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TAKING THE KIDS

Getting Offspring to See the Wellspring of Museums

October 15, 2000|EILEEN OGINTZ

Thank goodness for rain. It means an often-needed break from the kids' fall sports schedules and creates a perfect opportunity to visit a museum.

Museums--art, science, marine or just-for-kids--should also be built into a city weekend away from home for an affordable (it's easy to find discounted weekend hotel deals) family getaway.

Are the kids groaning at the mention of the word "museum"? I hear that same "Forget it, Mom!" from my gang, whether I'm suggesting a Saturday at a nearby museum or a day touring a museum in another part of the country. Sometimes it seems they would rather do anything else.

Don't give up. They'll change their minds when they see how many activities museums have for kids and their parents this fall.

See whether you're quick enough to sort the mail by hand 1870s-style in the Smithsonian's hands-on history room at the National Museum of American History in Washington, D.C. Be a weather person using up-to-the minute satellite maps at the new Mt. Washington Observatory Weather Discovery Center in North Conway, N.H. Walk through a maze into a puzzle at the Creative Discovery Museum in Chattanooga, Tenn. (Visit the Smithsonian's Web site at http://americanhistory.si.edu, the Mt. Washington Observatory site at http://www.mountwashington.org and the Creative Discovery Museum site at http://www.cdmfun.org.)

Some museums--such as the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York--have incorporated children's programming since they opened, in the Met's case more than 125 years ago. Others increasingly are trading dusty glass and hands-off signs for interactive, corporate-sponsored exhibits designed to draw families.

One current exhibit at the Met highlights the visual arts in America between the opening of the Erie Canal in 1825 and the Civil War. (The Met's Web site at http://www.metmuseum.org lists other family programs--from storytelling and sketching for young kids to Saturday draw-and-talk tours for older ones.)

Before visiting an art museum, call its education department or check its Web site to find out what family programs are offered. Perhaps there's a children's discovery room where they might dress up, do craft projects or perform science "experiments." Kids visiting the Met, for example, can play "I Spy" while looking at the Unicorn Tapestries, and learn a little about medieval life at the same time. Kids at the Dallas Museum of Art can create their own artworks.

These programs don't require an additional charge.

Encourage the junior Web browsers in your house to take a virtual tour of a science center or aquarium before you visit so they can scope out the areas they want to see. Some places--the Monterey Bay Aquarium in Monterey among them--now have areas on their Web sites designed for kids: Internet http://mbayaq.org.

"This generation of parents wants to do things with their kids, and science centers are really responding to that," said Ellen Griffee, director of the 1,400-plus-member Assn. of Science-Technology Centers. Go to ASTC's Web site at http://www.astc.org to link to science and children's museums around the country. Buy a family membership to your local museum, averaging $75 or less for the year, and visit 250 other major science and children's museums around the country for free. For links to art museums here and abroad, go to the Art Museum Network, Internet http://www.amn.org.

Here's a sampling of what's out there this fall:

* The Splash Zone is a children's museum within the Monterey Bay Aquarium where kids can crawl through, climb on, slide down and pop up in more than 30 hands-on exhibits that offer an interactive tour through coral reefs and rocky shores. Don't miss the penguins. Want to make your own tide pool? Call the aquarium at (831) 648-4888.

* Philadelphia's Franklin Institute, Pennsylvania's most visited museum, will open a new Sports Challenge in November that focuses on the science behind sports in a 5,200-square-foot stadium. Play virtual-reality soccer as a goalie. Test your reaction time in a race car. See how fast you can throw a baseball, or what causes sports injuries--all the while learning scientific principles. This is the museum's first new permanent exhibit in 10 years. Visit the Web site at http://www.fi.edu or call (215) 448-1200.

* Before visiting Boston's Museum of Science, visit Internet http://www.virtualfishtank.com and build virtual fish. Release them into the museum's 1,700-square-foot Virtual Fish Tank at the museum and see how they interact with other fish and how tweaking the design can change behaviors. This is one of the first fully interactive online extensions of a museum exhibit. Call the museum at (617) 723-2500.

Remember, the more enthusiastic parents are about museum-going, the more intrigued the kids will be. Bribery works, too, for older ones--a promised stop at the museum shop or their favorite store on the way home. Be prepared to leave the museum when the kids, especially younger ones, get hungry or tired--even if you've spent only an hour or two. There will always be another rainy day.

Taking the Kids appears the first and third week of every month.

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