A CHILDREN'S Museum has its own place in a community, its own function. If it's a good one, it not only aids teachers in formal education, it helps bridge the gap between school and the important education that goes on in the home. It offers the opportunity for parents to interact in the educational process with their children, says the director of The Children's Museum of Denver, Loren Behr.
"When we are developing exhibits," Ms. Behr says, "we are constantly thinking, `What is the parents role going to be in this exhibit?'" So exhibit labels are directed at parents, frequently in the form of questions in an effort to develop the process of inquiry.
But all the exhibits are designed for hands-on learning, inquiry, and problem solving. A good children's museum is a virtual lab of interactive learning.
Behr says that their busiest times are always vacation weeks when families come to view their new and exciting exhibits.
This year, the Denver Children's Museum offers a large, hot-air balloon that children can fill and release. The museum is always looking for ways to give children control over what they don't normally control.
In a special exhibit called "Drive-In Cafe," the museum attempts to demystify the world of animation. The kids are taught about its history at the same time they make simple animated forms. They incidentally learn that people are behind the scenes who are making decisions as to movement, story, and character.
The idea is to help children better separate fantasy from reality, while increasing their appreciation for (and, therefore, enjoyment of) this art form.
A grocery store teaches children simple and practical mathematics, nutrition, and decision-making skills. They are encouraged to push a shopping cart and gather the makings for a dinner menu.
Most riveting of all, however, is a traveling exhibition called "Jim Henson's Muppets, Monsters, and Magic," which offers a comprehensive look at the mechanical and artistic workings of the famous puppets as well as their history, dating back to 1954.
Bert and Ernie, Kermit, Miss Piggy, and the rest of the gang are joined by characters from "Fraggle Rock," "The Dark Crystal," and "Dinosaurs." Children can see how the puppets are made, and they can touch the very cloth out of which Kermit the Frog springs.
Behind-the-scenes video clips show the muppeteers at work. Special displays invite children and adults to try their hand at puppeteering. Workshops offered during the holidays will teach puppeteering techniques. The huge exhibit features five video stations and a "Creature Shop," which is similar to the Henson studio in London.
The Children's Museum of Denver recently joined with other children's museums around the country in a consortium. They will pool their economic and talent resources as well as design and mount exhibits they can share.
Museums in Indianapolis, Chicago, Minnesota, Houston, Memphis, and the Children's Museum of the Canadian Museum of Civilization join Denver in this progressive step.
* For holiday hours and additional information, call The Denver Children's Museum at (303) 433-7433, The Children's Museum in Boston at (617) 426-8855, The Los Angeles Children's Museum at (213) 687-8800, or The Children's Museum of Manhattan at (212) 721-1234.