Sesame Place: new-wave play park for energetic kids

There are no Ferris wheels, no candy floss, no bearded ladies at this amusement park. So what's a kid to do? Well, he or she can scale a rope ladder across a water hazard, challenge a computer that asks you to compose a melody, and eat in a restaurant that specializes in high-protein morsels including a nutritious pizza.

If all this sounds like a mixtue of a Marine boot camp, a modern science museum, and a California health spa, if in fact the park seems more for adults than children 3 to 13, that's part of the appeal of Sesame Place, a new-wave play park that opened the other day in Bucks County, Pa., between Philadelphia and Trenton, N.J. Sesame Place is the brainchild of Children's Television Workshop, which first brought us "Sesame Street" 11 years ago. Those noted TV personalities, Big Bird, Oscar, the Count, and their friends, are much in evidence on the compact three-acre grounds.

Children are meant to reign at Sesame Place, but that doesn't leave out the parents. Adults are such an important part of the experience that thee is a rule that kids cannot be mrely dropped off at the entrance. "We want the parents to come along and learn to be a child all over," said Sandra Hanna, manager of education programs. Still, as she put it, the park is a "child's environment" where the adult can sometimes be an uncomfortable stranger.

"We have a Lost Parents Center for just that reason," Miss Hanna said as she led one lost correspondent on an opening day tour. 'Kids can walk in the gate and get it all down in five minutes -- they know just where to go and how to proceed, whereas adults can become confused, threatened because there's no particular order to anything. 'Now, do we start here or over there?' They'll ask. Kids don't talk that way."

Sesame Place has an architectural design one sees more and more of these days; call it Late Cannery Row. Green, tin-sided buildings, lots of exposed beams, pipes, and ducts. There are four buildings -- Sesame Studios with its 15 science experiments, the Computer Gallery, a shop called Mr. Hooper's Emporium that peddles all the Sesame Street products, and the restaurant, itself an experimental lab where the cooking is done for all to see behind glass cubicles. The rest is a maze of outdoor playthings, most of which were dreamed up by Eric McMillan, a top playground designer.

All over the park are TV monitors showing a special Muppets movie. "It's partly entertainment, but it's also soft messaging, telling the kids to go slow, not to try to do it all in an hour," said Miss Hanna.

There are 200 uniformed high school and college students on the staff, and they are not there to pick up trash and scold recalcitrant children. "They are encouragers," Miss Hanna told me as we ducked into the Sesame Studios; "They are here to encourage the kids to experiment with the exhibits and play elements. We haven't any 'noes' here. If a child wants to take a ball from one of the games, the encourager doesn't say, 'Put the ball down'; he might say, 'Are you having a nice time here? Wouldn't you like other children to have a nice time too?'"

We entered a chamber called the Shadow Room. Of all the playthings I sampled and saw, electronic and otherwise, this one most took my fancy. You stand against a blank wall in the semidarkness and an overhead strobe erupts with a sudden flash. You step away and your shadow is still there, temporarily and vividly pasted to the wall.

Outdoors, we walked beneath a series of strung-up cargo nets. Kids bounced around on the thick mesh, followed net tunnels, and generally carried on like happly spiders traversing their webs. The game is called Ropes and Nets, and Miss Hanna said it is supposed to provide individual challenges while minimizing the competitiveness of school and society. To me it just looked like a lot of fun. We were approaching the Hand Over Water game, in which children scale hand by hand on overhead rings, and rope-ladder rungs just above an ankle-deep water hazard. I felt a sudden twinge, a memory of Army boot camp or ninth-grade gym class. "That isn't an easy game," I told Miss Hanna.

"It certainly isn't for everyone," she said, "but a child can decide if he's up to it. And a child will never get hurt it if's a choice of his own. It's when the parents force th child to try the game that he can get upset or hurt." Even as she spoke, a curly-haired blond boy retreated from the front of the line at Hand Over Water, threw his arms around his mother's waist, and began to cry. We both shrugged, each in different ways, and walked on.

It was in the Computer Gallery where I decided that as advanced, challenging, and clever as children's playthings have become, I'm glad I was a kid in the 1940s. Children were seated on carpeted cubes tapping keys and communicating with electronic TV screens, like so many pint-size technicians at Mission Control. I didn't hear much laughter; the concentration was intense.

Maybe I was tired of being a spectator, maybe I just wanted to be turned loose on this 3-to-13 domain. There are other Sesame Places planned for the US suburbs, and maybe one day they'll build one for adults so we can finally learn what it is to be a kid in and more Shadow Rooms, I just might be able to adjust.

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