first opened for young children 15 years ago has proved so popular that museum memberships doubled as a result. With help from a National Science Foundation grant, it has been replicated in more than 80 museums around the world, from New Jersey to Texas, Oklahoma, California and as far as Brazil. "The level of success took us by surprise, but then we realized the tremendous need and interest that were out there," explained Chuck O'Conner, the center's vice president for exhibits.

That's why when COSI moves to larger quarters later this year, a new Littlekids Space will open for babies, with information kiosks to help new parents understand exactly how their babies are learning as they play in the water or discover different textures. There even will be a "baby snack bar" that dispenses diapers as well as food.

At the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, babies can hurl a giant soft block through a 2-foot-high tube to learn about shapes and motion. Four-year-olds can make a tornado by pumping air into a tank, watching swirling shapes through a kaleidoscope, or move giant magnetized blocks with a crane. (Call for 773-684-1414 or

Small science museums outside big cities, meanwhile, are working just as hard to reach young families. The Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vt. -- an ideal stop for those driving north through New England -- has Andy's Place, where kids can, among other things, crawl through a tunnel to see an aquarium. (Call 802-649-2200 or

"This is about exposing kids to every stimuli we can," says ASTC's Ellen Griffee. "But we want parents and grandparents to enjoy the exploration, too. We want this to become a habit."

To that end, Scientific American has just launched a new quarterly, Explorations, that is designed to help families explore science together in informal settings such as museums, aquariums and zoos. Traveling families will find the detailed list of museum exhibits throughout the nation especially useful. (Order Explorations for $11.80 annually by calling 800-285-5264, or access the exhibit list at

Remember that an excursion to a science museum, especially with a young child, doesn't need to be an all-day affair when you're on vacation. Spend an hour or two and leave as soon as your little explorer gets tired or hungry. Most important, don't be afraid to admit you can't answer all of his questions.

"It's OK not to know all of the answers," says Griffee. "The point is not right answers. The point is learning how to find the answers together."

Pub Date: 07/25/99

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