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Museums Just for Kids

The terrified shrieks could be heard throughout the museum. We were touring a Ripley’s Believe It or Not Museum in San Francisco, and believe it or not, one small visitor, who looked about three years old, had somehow wedged her head between two railings on an upper level of the museum. With her screams reverberating around the high ceilings, it wasn’t long before she became the most immediate exhibit. Staff rushed to the rescue. Her parents and other visitors prodded and twisted and pulled. They flattened her hair and tried to slide her up and down between the bars hoping to find an opening. Finally, the screaming, panicked child came loose and collapsed with sobs into her mother’s arms.

This would not have happened in a Children’s Own Museum. Railings would be measured accordingly; steps and handrails and even bathroom fixtures would be the appropriate size. Of course, there are many more reasons for visiting Children’s Museums than not getting your kid’s heads lodged in the architectural design or not having to worry about your newly-trained preschooler having an accident because he’s trying to scale a toilet that seems to him like Mt. Everest. Dozens of kid-focussed museums have sprung up throughout North America over the last few years because small children profit by feeling and smelling and even tasting the exhibits and displays. And let’s face it—children’s museums are great for parents too. What parent hasn’t emerged from a large historic museum exhausted from grabbing sticky fingers away from glass display cases, shussing the exuberance or performing continual backstraining aerobics so that your budding rock collector or lab scientist could see the exhibits? At a Children’s Museum, kids are supposed to touch the displays, climb and jump, dress up as a mail carrier and shout out the addresses, dig for real bones, have a great time and learn something about their world in the process.

As a group of forward-thinking volunteers and corporations open Toronto’s first Children’s Own Museum for ages 2 to 8 this weekend (in a temporary location May 16 to May 31 for its inaugural exhibit at the Queen’s Quay Gallery at Harbourfront), it seems appropriate to applaud some of the museums in Canada where kids can explore their worlds at their own level. Here are some favorites:

LONDON REGIONAL CHILDREN’S MUSEUM, London, Ont: This renovated former schoolhouse may not look expansive. But enter with kids under 10 and it could take hours to see everything. My kids loved dressing as dinosaurs to explore the darkened cave. After, they dug for “dinosaur” bones in the sand pits. Similar sentiments for The Street Where I Live, a miniature set up of a real neighbourhood where kids can climb down to sewer level through a manhole, pump gas for customers who arrive in toy cars, and deliver letters from a real Canada Post mailbag. Play Inuit games and learn to write your name in Inuktitut; explore outer space; exsmine a young girl’s life in Victorian times. Special exhibits, such as peeping yellow chicks to pet at Easter time, are big hits. Call 519-434-5726.

CANADIAN MUSEUM OF CIVILIZATION, Hull, Québec: Within this impressive national museum just across the river from Ottawa is a special visiting area just for children. Kids can grab a passport and tour the world. Dress like an Egyptian to visit the Pyramid, pat the camel (not a live one) and write hieroglyphics, step into a desert Beduoin tent, don a Japanese kimono and examine a rock garden, wear an Indian bridal gown and try your hand at wedding embroidery. There’s a cargo ship with a working crane, a building centre where kids can construct a brick wall, a market place with a flower shop and a mini-café. To accommodate the growing number of visitors and the children’s museum’s popularity, they expanded a few years ago to offer three times the indoor and outdoor play space. The museum is open every day although visitors can run into school groups on weekdays and local birthday parties on weekends. All visitors are admitted free of charge on Sundays from 9 a.m. to noon; children under 10 must be accompanied by an adult. Call 819-776-8294.

MANITOBA CHILDREN”S MUSEUM, Winnipeg: This is a kid’s museum prairie-style. Hands-on exhibits include a grain elevator, a 1952 diesel locomotive with operating controls and hook-up with live railway yards, a railroad station, and a television studio equipped with monitors, cameras, a newsdesk and lighting and audio controls. Call 957-0005.

U.S.A: There are many children’s museums in the big cities now but highly recommended are the Boston Children’s Museum, which started its hands-on exhibiting for children in 1962 (there’s even a section for kids under 2), the Brooklyn Children’s Museum in New York (almost 100 years old) where you can construct Tom Hank’s scene in Big on giant piano keys and the Children’s Museum of Indianapolis in Indiana. Here, at the world’s largest kid’s museum, visitors can experiment with water and sand, ride a Victorian carousel and examine the largest collection of toy trains in the world. Call 317-924-KIDS.





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