New San Jose Museum is Escape Heaven for Kids

<i> Bloom is a San Francisco free-lance writer</i>

“Come on, would you please leave us alone!” wailed 5-year-old Dominick Deguilio, who possesses the good fortune to have a mother who drove 110 miles so he could scream “Fire!” while climbing up and down a fire truck and activating a 90-decibel siren over and over.

Dominick’s face was painted with alternating stripes of blue and red in a menacing pattern that looked like war paint.

The fire truck and face-painting are two features at the state-of-the-art Children’s Discovery Museum, which opened last month to rave reviews in the middle of high-tech Silicon Valley. Designed for children betweeen the ages of 3 and 13, it is the largest children’s museum in the West.


Adults beware: You are entering territory controlled by children. Proceed with caution. The purple, cube-shaped building, located in San Jose’s redeveloped downtown city center, is a place where kids reign absolute. They run amok inside.

The uncompromising theme of the museum is that kids learn best by doing anything they want.

The place is every child’s dream. It’s Disneyland, Universal Studios, Pee-wee’s Playhouse, Mr. Wizard’s laboratory and Mr. Rogers’ classroom all rolled into one building.

Parents can feel good about the museum, too. Besides chalking up brownie points from your kids for taking them there, you won’t have to shell out a week’s paycheck to get in: admission is $3 for children, $6 for adults.

The museum was started with $1.8 million donated by Apple Computer co-founder and former whiz kid Steve Wozniak. Appropriately, the museum sits on a new street called Woz Way.

Inside is a series of real-life sets and scenes. One is Jesse’s Clubhouse, named after Wozniak’s 7-year-old son. While kids place pegs to build a climbing tower to the clubhouse, a computer captures the building process and draws a blueprint.

Children can play doctor or dentist, using real instruments (no needles or drills). A bank and post office are open to kids who are allowed to do whatever they like--from cracking the bank vault’s combination, to weighing parcel- post packages.

There’s a theater for mime, storytelling and acting. And for kids who want to play real-life “Les Miserables,” they can climb through sewer pipes adjacent to a mock city street that includes traffic signals, crosswalks and a telephone pole (with a thriving termite colony).

For the more domestic-minded, there is tortilla-making from corn kernels crushed with mortar and pestle then placed on hot rocks for cooking. And what better place to eat the snack than in an adobe house made with mud bricks and slopped together by your son or daughter.

The museum sits under the flight path of San Jose International Airport, so kids can eavesdrop on air-traffic controllers talking to pilots as planes land. Also, there is an amateur radio station. On a recent afternoon, kids were talking with an Argentine ham radio operator.

There are only two larger children’s museums in the United States: one in Boston, founded in 1913, and the other in Indianapolis, founded in 1924. The nation’s oldest children’s museum, in Brooklyn, opened in 1899.

“Parents spend so much time separated from their children today, we sometimes can be alienated from them,” said Sally Osberg, the museum’s executive director. “This museum is a place to understand our children and to celebrate their creativity.”


In keeping with that theme, there is no “adults only” area in the museum, where parents could get away from their children.

“We want parents learning about their kids and sharing in the fun,” Osberg said.

The clean, geometric lines of Mexican architect Ricardo Legorreta’s 42,000-square-foot building do nothing to absorb the squeals of children playing.

“Usually, new employees say their first three days are the worst,” said exhibits director Michael Oppenheimer. The sealed employee conference room is a welcome respite from the surrounding din.

In designing activities, Oppenheimer brought in busloads of children to test his ideas of what kids would like. The challenge was to make installations child-proof without taking away the fun.

On a recent weekend, many kids were sliding down banisters, running around in circles and shouting at the top of their lungs.

“There are absolutely no rules for children here,” said a not-so-sanguine Osberg as she watched a 2-year-old boy splash water on the backs of a bevy of retreating adults.

But the museum is not just for kids. This is a place of joy for adults, too, who still remember that to be a child is to be king.