In most of our memories, a field trip as a kid to a museum often wasn't much more fun than staying at school and doing math problems. Everything was fragile, or expensive, or rare, or too high to reach. You couldn't touch anything, had to hold still and be quiet, and all you could do with the exhibits was . . . look.
So imagine the delight children must feel when they read (if they're old enough to know how) the signs on the walls of the Children's Museum at La Habra: "Please do touch the animals." "Careful touching allowed." " You can turn on the trains yourself."
It isn't that the museum is impervious to kids. Some of its exhibits are finely crafted, even delicate. It's more on the mark to say that the museum adapts to children, allows them to have the run of the place, to explore, to learn by participation.
The museum accomplishes this simply by keeping a stock of things that most kids find irresistibly fascinating: toy trains, musical instruments, mounted wild animals, exotic clothes with which to play dress-up--even a child-size carrousel.
It's all strictly hands on.
The tactile trail begins in the museum's first gallery, where a variety of mounted wild animals and animal artifacts is arranged around the room. After a short explanation by a docent, the children are free to touch the fur of such exotics as a mountain lion, a skunk, a badger, a bobcat, a porcupine, a hyena and a musk ox, among others. In the corner of the room, partitioned by curtains, is a working beehive set behind glass panels.
The second gallery contains what may be the most universally beloved childhood items of all: toy trains. Although the layout, called the Model Train Village, is surrounded with glass, each child can run the trains by flicking a switch and can blow one train's whistle by pushing a button set into the outside of the layout.
A recent tour of children was enthralled by the trains, which run through a town and a series of mountain tunnels, but the favorite was a tottering scale model of the Toonerville Trolley of cartoon fame.
The third gallery contains themed exhibits that change every three months. The current exhibit, called the "Musical Express," features a large variety of musical instruments, available to be handled or, in the case of such instruments as string basses and a piano, played. As part of the experience, one child is picked out of each tour group to act as a conductor--and is dressed in a small tail coat and sequined blue bow tie. The other children are given rhythm instruments such as maracas, tambourines and wood blocks to play.
Saturdays at noon, free events are staged to augment the changing exhibits. During the Musical Express tenure, dancers, singers, instrumentalists and actors--performing excerpts from "Alice In Wonderland"--have appeared in the gallery.
The Musical Express exhibit will run through Sept. 10.
Adjacent to the changing exhibit area is a play and workshop space containing a tiny working carrousel and racks of small clothes--Hawaiian, Scottish, Western, African and dancing togs--for children to try on.
Finally, if the kids' railroad lust wasn't satisfied with the toy trains, just outside the museum--which used to be La Habra's Union Pacific terminal--is a full-scale caboose containing early artifacts and photographs of the La Habra area.
And more is on the way, said Melissa Banning, the museum's assistant director. By spring, she said, a new, 8,000-square-foot addition to the museum should be completed, containing a theater, a science exhibit and a gallery scaled down for toddlers, who already are a major focus.
Meanwhile, it seems that, for some children, the museum is almost too good to be true. On one recent tour, docent Tina Minner was approached every couple of minutes by one or two children who would inevitably start their question with, "Is it OK if I . . . ?" Apparently the presence of so many goodies in one place that fairly begged to be handled had overwhelmed them into caution.
The welcome response was always the same: " Sure it is."
CHILDREN'S MUSEUM AT LA HABRA AT A GLANCE
Where: 301 S. Euclid St., La Habra.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.
Admission: Youngsters ages 3-16 and senior citizens, $1. Adults, $1.50. Children under 3 free.
Tour group reservations and information: (reservations required for groups of 10 or more; guided tours during the school year and on weekdays only) 213-905-9793.