Climb, Crawl, Explore

Kids museum excites while it educates

Please, do touch" is the motto for the new Cinergy Children's Museum in Cincinnati.

It is designed to be "kid friendly." Youngsters, from infants to 10-year-olds, are encouraged to climb, crawl, and explore every aspect of the 30,000 square-foot exhibition space. The Cinergy Children's Museum (www.cincymuseum.com) began construction last year and opened last month.

Richard Glover, president of the Cincinnati Museum Center, says that the 16 designers had one goal in mind: "It must be a totally interactive museum." That meant the exhibits would appeal to children of all abilities and physical and mental stages of development with activities that challenge, excite, and educate.

Cinergy's programs are also designed to allow children to socialize with each other, as well as with their parents or caregivers, Mr. Glover says.

One prominent exhibit, for example, is called "Water Works." Given that Cincinnati is on the Ohio River, it seems appropriate. To begin, children are given raincoats "just in case." They turn a handle and a cloudburst of "rain" falls, and they learn firsthand how it affects the "river valley" below.

"If they get wet," Glover says, smiling, "and most kids do, there's a 'drying room.' "

Ironically, the original Cincinnati Children's Museum, located even closer to the river, was destroyed by the flood of 1997.

The new location is a home to many museums: "We voted to build a new children's museum at the same location as the Cincinnati History Museum, the Museum of Natural History & Science, the Omnimax Theater, and The Cincinnati Historical Society Library," Glover explains.

Today, all are under the umbrella of the Cincinnati Museum Center in Union Terminal, a 1930s railroad station. The station, an example of art deco, still boasts its original rotunda. An Amtrak train still stops once a day to collect and drop off passengers.

"It's an ideal place for a museum center," Glover continues, as he gives a tour. "The dome of the terminal was the highest in the world until the Opera House was built in Sydney, Australia. It's still high enough to fit a 10-story building under it, and definitely stands out in the Cincinnati landscape."

The Cinergy Children's Museum is built two floors underground, directly beneath the terminal's entry and grand fountain. Youngsters and parents walk into the rotunda, then ride an escalator moving at 100 feet per minute down to the museum below.

The first stop is "The Woods."

It's easy to see why this is a favorite with kids and parents. We meet up with Jan and Gary Purlee, who had brought their children, Sara and Matt, from Jeffersonville, Ind.

The youngsters pal around with Megan Fisher and follow the trail into the wilderness. As they step inside a two-story treehouse, the group looks through a telescope to view a real waterfall that empties into a pond full of turtles.

Other exhibits include: "Kids at Work," "Little Sprouts Farm" (for children under 4), and "Children Just Like Me," an exhibit that exposes youngsters to different countries and cultures.

"Kids' Town" is a grocery store, post office, diner, and gas station rolled into one. At the diner, Sara and Megan don aprons and invite us to sit at the counter. They take our order, serve us real-looking (though plastic) eggs, hot dogs, and soda pop.

Our last stop is a netted enclosure known as the "Energy Zone." Children walk in and become part of a machine. Eight satellite stations work collectively as one great mechanism. "The youngsters can use pulleys, peddle power, and other elements to move balls from each station to the big bucket," Glover says. "When it's filled, it drops the balls. The kids maneuver themselves under the bucket, so the colorful, featherweight balls topple over them." Here, the favorite idea seems to be to lure unsuspecting parents under the bucket to get the "shower." More than 3,000 balls are thrown, catapulted, dropped, or sprung in the Energy Zone.

Cinergy also has a state-of-the-art theater, which seats 50 youngsters. Here, entertainers perform, museum personnel give lectures, and kids themselves can act.

"The high point is seeing the anticipation and joy on the children's faces as they enter the Children's Museum, and then the triumphant grin and exuberance as they leave," Glover says.

WHAT'S UP AT OTHER MUSEUMS

The Capital Children's Museum, Washington, "Mexico." Make hot chocolate and tortillas as well as create Mexican crafts. A continuing exhibit. Also on view are works of art entered by Canadian children in an "Imagine You Are an Artist" contest held in Ottawa. The contest's theme was "The Role of the Artist in Human Rights." Children were invited to draw about freedom of expression. Through Jan. 6, 1999. (202) 675-4120; www.ccm.org

Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose, Calif. "Puppets: A Handful of Magic." This bilingual exhibit on loan from the Children's Museum of Mexico City encourages children to explore puppetry. Runs through July 1, 1999. (408) 298-5437; www.cdm.org

The Children's Museum, Boston "Arthur's World." Learn how much fun reading can be with Arthur, the character in Marc Brown's books and on public television. Games, word scrambles, animation activities, story writing, and more. Through summer 1999. (617) 426-8855; www.bostonkids.org

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis "The Magic of Flight" (CineDome Film). A large-format film makes you feel as if you are flying with the Blue Angels while explaining the history of flight as well as the contemporary world of aviation. Through January 1999. Also "Jolly Days," indoor sledding and instrumental music. Through Jan 3. (317) 924-5431; www.childrensmuseum.org

Chicago Children's Museum "Seuss!" Life-size scenes and memorabilia from the classic children's books "The Cat in the Hat" and "Green Eggs and Ham" among others. Runs through Aug. 31, 1999. "Dinosaur Discovery" (begins Dec. 10; full exhibit opens mid-June). A 35-foot-long skeleton is part of an exhibit that will enable visitors to experience what it's like to be a paleontologist on an expedition in West Africa. (312) 527-1000; www.chichildrensmuseum.org

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