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Children's museums can be just the ticket for family vacations, a rainy day, or just plain fun

A wealth of activities - from the "Imagination Station" and "Brain Games" to the "Sticky City" and "Bubbles" - awaits eager youngsters this summer across the country. Keeping pace with the times, children's museums offer technological delights with a "please touch" invitation, with something sure to delight each family member (parents included). Following are scouting reports of what's happening in the children's museums in major US cities.

Chicago Children's Museum

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'ME did it!" shouts a gleeful two-year-old as a giant bubble wafts off her wand and wobbles through the air.

Across the room, a six-year-old stands grinning on a circular island surrounded by bubble liquid. With a tug on a rope, he hoists a plastic ring out of the solution, momentarily enclosing himself in a huge cocoon of bubble.

"Bubbles," one of the favorite summer exhibits at the Chicago Children's Museum, aims to be fun as well as educational. For example, youngsters can learn about light refraction by observing how a white light casts rainbow-colored designs on a sheet of bubble the children create.

Located a short walk away from Lake Michigan, the two-story museum boasts several displays with hands-on activities sure to engage young visitors of all ages to the Windy City.

Beginning July 1 and running through Sept. 4, a new traveling science exhibit, "The Magic School Bus Inside the Earth," arrives at the museum.

Special activities each Wednesday at 2 p.m. include becoming a rock detective, visiting volcanoes, learning about lava, and creating rock art.

Stressing the importance of recycling, another exhibit invites children to don hard hats and use flashlights to explore what happens to garbage buried in a landfill.

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Kids can also pull ropes to try to lift 5-, 35-, and 150-pound clumps of trash-like plastic designed to show how much waste each person produces daily, weekly, and monthly.

Other exhibits feature a wheelchair skill course, a glimpse of West African village life, and a chance to create a computerized family tree. In addition, a popular romp room has well-designed play spaces for children under age 7.

Toddlers and older children can cook in a realistic miniature kitchen, dress up like a firefighter, or steer a wooden Fantasy Vehicle that combines a boat, tractor, and airplane.

Babies can crawl through a Tactile Tunnel made of three-foot-high connecting wooden cubicles lined with common objects of perpetual fascination such as light switches, curling phone cords, and brooms.

"He loves all the tactile things," says Rahel Kima, a visitor from Israel, of her nine-month-old son, Noam.

North Pier, 435 E. Illinois St., #370, Chicago, IL 60611; 312) 527-1000

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