Chesterton Tribune

Curious Kids Museum offers relief from cabin fever

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If cabin fever is reaching epidemic proportions in your home and the kids are climbing the walls, relief is just 55 miles away.

Since 1988, the Curious Kids' Museum in St. Joseph, Mich. has challenged, educated and amused the region's youngsters. About 70,000 people each year -- 25,000 of them school groups -- visit the renovated 1915 building.

Inside, colorful interactive exhibits, activities and age-appropriate games invite children ages 1 through 12 to learn by discovering and doing.

In an age of slick computerization and digital entertainment, the museum's laid-back presentation is a welcome alternative.

Simple pleasures, like placing apples in a hopper so they go up a chute and return to the tree, only to be "picked" again, or pulling a hula hoop up over your head to be encased in a life-size soap bubble, all offer a break from technology overload.

According to museum director Pat Adams, "We believe in the saying, 'I hear and I forget; I see and I remember; I do and I understand.' Kids explore here at their own pace. They're not graded. You shouldn't diminish your self esteem in this learning environment."

The museum's lower level celebrates the global child through music, art, history, culture and geography. Dinosaurs lurk, volcanoes rumble and earthquakes topple kid-built structures.

A stage-your-own puppet theater is surrounded by a kid-size kitchen and face-painting tables. In the Toddle Farm, children ages infant through 4, accompanied by an adult, can climb a hayloft, slide down a silo or play in the duck pond.

Adams said the museum exhibits are designed by and for kids. In late February, the new "Curious Kids in Outer Space" will debut, allowing them to feel what it's like to be an astronaut living in a small space, using robotic arms and communicating via satellite. More than $36,000 was donated to bring a space shuttle and planet Mars to life.

On the second floor, exhibits focus on understanding simple machines, the not-so-simple human body, and more complex scientific principles. Whether pumping blood through a model heart, being a human battery, reaching for holograms that aren't there or playing with pulleys, magnets and gears, plan to spend some time upstairs.

Two exhibits are especially unexpected. A walk-through steel ambulance, realistically equipped with supplies and a child-size cot, helps defuse any fear if they or a loved one needs such medical assistance someday. Another exhibit examines the loss of physical senses and losing the ability to walk.

"This is an opportunity to get into another child's experience," said Adams. "What if you couldn't walk, talk or hear?" Braille and sign language are explained, and children can type or stamp their own names in both languages.

One recent Saturday, Dan Bernson's three-year-old grandson Noah was "driving" the ambulance. Grandson Nick, age 18 months, was nearby. According to Dan, "This museum has a little bit of everything, and the hands-on aspect of it is a real experience. The boys aren't looking; they're doing. This was our first visit, and we'll be back."

Melissa Essig has visited the museum several times with daughter Lindsay, 22 months. "She's familiar with things and she has her favorites," said Melissa. "Lindsay's also learning to share with other kids."

Essig has a family museum membership, which qualifies them to participate in additional group activities, classes, field trips and social events. One recent workshop featured a cartoonist helping kids design their own Superhero based on each child's special skills.

After seemingly being suspended in space in the anti-gravity mirror, our own granddaughter, Melanie Poparad, age eight, declared the wheelchair obstacle course her favorite exhibit; she even got a basketball in the hoop after mastering the wheelchair on an incline, and passing through a door. A final purchase at the gift shop, and we tossed one last coin down a chute to learn how a vortex works on our way out the door.

Adams said six managers and 25 staff, all part-time, help bring the museum's message to kids living along Lake Michigan's southeastern shores.

Popular with teachers and students, she noted, are the museum's fee-based outreach programs which take exhibits and speakers on the road, like the Star Reach portable planetarium and tables of related hands-on activities. Such programs, which include make-and-take projects, have visited Porter County Schools; they're also available to civic groups, libraries and festivals.

And what a curious place to have a birthday party! A room is available for kids of all ages, including adults and corporate groups, to rent. The museum can provide food and entertainment, if desired.

The museum is located at 415 Lake Boulevard in St. Joseph, exit 23 off Interstate 94. The barrier-free museum is open year-round (excluding major holidays) Wednesday through Saturday 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday noon to 5 p.m. (all EST) The museum is open Monday through Saturday as well as Sunday from July 5 until Labor Day. Parking is free.

Admission for the day is free under age one, and $3.75 per child or adult; hours and fees are subject to change. Large groups are welcome. For more information and detailed directions, call 616-983-CKID or visit the web site at www. curiouskids