It Turns Learning Into Child's Play

Times Staff Writer

Museums are places where life's mysteries are explained.

The Children's Museum at La Habra answers one of the most basic: Where can you keep toddlers busy for hours and have them learn at the same time?

Kirsten Resnick of El Segundo figured that out earlier this year when she plunked down $45 for a family membership and began bringing 2-year-old Micah and sister Kira, now 7 months, to the museum.

"We'll spend a couple of hours here, and usually I have to drag him out," she said as Micah happily zoomed through the Kids on Stage room, where several other toddlers -- wrapped in gauzy pink and purple princess outfits and mismatched feather boas -- performed oblivious of their audience.

"The thing I really like is the older the kids get, there are higher levels of activity for them to do," Resnick said. "It's worth the drive to get here."

Several rooms away, 5-year-old David Munoz gazed wordlessly at the museum's model train exhibit, his eyes darting as five trains chugged successively through a miniature village. The room's painted-brick walls were decorated with old tin signs announcing La Habra Station, courtesy of the Union Pacific Foundation.

"We come over here every chance we get," his father, Frank, said. "It's never crowded during the week, and there's so much for the kids to do."

The Children's Museum houses 12,500 square feet of exhibit space with permanent and changing displays. The focus is hands-on learning for younger children, from preschool through age 12.

When it opened in 1977, it was California's first children's museum and the first of its type west of the Rockies. It is now one of 18 children's museums statewide. "A lot of our audience is very young, so we try to incorporate elements they can understand," said April Baxter, curator of exhibits and education for seven years.

Expanded in 1989, the museum offers room after room of educational learning: There's a science room with a "dino dig" -- a large box of brick-colored sand filled with dinosaur bones for kids to discover and identify. In the opposite corner is a 200-square-foot waterfall to introduce children to the three states of water and explain such concepts as evaporation.

Other permanent exhibits include a mini-supermarket, a wall where shadows are captured and displayed, and a gas pump and car so children can participate in a Southern California rite of passage.

Small children and their parents also can ride a genuine Dentzel carousel, made by famed German craftsman Gustav Dentzel, who immigrated to the United States and opened his carousel factory in 1860.

A temporary exhibit, which runs through Jan. 18, features a "Hollywood FX" studio. Children can watch themselves disappear in front of a blue-screen or enter what is called a forced-perspective set, where they appear to grow larger as they walk into the distance.

They also learn morph technology on a computer screen, create artificial weather conditions using models and lighting, and become their own foley artists by creating sounds to complement a silent film clip.

Outside, there's a nature walk, where little feet can be compared against the massive concrete imprints of a T. rex.

Once a Union Pacific train depot, the museum has its own rich history. The station closed in the 1950s and sat empty until the 1970s. Then-La Habra Councilwoman Robin Young, after viewing the Pittsburgh Children's Museum, began looking for a spot for such a museum in town and settled on the depot.

The museum's budget of about $1 million a year is split between the city and the Friends of the Children's Museum. The city pays for maintenance of the building and salaries for a dozen mostly part-time staffers; the private fund-raising group pays for programs and exhibits. The museum handles about 40,000 visitors in a busy month.

Though winter is usually a slow time of the year, visitors have increased, Baxter said, because children's museums in Los Angeles and San Marino closed for renovations and possible relocation.

The next exhibit, which runs from Feb. 2 to June 6, is "Masters of the Arts," an interactive examination of nine famous painters, including Vincent van Gogh and Frida Kahlo.

Admission is $5 per person, with children younger than age 2 admitted free. La Habra residents are $4. A yearly family pass is $45. Birthday parties can be scheduled for the multipurpose room, where craft classes also are held.

Hours for the museum, at 301 S. Euclid St., are Monday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m., Tuesday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 to 5 p.m.

Free parking is available.

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