Many of the heroes our children study in school were timely sightseers: Marco Polo, for instance, and Charles Darwin. Galileo went sightseeing through a telescope, and Louis Pasteur journeyed through a microscope.
In traveling with children, you let them follow in these heroes' footsteps, especially when visiting museums that elucidate ideas and demonstrate phenomena discovered by the heroes when they went, they saw and they contemplated.
Every museum has exhibitions that fascinate kids. In New York, the Metropolitan Museum of Art's display of medieval armor, or the American Museum of Natural History's wildlife and anthropological dioramas, open children's eyes to the horizons of history, natural and social sciences.
Their eyes will open even wider, however, at the Brooklyn Children's Museum, offering interactive, hands-on exhibits designed especially to entertain and enlighten kids.
A short subway or cab ride away from midtown Manhattan -- in Brower Park, in the Crown Heights section of Brooklyn -- the museum now occupies a futuristic building, designed by architects Hardy, Holzman and Pfeiffer, that opened in 1977.
Most of it is underground. The entrance, marked by a highway sign that reads "Brooklyn Children's Museum" and a turn-of-the-century subway kiosk, is a descending "people tube" that resembles an over-sized drainage pipe. At the pipe's base is a water-filled trough that, at various stations, has water wheels, sluices, gates, turbines and steam controls -- all to be operated by children -- that show how canal systems and water power works.
At the end of the ramp, the museum is an innovative, inspiring interior, a sort of geodesic dome with podlike galleries -- linked with catwalks and ladders -- that contain hands-on exhibits and more than 40,000 artifacts of ethnological, technological and historical interest. In this magical, space-age space, children learn through experience about their physical environment and cultural milieu.
Special exhibits currently in place include "Night Journeys: Home Is Where I Sleep," which teaches children what happens when they sleep and dream and sheds some light on nighttime fears, and "Animals Eat: Different Feasts for Different Beasts," which has live animal habitats to show what creatures eat and what foods beasts and humans have in common, and to explain nutritional principles.
The Brooklyn Children's Museum is the nation's oldest children's museum. Founded in 1899 as an alternative to other museums, which were thought to be too stuffy and/or sophisticated for children, it originally occupied a Victorian mansion -- the Adams Building -- where parlors and hallways served as exhibition halls. In the 1920s, the collection grew to include a library and the museum expanded into a second building, the Smith mansion. Following World War II, programs were focused on scientific and technological advancements of the 20th century.
The Brooklyn Children's Museum: 145 Brooklyn Ave., Brooklyn, N.Y. 11213; telephone (718) 735-4400. Suggested contribution $2 per visitor. Hours: Mondays to Fridays, 2 p.m. to 5 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays and school holidays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Tuesdays.
The Brooklyn Children's Museum has spawned other kids' museums around the nation. Boston's Children's Museum was founded in 1913 by a group of university professors who believed that learning should not be confined to four-walled classrooms.
Boston's Children's Museum is located in a huge, refurbished turn-of-the-century brick and timber warehouse on Boston's waterfront, not far from historic Faneuil Hall.
Exhibitions are interactive. Many emphasize cultural and social values as well as demonstrating scientific principles. "Ahead to the Past" transports visitors to the year 1939 and into the home of a contemporary Jewish family, and the museum's three-story Victorian house is filled with items that show traditions, trends and history of the pre-World War II era. The museum also #F contains a two-story Japanese Kyoto-style town house and tea shop, a gift from the city of Kyoto (Boston's twin city) that lets visitors see how the Japanese live and learn about their culture. The "Kid's Bridge," a multicultural exhibit about different cultures, teaches how people can get along with each other. "What If You Couldn't . . .?" helps children to understand and empathize with other people's disabilities.
On the scientific side, "Bones" covers anatomy in developmental, cultural and whimsical ways. "Bubbles" demonstrates bubble formations and "Raceways" shows the principles of motion and momentum.
The Children's Museum: 300 Congress St., Boston, Mass. 02210; telephone (617) 426-6500, or (617) 426-8855 for the What's Up Line. Admission $6 for adults, $5 for children 2 to 15 and senior citizens, free for 1-year-olds. Hours: Tuesdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Fridays 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Friday night is family night; admission is $1 per visitor. Closed Mondays.
Cincinnati's Museum of Natural History, the oldest scientific institution west of the Alleghenies, recently moved into new quarters at Union Terminal, an art deco former rail road station. The new facility has a splendid Children's Discovery Center with several outstanding exhibits. "Return of the Giants" features 23 life-size roaring, rearing, robotic dinosaurs that give visitors a chance to experience the size, sound and simulated behavior of the extinct creatures that once ruled on earth.
Concurrently, the planetarium show is "Twilight of the Dinosaurs," offering five possible explanations for why 75 percent of the plant and animal species -- including all dinosaurs -- vanished from Earth about 65 million years ago.
"Pathways to Change" explains how plants, animals and humans fit into the environment and offers a time tunnel to take visitors back in time to study and develop the concept of environmental impact.
Additional interactive exhibits focus on genetics, the five senses, anatomy and teeth, the cardiovascular system and nutrition. There's also a 5-foot-tall soft-sculpture doll that unzips to reveal soft-sculpture organs that can be removed, discussed and replaced.
The Children's Discovery Center, Cincinnati Museum of Natural History: Museum Center at Union Terminal, 1301 Western Ave., Cincinnati, Ohio 45203; telephone (513) 287-7020. Admission $6 for adults, $5 for senior citizens, $3 for children 3 to 12, free for children under 3. Hours: Mondays to Thursdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Fridays, 9 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturdays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sundays 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.; holidays, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.
In Chicago, the awe-inspiring Museum of Science and Industry, housed in a restored historic building from the 1893 World's Columbian Exposition, is located near the Field Museum of Natural History and the Adler Planetarium, in Jackson Park on the shores of Lake Michigan. The museum has 75 exhibit halls with about 2,000 displays, most of them participatory.
There is a full-scale coal mine, complete with an elevator ride down into the mine and animated figures working at extracting coal from the mine shaft's walls, plus a 16-foot, walk-through model of the human heart, the Apollo 8 command module and a captured World War II German U-505 submarine.
A fabulous gift shop offers everything from anatomy charts to serious telescopes, as well as an excellent selection of educational books.
The Museum of Science and Industry: South Lake Shore Drive at East 57th Street, Chicago, Ill. 60637; telephone (312) 684-1414. Admission free, but some exhibitions have a nominal entry fee. Hours: Mondays to Fridays, 9:30 a.m. to 4 p.m.; Saturdays, Sundays and holidays, 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. Closed Christmas. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, open daily from 9:30 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.
Further west, San Francisco's Exploratorium is housed within the Palace of Fine Arts, in a hangar-sized building at the foot of the Golden Gate Bridge. The museum is a collage of 650 interactive exhibits about science, art and human perception.
Founded in 1969 by physicist and educator Dr. Frank Oppenheimer, J. Robert's younger brother, the museum offers the kind of experiential learning that is virtually impossible to obtain in classrooms, through books or television. Children crawl through pitch-black mazes of chambers lined with different textures, spin water-filled, 7-foot-high Plexiglas cylinders to create a vortex, and use huge prisms to deflect sunlight off the walls. There are many other playful activities that demonstrate principles of light, color, vision, sound, music, hearing, touch, animal behavior, language, patterns, electricity, heat and temperature, waves and resonance, and the weather.
The Exploratorium: 3601 Lyon St., San Francisco, Calif. 94123; telephone (415) 563-7337. Admission $6 for adults (six-month pass), $4 for students and disabled visitors (six-month pass), $3 for senior citizens (lifetime pass), $2 for youths 6 to 17 (six-month pass), free for children under 6; free for everyone on first Wednesday of month. Hours: Wednesdays, 10 a.m. to 9:30 p.m.; Thursdays to Sundays, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.