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PARTS OF THE WORLD : Puzzled by Geography? Latest Exhibit at Children's Museum Helps Put Things in Perspective

October 08, 1992|CORINNE FLOCKEN | Corinne Flocken is a free-lance writer who regularly covers Kid Stuff for The Times Orange County Edition.

Aside from a few stray scraps of knowledge, the biggest thing I picked up in fifth-grade geography was the ability to be invisible.

I'd lurk in the hallway till the last minute, then slide into a desk that put the fattest kid on campus between me and our esteemed but hopelessly myopic teacher. After arranging myself for peak obscurity, I'd bury my head in the textbook (which itself hid a preteen romance novel) and freeze, altering my position only when my ample neighbor did the same.

It was a neat trick, but as a result I shorted myself on lessons that seemed dull at the time but have been sorely missed in later years.

To help keep the current generation from doing the same, the Children's Museum at La Habra is presenting "Puzzles of Places," an interactive exhibit that gives youngsters a hands-on and surprisingly painless lesson in world and local geography. Geared to students in grades three and up, the exhibit continues at the museum through Jan. 23.

According to education curator Carrie Wictor, "Puzzles of Places" was designed to be less interpretive and more informational than most of the museum's past shows. There are no goofy hats to try on, no props for role playing, no coloring or pasting. There is, however, a broad range of geographical facts and figures presented in a way that Wictor hopes will spark youngsters' interest in the topic and keep them coming back for more.

"It's especially important that kids are up on geography right now," said Wictor, "because you can't pick up a newspaper without seeing something about a new country being formed or a government changing hands.

"Geographic literacy is a must if you're going to make it in this world," she said.

Funded by a grant from American Express, "Puzzles of Places" was more than 1 1/2 years in the making, requiring more research and preparation than any show in the museum's 15-year history, Wictor said. But, she added, the end result has pleased her professionally and personally.

"Geography is a subject near to my heart," she said, adding that as the daughter of an oilman, she spent her childhood hopscotching between South America, the United States and Western Europe.

"Every time my dad was about to be transferred, we'd all run for the map to find out where in the world we were going," she recalled with a smile.

The show's namesake and centerpiece is a trio of 5-by-10-foot wooden floor puzzles that show maps of California, the United States and the world. By fitting the pieces together, visitors get a feel for the relative size and location of geographic areas. A second layer of learning can be found under the pieces. On the California map, children lift individual counties to reveal major fault lines. States on the U.S. map hide capitals, and countries on the world map mask oceans and continent names.

The puzzles are the largest of their kind to be made by the Denver-based Bacca Co., said Wictor, and as are the rest of the displays, they are built for travel. "Puzzles of Places" is the first exhibit by the Children's Museum at La Habra created for touring. Although no locations are set, museum staff is talking with several children's and science museums statewide that are interested in booking the show.

Some displays in the collection are strictly informational, and may be a bit dry for the very young, who may lean toward displays such as "Hitting the Highlights," which lets youngsters use custom refrigerator magnets to match California tourist sites to their geographic location, or "Everything's From Somewhere," which teaches state products and industries through a series of small doors that hide everything from a plastic lobster to a miniature pig.

Older children and adults may appreciate "A Slice of Life," a slightly tongue-in-cheek exhibit that shows the projected evolution of California's ethnic mix from the 1970s to 2020, using drawings of fancy cakes instead of the usual pie chart. The board also includes Wictor's puckish recipe for "California Cake," which calls attention to the state's unique flavor.

"Mix gently . . . then shake violently back and forth," the recipe reads. ". . . Bake for years, then add some water, but not too much . . . Shake again, once in a while.

"Remember, California Cake is never finished."

What: "Puzzles of Places."

When: Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Through Jan. 23.

Where: Children's Museum at La Habra, 301 S. Euclid St., La Habra.

Whereabouts: From the Orange (57) Freeway, exit at Lambert Road and drive west. Turn right onto South Euclid.

Wherewithal: Museum admission is $2.50 to $3.

Where to call: (310) 905-9793.

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