Gloucester, Mass. — As we groped our way down the winding stone staircase, there were shivers and giggles all around. Who knew what fire-breathing dragon might be lurking around the next turn?
Along a dark corridor and around another corner we made our way until finally we arrived in the great hall of the castle. Sunlight streamed in through magnificent stained-glass windows, lighting the tapestries that draped the walls and glancing off the polished helmet of a towering suit of armor.
While several youngsters in the tour group raced to investigate a cavernous walk-in fireplace, one little boy made his way toward an ''arrow gun'' he'd spotted on top of a carved wooden chest. He almost had it hoisted to his shoulder when the queen stepped in to remind him that he mustn't touch. Sighing dramatically, he put the crossbow back on the chest. After all, it isn't easy being five and not being allowed to climb on parapets or play with swords.
The queen had lots more in store, however. Gathering her young visitors around her on a rosy rug, she sat down, opened a picture book, and began the story of Snow White. Would-be princesses and knights listened intently for a few pages, interrupting only to ask about poison apples and magic mirrors. Then came the magic kiss, Snow White awoke, and the groundlings were off on yet another adventure, searching the castle for drawbridges and candleholders that matched the illustrations in the book.
An hour later the tour came to a successful end with a picnic lunch on a nearby bluff overlooking the ocean. Successful for the four- and five-year-olds who would return to the J.J. Tierney Memorial Community Child Development Center to build castles out of cardboard boxes. And successful for the education staff of Hammond Castle, who have been offering the ''Fairy Tale'' tour for only three months now.
''We've always had tours for older school children, but medieval life has not always intrigued little kids,'' says storyteller Liz Talbot. Citing the popularity of the ''Not Everyone Can Be a Queen or King'' tour for grades four through eight, and ''An Era Rekindled, Fantasies of the Middle Ages,'' a tour for grades nine through 12, Miss Talbot explains that the ''Fairy Tale'' tour is an attempt to appeal to pre-schoolers and children in kindergarten.
The staff at Hammond Castle, like their counterparts in many museums across the US, are looking for ways to attract new, younger audiences. As Jeri Robinson , director of early childhood programs at Boston's trend-setting Children's Museum, puts it, ''Most museums tend to think of school-age kids. But mothers with babies have got to go someplace, too, and we're beginning to look at how we can help them.''
Under a project funded by the Carnegie Corporation, the Children's Museum staff are introducing first-time parents to what's called ''messy play'' -- paste, play dough, magic markers, crayons, and paint. ''We're trying to help parents who think they won't be able to control messy play see how much fun it can be for their children,'' says Ms. Robinson. The program is limited to parents of children under five, and two of the first enrollees were a mother and her 13-week-old infant.
The Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia takes museum-going for the young a step further: It's designed only for children seven and younger. Youngsters participating in the ''Whistle While You Work'' exhibit weigh plastic fruits and vegetables in a miniature grocery store, make their mark with stamp pads in a child-size office, and don hard hats while constructing skyscrapers out of large building blocks at a scaled-down construction site.
In another exhibit, two- and three-year-olds can climb into expandable fabrics and ''perform'' sculpture with their arms and legs, according to museum spokeswoman Sharla Feldscher. ''When a child perceives art, he becomes completely involved in it,'' she says. ''So we've tried to design our exhibits so that toddlers and infants can really experience it.''
The Please Touch staff also try to coordinate new exhibits with those at local cultural institutions. A current showing of Nigerian artwork, for example, reinforces the ''Treasures of Ancient Nigeria'' exhibit at Philadelphia's Museum of Art. ''Parents have come here to educate their children and wound up educating themselves,'' says Ms. Feldscher. ''They've become curious about what's happening elsewhere.''
A comprehensive listing of children's tours and programs offered at museums across the US can be found in the Official Museum Directory, available in most public libraries, or from the publishers, National Register Publishing Company, 5201 Old Orchard Street, Skokie, Ill. 60077.