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Explorations for the Littlest Scientists

I couldn’t believe my luck. Tucked into an obscure corner of the huge science museum was parent heaven. Actually, it was just a small playroom for toddlers, but it seemed like paradise after I’d chased two young kids through the jammed halls of Chicago’s Museum of Science and Industry.

In this playroom, dubbed the Curiosity Place, 4-year-old Matt and 2-year-old Reggie found activities that were neither too complex for them nor placed too high for little hands to reach. The best part: chairs for tired parents to take a much-needed break.

I had to drag my kids out of the Curiosity Place that afternoon. We returned again and again and couldn’t understand why the place was so hidden.

Not anymore. The Curiosity Place has turned into the 8,000-square-foot Idea Factory, smack in the middle of the museum--a magnet for families visiting one of Chicago’s top tourist draws.

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“The idea is to give young children a place to explore and play at their level,” explained Elaine Vinson, who oversees the enormously popular, year-old Idea Factory. “They’re not afraid of science at that age, and we want them to keep thinking science is fun.”

Around the country, science centers are taking the same approach. They’ve finally realized what parents have always known: The littlest ones in the family are born scientists. “You’d be hard pressed to find a science center these days that doesn’t have a special space for the littlest explorers,” said Ellen Griffee, director of the international Assn. of Science-Technology Centers.

That’s good news for traveling families at a loss to entertain a toddler or preschooler. Those with older kids won’t have to worry that they’ll miss a city’s stellar attraction because it’s too grown-up for their littlest traveler.

San Francisco’s Exploratorium has just opened Play Lab for little ones. “It’s ironic that we want everyone else to be curious and explore the way young children do naturally,” said Exploratorium spokeswoman Linda Dackman.

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Recently, the Louisville (Ky.) Science Center unveiled KidZone, complete with a child-size construction area and a water-play room designed by engineers at the Louisville Water Co.

At the Boston Museum of Science’s recently added Discovery Center, young children can walk alongside an 18-foot-long python skeleton or hunt for fossils at the re-creation of a dig.

The KIDSPACE that the Center of Science and Industry (COSI) in Columbus, Ohio, first opened for children 15 years ago has proved so popular that museum memberships doubled as a result. With help from a National Science Foundation grant, it has been replicated in more than 80 museums worldwide.

“The level of success took us by surprise, but then we realized the tremendous need and interest that were out there,” explained Chuck O’Conner, COSI’s vice president for exhibits.

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That’s why when COSI moves to larger quarters later this year, a new LITTLEKIDS SPACE will open for babies, with information kiosks to help parents understand how their babies are learning as they play in the water or discover different textures. There also will be a “baby snack bar” that dispenses diapers as well as food.

At the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago, babies can hurl a giant, soft block through a 2-foot-high tube to learn about shapes and motion. Four-year-olds can make a “tornado,” watch swirling shapes through a kaleidoscope and move giant magnetized blocks with a crane.

Small science museums outside of big cities, meanwhile, are working just as hard to reach families. The Montshire Museum of Science in Norwich, Vt.--an ideal stop when driving through New England--has Andy’s Place, where kids can crawl through a tunnel to see an aquarium.

“This is about exposing kids to every stimulus we can,” said Griffee of the Assn. of Science-Technology Centers. “But we want parents and grandparents to enjoy the exploration too.”

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To that end, Scientific American magazine has just launched a quarterly, Explorations, to help families explore science together in informal settings such as museums, aquariums and zoos. Traveling families will find the detailed list of museum exhibits throughout the nation especially useful.

Remember that an excursion to a science museum doesn’t need to be an all-day affair. Spend an hour or two and leave as soon as your little explorer gets tired or hungry. Most important, don’t be afraid to admit you can’t answer every question.

“It’s OK not to know all of the answers,” Griffee said. “The point is learning how to find the answers together.”

Assn. of Science-Technology Centers, telephone (202) 783-7200, Internet https://www.astc.org.

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Boston Museum of Science, tel. (617) 723-2500, Internet https://www.mos.org.

Center of Science and Industry, Columbus, Ohio, tel. (614) 228-COSI, Internet https://www.COSI.org.

Explorations, $11.80 annually, tel. (800) 285-5264, Internet https://www.explorations.org.

Exploratorium, San Francisco, telephone (415) 561-0360, Internet https://www.exploratorium.edu.

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Louisville Science Center, tel. (502) 561-6100, Internet https://www.lsclouisnet.org.

Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vt., tel. (802) 649-2200, Internet www.montshire.net.

Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, tel. (773) 684-1414, Internet https://www.MSIChicago.org.

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

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