CHILDREN: Hands on, brains off?

Interactive is the buzzword, but does a museum for children have to be all flashing buttons and jazzy colours?

DINAH Casson is seeing for the first time the space she designed in the Science Museum being used by the people for whom it was intended. Children. Aaagh! The look on her face is the sort you might wear if you had just introduced a homicidal maniac to a set of Sabatier knives. In an ideal world, children with serious frowns of concentration would be sitting among the giant poles and blocks building fantastic constructions out of them, but right now some boys have just discovered that if you stick a block on each end of the pole they make well-cool weapons for assault and battery. Surrounded by the inspirational design of The Garden, the new basement gallery for three- to six-year-olds, adults may be thinking architectural, but the little blighters, it seems, are thinking Gladiators.

"Of course, it won't be like this normally," stress nervous Science Museum employees. "This is really just a party," they say, as a couple of giant boys who could well have escaped from the Neanderthal department of the Natural History Museum down the road attempt to strangle themselves on the dangling yellow curtain of plastic tubing...

At first viewing, the Science Museum's new basement seems to confirm one's worst fears about theme-park mentality invading the bastions of our culture. Parents look back with longing on the days when children stood in front of glass cases and peered at the contents, conveniently forgetting the aching boredom of the experience. For many children today a trip to the Natural History or Science Museums rates as fun: they expect to be entertained - and they expect lots of buttons to press. Accepted wisdom is that children brought up in the media age, with quick-fire imagery and instant gratification, simply do not have the concentration skills of earlier generations; and rather than challenging this assumption, many museums seem to be actively promoting it.

Nick Brooker, deputy head of a west London primary school and the father of three young children, while subscribing to the educational orthodoxy that children learn by doing, is doubtful of the part pushing buttons has to play in this. "Children flit; they see a button, press it and move on to the next, without pausing to reflect on what has happened. It just becomes a button-pressing experience rather than true interactive learning. In fact, often they are quite disappointed by what happens - we adults might be impressed by the flashing lights but they say, 'Oh, is that all it does?' At the same time the short-term stimulation devalues the static displays. I've seen children in the Natural History Museum running round pressing buttons and completely ignoring the dinosaurs."

But there are a few places where the lesser-spotted Contemplative Child can still be sighted. At the Geffrye Museum, devoted to the domestic interior throughout history, the deputy director, Christine Lalumia, does not talk interactive or hands-on - actually the word she slips in is Socratic. "We try not to say to the children, this is the way things are, we ask questions: what intrigues you about the room, what is familiar? We want children to look, explore, think." She refuses to believe that the modern child is unable to concentrate for more than a few minutes. Despite media saturation, children "are still quite happy to be entranced by stories or to hear someone tell them something interesting. And, of course, they love to give their opinions." Lalumia goes so far as to say that she hardly ever sees a bored child at the museum.

In fact, children are experts at finding things to interest them wherever they go - whether it's bare bottoms in the National Gallery or dead bodies in the British Museum. Nobody says get rid of the mummified corpses at the British Museum because they pander to the children's lust for horror, but that is because adults can see it as an "educational" experience.

In the new Science Museum hands-on basement, however, parents may need a little educating themselves in what the children are learning from the installations. Ironically, the high-design input that has gone in to making the area so exciting visually may prejudice parents against it - in other words it looks too much like good fun to have any educational value. Fortunately, T-shirted "Explainers" are on hand to enlighten the killjoy parent: in that sacred cornerstone of pre-school learning, the water play area in The Garden, the children are not just sailing boats - they are learning how to work alongside each other, pumping water, making dams. In the construction corner they are building abstract concepts into concrete skills - and making weapons. "The content is rooted in science and technology," explains Roland Jackson, head of education, "but it is essential adults talk to children about what they are doing. What is important is that they take something away with them mentally afterwards." (Of course, the children don't quite see it like this - what they want to take away afterwards is something from the shop).

The Things gallery for seven- to 11-year-olds is intended to put science and technology in context. In a wild and wacky space designed by Eurotrash creator, Gilles Cenazan-dotti, children are encouraged to question how and why objects are made. "The setting is deliberately surreal," explains the deputy director of the Science Museum, Gillian Thomas, "because it focuses attention on the real objects in a way that it wouldn't if we had used conventional room sets. The idea behind Things was also to help children appreciate that artefacts in the museum were once objects in the real world." Thus you have everything from a sink plunger and bottle of Mr Muscle to a bicycle puncture-repair kit ("What do these fix?"). There are holes to feel through (disconcertingly gynaecological), to sniff through (ugh), and to look in and guess the object (giant condoms? - no, rubber moulds).

But the new gallery that may last the longest is the one that looks positively archaic: The Secret Life of the Home features appliances traditionally displayed behind glass cabinets but interpreted, by cartoonist Tim Hunkin, with a brilliantly subtle and anarchic humour. There are some interactive exhibits - like the see-through lavatory children can flush (a hands-on habit they might like to start practising at home - are you reading me, Freddie?) and a see-through washing machine. Social history is brought to life in a classic 1950s advent: "Men will never discuss questions such as toilet tissue... yet they expect you to know exactly how they feel about it." Any normal child will surely be fascinated to know that in the 1950s what men wanted was "firm, clean-handling toilet tissue they can use with confidence". !

GOOD FOR CHILDREN

MUSEUM OF CHILDHOOD, 42 High Street (the Royal Mile), Edinburgh EH1 1TG (0131 529 4142). With exhibitions of toys, dolls, games and costumes through the ages, this place proudly boasts that it is "the noisiest museum in the world".

CASTLE MUSEUM, Norwich, NR1 3JU (01603 223624). Rates highly with children for its mummified cat and scary dungeons.

STRANGERS HALL, Charing Cross, Norwich NR2 4AL (01603 667229). Museum of everyday life from Tudor to Victorian times, with displays of period costumes and rooms.

JORVIK VIKING CENTRE, Coppergate, York YO1 1NT (01904 643211). In this reconstruction of part of the Viking city of Jorvik, the visitor is taken on a ride through a "time tunnel" by electronic cars past a thousand years of York life to a Viking street. In the wrong hands, such a reconstruction, complete with sounds and smells, could have been ghastly but in fact it is an enormously popular and successful exercise in making archaeology accessible to the layman

IMPERIAL WAR MUSEUM, Lambeth Road, London SE1 6HZ (0171-416 5000). Disappointed to find their parents did nothing more active in the war than hang around at the back of a queue of eggs in their mothers' ovaries, VE-crazed children can experience the trenches and the Blitz, complete with sounds and smells, as well as take a more sober view of war.

GEFFRYE MUSEUM, Kingsland Road, London E2 8EA (0171-739 9893). Housed in 18th-century almshouses, the museum presents the changing style of the domestic interior. Free courses (run on a first-come, first-served basis) are held during weekends and holidays; this half term they concentrate on making tiles and mosaics, using techniques and materials from a range of historic periods.

THE SCIENCE MUSEUM, Ex-hibition Road, London SW7 2DD (0171-938 8000). While the new basement galleries, The Garden and Things, are aimed at younger children, On Air on the third floor is a working radio station in which older children can present and record their own programmes. Expect heavy queueing!

EUREKA! Discovery Road, Halifax HXl 2NE (01422 330069). The ultimate interactive museum aimed specifically at children to help them learn about the world around them. Don't expect a reverent hush - Eureka! is "fun, lively and noisy".

PORTSMOUTH HISTORIC DOCKYARD Flagship Ports-mouth, HM Naval Base, Ports- mouth PO1 3LQ. Although it is intended as a secondary attraction to the Mary Rose and HMS Warrior, the Dockyard Apprentice Exhibition has proved to be the main attraction for children, with its well thought-out interactive activities. Children are given a "clocking-in card" as they enter, on which they answer simple questions about each exhibit; they are also given hands-on experience of tying naval knots, using pulleys and signalling in semaphore.

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