An infant propped up on a pillow babbles happily in a garden where fabric flowers sprout taller than 2 feet. A few steps away, a 4-year-old boy waits for customers at the imaginary grocery store, gleefully poking the numbers on the cash register. And a 2-year-old plays peekaboo through a hollow, fallen log.
All appear to be having fun. Early-childhood experts say they are learning.
Every detail in the "Storyville" wing at the Rosedale Library, which opened yesterday, is designed to help children up to age 6 prepare for school.
The shapes on the sorting game are a step toward letter recognition. The money in the cash register is a math fundamental.
In this toddler-size town, the pretend tide pools mimic sounds heard in nature. An old-fashioned red telephone booth connects callers to recordings of children's books. The building blocks are slightly softer and the play produce always stay fresh.
It is a literacy wonderland.
Baltimore County officials say they believe Storyville is a first of its kind in Maryland, and possibly the country.
"They really could charge admission," says Nicole Winner, a former elementary-school teacher from the Parkville area, after a quick game of peekaboo through the faux log with her 2-year-old son.
But Storyville, a $700,000 project funded through private donations and grants, is free to the public.
Winner is among the parents who tested the new equipment, as library staffers put the final touches on the 2,240-square-foot wing.
"It's spectacular," says James H. Fish, director of Baltimore County's public library system, who stopped by this week to observe children and parents in the new facility. "It was incredible to watch."
Storyville is designed to resemble a village with a two-story house, post office, theater, store, garden, waterfront, construction zone, and, of course, a library.
The activities are designed for children and parents playing together. "The idea being that the child's first teacher is a parent," says Marisa Conner, the youth services coordinator for county public libraries.
Ideally, parents will talk to children as they play, encouraging them to act out scenes from books, and discuss stars as they sit under the twinkle light constellation in the light house or what they might want to build in the construction zone.
"We embedded a lot of the learning so it happens naturally," Conner says.
The armchairs and tables are child-size and shelves are lower, encouraging parents to get down at the level of their children, she says.
Mark Hotopp bent to the level of his toddler son, Noah, to try to catch the magnetic fish in the pond during a visit last week. And then he found himself dashing off to catch up with his son on the faux driftwood in "Toddler Bay."
"It's so interactive," said Hotopp, who lives in the Rosedale area and didn't know about the library's new wing. "It's awesome."
The details wow parents -- the handmade costumes in the theater identical to the characters in the story currently "playing," the keyhole in the door of the children's house that looks like a page from Goodnight Moon, the toddler-size Sub-Zero play refrigerator with labeled plastic food.
In the post office, a letter to be delivered to the library is addressed to "Baby Ruth," a little humor that a child might not get, but the parents playing with them will.
"It's the Disney factor -- you appeal to both the child and parent," Conner says. "We want this to a place that parents want to be too."
While most libraries feature a children's section -- including the 17 branches in Baltimore County -- Storyville expands on the notion that important literacy skills are developed in the preschool years, experts say.
"We can't do enough to get kids on an early start for literacy," says Pat Scales, president-elect of the Association for Library Service to Children. "We know from studies that children with early exposure to books and hands-on activities at libraries perform better in school."
But Scales said she hasn't heard of anything quite as elaborate as Storyville.
The wing also includes some of the amenities seen at children's museums, such as a family bathroom.
Designers thought carefully about how parents and children would use the facility, Conner says.
For example, there's a "Sanitize me" bin at the entrance and exit, because designers knew that children would be inclined to test the colorful plastic flatware, and that infants learn by putting toys into their mouths.
Toys can be moved around Storyville to allow parents to supervise more than one child.
Storyville's designers expect the facility to be popular regionally. And while they might eventually have to come up with a system to deal with crowds -- such as waiting lists -- they also say that children, by their nature, will move to new areas when space gets tight.
"We're going to have to be flexible and creative [while we learn what works best]," says Judy Kaplan, manager of the Rosedale branch. "We're also really excited about it."
Storyville is open during Rosedale branch hours: 9 a.m. to 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays; 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sundays. It will be closed Feb. 18 for Presidents Day.
The Rosedale Library is at 6105 Kenwood Ave.
Groups should call 410-887-0512 in advance to make arrangements.
Source: Baltimore County Public Library