Joshua Groth, 6, smiled dreamily as his mother struggled to pull his legs out of a huge pair of fireman's boots.
Here in the dress-up area of the Los Angeles Children's Museum, Joshua and his 8-year-old sister, Rachel, delight in stepping out of their childhoods and into the exciting world of big city firefighters.
"This is a place they can use their imagination," said their mother, Roberta Groth, who has driven her children in from Sherman Oaks to spend the day at the downtown L.A. museum as often as three times a month.
Participatory children's museums--hands-on havens for learning about science, art, culture, nature, history and even ourselves--are growing in numbers and in variety.
Where else can you paint your face, "drive" a bus, play with your own shadow, sit in a tepee or use an old-fashioned pump to get water?
Of the more than 400 children's museums in this country, 350 are new in the last three years, according to Pat James, director of Oxnard's year-old Gull Wings museum.
The noise and fun levels are always high in all of them, but much more is going on.
"Everyone walks out of here knowing they are a player in the world," said Candace Barrett of the Los Angeles Children's Museum. "That's what empowerment is, that what you say and what you do and what you think are important and make a difference.
"Also, we're want to turn kids on. If they walk out of here with 10 questions they didn't walk in with, we've done our job," Barrett said.
Children like to feel they are in control, said Barbara Broderick of the Children's Museum of San Diego. Yet most of a child's education is directed by others.
"The object here is to allow kids to make their own decisions, to learn at their own pace, and to enjoy what they want to enjoy when they want to," Broderick said.
"Your joy directs you around the room," said Ann Morrisey, children's programs coordinator in the education division of the Natural History Museum in Los Angeles. "There's not a lot of words, so a lot of the learning goes on in the right side of the brain."
Several of the museums have unique features that make even a long trip worthwhile. For instance, at A Special Place Children's Hands-On Museum in San Bernardino, children can try out a wheelchair swing, and at the Children's Museum of San Diego, there's a Wheelchair Basketball Court.
Half the visitors to these museums are part of school and youth groups. In the face of school budget cuts, this is one way kids can experiment freely with both art materials and science equipment.
"You can read something and understand it, but until you really do it, the principle doesn't stay in your memory," said Ilona Passino, coordinator of the Reuben H. Fleet Science Center in San Diego.
All the children's museums encourage parental involvement. When Hillary Moerl of Pacific Palisades takes her sons--Alex, 2, and Gregory, 4--to the L.A. Children's Museum, she joins them in pretending there's a fire so they can practice putting it out with a hose.
"We have adults trying on firefighter uniforms. We have them get in the race car constantly," said Elaine Fleming, executive director of Kidspace in Pasadena. "When parents do things like that, it means a lot to their kids."
As box office numbers grow, the staff at nearly every Southland facility has plans for more space and more exhibits.
The Los Angeles Children's Museum, for example, has 250,000 visitors annually and hopes to expand on its present site. The Children's Museum at La Habra tripled its floor space last December.
Gull Wings in Oxnard is drawing more people than anticipated, according to director Pat James.
"We were hoping to build a little more slowly. We get 125 to 150 youngsters per morning, and we're booked two months in advance for groups. The telephone rings all the time," she said.
The impact of a visit to one of these sites can be great. Gretchen Bach, 20, who is a summer intern at the Los Angeles Children's Museum, only visited the museum once as a young child. Now she attributes her interest in becoming an architect to her experience building with foam pillows in Sticky City.
"It was always like a fantasy place for me. There's stuff kids can do here that they can't do anywhere else," she said.