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Children's museums are going all out for fun

Innovative ways of letting kids play help them to learn

ROCHESTER, N.Y. — The Fun House, its floor tilted at an 18-degree angle, is instantly disorienting. Most people who enter lean against the walls to escape its dizzying clutches.

Not 5-year-old Gabrielle Cutrona. She let out a yelp and ran right through it. Her 4-year-old sister, Georgia, and their two cousins were soon in wobbly pursuit.

"It makes me feel like I'm flying," Gabrielle said with a gleeful gasp after her fifth dash across the optical-distortion room at the Strong National Museum of Play.

"They're having so much fun they don't even realize they're learning things," said their mother, Amy Cutrona, on a visit home to upstate New York from Charlotte, N.C.

Many of America's 300-plus children's museums, employing bigger and bolder settings, have been pulling out all the stops to pique the curiosity of their patrons to the point where they'll want to read books or perform on stage, exercise their muscles or get better acquainted with nature.

Over the past decade or two, they've been widening their net to make room for an ever younger, preschool crowd. At Strong, which almost doubled in size in 2006 but still pays homage to its roots as a cultural history museum, there's also a big push to attract more teenagers and preteens.

When the inhabitants are hard at play, squeals of delight echo all day through this city's cavernous child laboratory — the nation's second-biggest after The Children's Museum of Indianapolis. But peer around many corners, and studiousness prevails.

None other than Albert Einstein, after all, called play "the highest form of research."

There were just 38 U.S. children's museums in 1975. Aside from proliferating, "they have flowered, I would say, to serve children in ways that most other museums have not — through high levels of interactivity," said Strong's chief executive, G. Rollie Adams.

"Children's museums are about engaging kids in activities where they can bring their own knowledge and questions into a learning situation, follow things that intrigue them most and learn at their own pace."

Drawing more than 600,000 visitors since a $37 million expansion swelled its interior to 282,000 square feet, Strong comes amply equipped with buttons, levers and high-tech gizmos: a walkthrough kaleidoscope, a melodic harp with lasers for strings, a 10-foot-tall animatronic giant standing guard near his beanstalk.

There's a rock-climbing wall, a butterfly garden and a yellow brick road leading to literary landscapes such as a mystery mansion, a wizard's workshop and an upside-down nonsense house. Among the pretend settings are a pirate ship, a helicopter cockpit and a mini-supermarket with a brick pizza oven, well-stocked aisles and cash registers.

Andrew Maust, already a budding ham, needed little prompting at the "Act Too!" theater.

"Hi! Welcome to my magic concert," shouted the 2 1/2-year-old, raising his hands over his head as he stepped onto the stage. He then shot a glance at his image on a TV screen angled above his head and, without further ado, disappeared behind the red curtain looking for another cloak to try on.

"It's a well-thought-out museum — there's something for every age," said his mother, Connie, watching the mostly unscripted performances from a gallery.

Dancing Wings, a rainforest-in-a-glass-atrium where some 800 native and tropical butterflies of all hues flutter about year-round and a smattering of button quail skitter underfoot, is a multigenerational hit.

Leif Rosenholm, 5, of Westford, Mass., balanced a blue morpho on the back of his fingers during his entire 20-minute stay. "I walked very slow," he explained. And when "I really bumped my hand and he didn't walk away," the towheaded boy proceeded to caress the butterfly's wings with the tip of his chin.

The shift toward accommodating toddlers and even crawlers largely paralleled a flurry of early childhood brain research affirming the social, intellectual and physical benefits of play.

"Play is really how children learn and that is their work as young children," said Janet Rice Elman, executive director of the Association of Children's Museums. "They learn best through touching, seeing, smelling, climbing, testing. They're also learning social skills, how to work with other children."

She traces the rise of immersive, fun-and-learning methods to the arrival of Dr. Benjamin Spock's son, Michael, at the Boston Children's Museum in 1962 when "it was still a natural history, objects-behind-glass place" and he dreamed up a hands-on display showing what life looked like under the streets of Boston.

Scores of museums now have outdoor spaces or gardens to build appreciation of physical activity and the outdoors in an era when childhood obesity is on the rise, she said. And many are loaded with "very empowering" exhibits, such as Strong's tiny post office, that allow children to practice grown-up roles.

"Education should be engaging and challenging and exciting," echoed Adams. "That's when people learn deeply, learn things they're going to remember for a long time."

Strong's conversion has made it the biggest all-around family attraction in western and central New York, drawing nearly twice as many people as show up at either the Baseball Hall of Fame in Cooperstown or the Corning Museum of Glass.

Margaret Woodbury Strong, the only daughter of wealthy parents who traveled extensively, acquired the family's taste for collecting at an early age. She was planning to build a "museum of fascination" to hold her unique collection of more than 300,000 toys, dolls, circus memorabilia, miniatures and other cultural artifacts dating from the 1820s to the 1940s when she died in 1969 at age 72.

Her curiosities are now interspersed in display cases throughout the museum, which opened in 1982. It began reinventing itself a decade ago by adding an atrium housing a 1918 country fair carousel, a 1956 Fodero stainless-steel diner and various Sesame Street sets.

In 2002, Strong acquired the 5-year-old National Toy Hall of Fame from A.C. Gilbert's Discovery Village in Salem, Ore. So far, 36 classic toys have been enshrined, from Barbie, Mr. Potato Head and Lionel trains to the corrugated cardboard box, a universal plaything or recreational backdrop since the 1890s.