Once upon a time in ancient Greece, a baby wrapped her chubby hands around the equivalent of a modern-day sippy cup -- a clay vessel with a spout. A toddler, freed from his sturdy potty chair, wheeled a terra cotta horse across the floor under the watchful eyes of his nanny. Older siblings studied their letters, romped with pets, cuddled dolls, spun colorful tops and rocked on seesaws.
Depicted in clay, bronze and stone, on painted vases and cups, these intimate scenes of long-ago life seem too familiar to belong to dusty antiquity.
The fact that they occurred 2,500 years ago, give or take a few centuries, is an eye-opener and a family-friendly draw in "Coming of Age in Ancient Greece: Images of Childhood From the Classical Past," at the J. Paul Getty Museum through Dec. 5.
The exhibition explores the everyday lives of children from birth to adolescence through objects taken from the collections of American, Australian and European museums. It includes pieces from the Getty's own collection that have never before been on public display.
"There are some great works of art that are truly masterpieces," said Janet Grossman, the Getty's curator for the exhibition, "but a number of objects wouldn't stand alone without the context of the show.
"Seeing them together, I hope families will think about their own childhoods and their children's lives and contrast them to those of Greek children who lived a couple of thousand years ago."
"Coming of Age" originated at the Hood Museum of Art at Dartmouth College. It was conceived by scholars Jenifer Neils and John H. Oakley, who explored the little-known role of children in ancient Greek society, using literary texts and visual clues found in objects that pictured children and that children would have used.
Gleaning a view of the lives of adults from the surviving literature and artifacts of ancient times is frustrating enough -- "It's like putting together a 5,000-piece puzzle with 3,000 pieces missing, and trying to see the whole picture," Grossman said.
Piecing together the lives of children is an even greater challenge.
What has been learned, or surmised, from the objects in "Coming of Age" is sorted into sections: "Mythical Children," "Children at Home," "Educating Children," "Children at Play," "Slavery in Ancient Greece," "Children and Religious Ritual," "Children and Funerary Rituals" and "Transition to Adulthood."
Separate audio tours have been created for adults and children; the latter is narrated by "Appollonia," an Athenian girl memorialized on a marble gravestone in the exhibition.
The portrayals of child care and children at play are most likely to resonate with young visitors.
In a painted vignette on a vase, a girl tugs at a friend carrying a writing case and stylus -- is she a reluctant student? In another scene, a boy entices a cat to climb up a walking stick. A wooden chariot, dolls with movable arms and legs, and a toy monkey and her baby all look ready for play in a four-sided case.
Elsewhere, formidable terra cotta nannies maintain tight grips on their young charges, and one terra cotta little girl carries another piggyback.
And then there are the knucklebones. Knucklebones of pigs and goats, and handcrafted knucklebones of glass and bronze, were used like dice, marbles and jacks. They beg to be handled -- and can be, in the "Family Zone," an adjoining open space featuring meticulously rendered, please-touch replicas of wheeled horses, roller toys, dolls and lyres, as well as the knucklebones.
Visitors may also write on wax tablets, take rubbings of Greek letters and leaf through books on Greek mythology and Greek life. A dress-up area with silk and linen robes, tunics and draperies provides the photo op.
"It is geared toward children, but I'm sure that adults will enjoy it," said Viviane Meerbergen, project specialist for the Getty's education department, speaking of the Family Zone. "We wanted to make it as authentic an experience as possible to make the objects in the exhibition come alive."
Another element of the exhibition can be accessed at home: the Getty's "Coming of Age" "edutainment" website, which includes a re-creation of a knucklebones game (www.getty.edu).
Neils and Oakley point out that the Greeks were the first culture to portray children realistically, not as miniature adults, in their artworks.
Not that all is warm and fuzzy.
Many of those ubiquitous knucklebones, for instance, were likely byproducts of the animal sacrifices that were integral to daily rites and rituals honoring various gods and goddesses. It's evident too that children in ancient Greece would have had a close-up view of war, death and slavery.
And that clay baby feeder with the spout? It was as apt to contain a calming mixture of honey, wine and opium as milk.
'Coming of Age in Ancient Greece'
'Images of Childhood From the Classical Past'
Where: J. Paul Getty Museum, 1200 Getty Center Drive, Los Angeles
When: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Tuesdays through Thursdays and Sundays; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays; closed Mondays.
Ends: Dec. 5
Price: Free; parking is $5
Info: (310) 440-7300