What a nifty way for a youngster to spend a rainy Saturday afternoon.
Where else, in a single room, could a child pet (don't squeeze it!) a Burmese python, fashion a crepe-paper flower, watch the stars from inside an inflatable mini-planetarium, sing along with the red-derbyed Kinderman, make a candy necklace, wash hands in shaving cream, bowl for a strike, crawl through an obstacle course, practice jousting from the seat of a pedal-powered tractor, dress up as a knight in plastic armor or touch a display of real animal skulls?
Or, in a room down the hall, get a free vaccination against measles or other diseases?
It was all available yesterday (and will be again today from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.) at the state's second annual Kids' Convention, staged under balloons and banners in the cavernous Towson Center at Towson State University.
Put on by the state Department of Education and the Office for Children, Youth and Families, the event attracted nearly 4,000 people -- about half the number who attended the first Kids' Convention last year.
The offerings constituted a clever mix of fun and learning, including hands-on exhibits in optics, sound transmission and manual dexterity, balloon-popping science demonstrations on stage, puzzles, optical illusions, and table after table of arts and crafts for younger children. Scales and Tales, a Department of Natural Resources program, displayed live owls, turtles and snakes.
Side by side with the games and other activities for children were booths dispensing information on more serious topics aimed at parents, including pamphlets on preventing child abuse, identifying learning disabilities in children, or caring for the elderly.
"Scaaaa-reee," said 7-year-old Candice Collins of Upper Marlboro after gliding down an incline to a sudden, jolting stop aboard "The Convincer," a sledlike contraption operated by the state police. The idea is to convince children of the need to wear seat belts.
The loudest howls of the day came from the other side of the building, and they were not the sounds of joy.
There, the state Health and Mental Hygiene Department and the Army National Guard's 136th Combat Support Hospital set up a clinic for any child who needs immunization for diphtheria, tetanus, whooping cough, polio, measles, mumps, German measles or the flu.
(Vaccination records are required, and children must be accompanied by a parent or legal guardian. Similar clinics will be held at the state office building at 301 W. Preston St. on Aug. 22-23 and Aug. 29-30, and at other locations around the state those two weekends.)
"It was a godsend, an absolute godsend," said Mike Pivec, a 42-year-old unemployed Parkville man who said he brought his wife and three preschoolers to the convention specifically to take advantage of the free vaccinations. "I knew our children needed the shots, but we had no money to pay for it." He figured the eight shots for 5-year-old Casey, 4-year-old Michael and 20-month-old T. J. saved him as much as $360 and guaranteed that his children would be admitted to school this fall.
By late yesterday afternoon, about 300 children had been vaccinated. Once they received their shots, each child was awarded an Army "dog tag" imprinted with his or her name and date of birth, then admitted free to the arena for the games, displays and performances.
For others, admission was $2.50 a person, up to a maximum of $7 a family. Children under 3 were admitted free, and group rates were available.