The urge to have a go is irresistible

Jill Colchester and her sons spend a day at the Bristol Exploratory

Puzzle over optical illusions, play with electricity, experiment with chemistry or walk into infinity with the help of a mirror. The Bristol Exploratory was Britain's first hands-on science centre - and the urge to have a go is still almost irresistible. The huge variety of exhibits (known here as "plores" because you explore them) could keep you here for days. Everything is made on site, clearly explained and easy to operate.

The Exploratory is constantly changing as exhibits are improved and new ones added. It occupies two floors of the magnificent Temple Meads Old Station, one of Isambard Kingdom Brunel's most impressive structures. Each exhibit demands a physical relationship to make it work - not just pushing buttons on computer displays - so children and adults learn through experience rather than having to remember what they have seen on yet another screen.

If you had ever wondered what causes a tornado, why the Clifton suspension bridge stays up, or how geologists find out about the composition of rock, this is the place to be - an educational adventure playground.

The Visitors

Jill Colchester, dance teacher, took her sons Kito, 11, and Merry, 8.

Jill: The Exploratory had a very good ambience and was visually very exciting - from the smart black-and-red entrance to the exhibits themselves. As we walked in, there was the lovely sound of children enjoying themselves. It felt spacious, so there was no desperate rush to get on something immediately. The layout was excellent; I liked the way the space was split into areas dealing with different topics like light, electricity and chemistry. The effect of going from the somewhat darkened room on the ground floor to the naturally lit upper floor was startling.

I think it is valuable that the children felt so much a part of everything. Most of the exhibits relied on you doing something to them but there were a few unexpected things like the colour maze which just required you to think about it. I also thought the Stradivarium sound room was a nice surprise.

The children spent a short time on each thing, being lured by the one next door before long. But they could have got more involved if they had wanted. Kito reckoned we needed at least three hours there to get round everything.

He enjoyed it immensely. Merry was at a disadvantage because he has difficulty reading. He had to work out what to do by doing it. I think as the place is geared towards children of primary-school age more pictorial instructions would have been useful.

Merry: The Exploratory was really good. There were loads of things to do and although there were lots of people we didn't have to queue for anything. The best thing was the really long tube which you talked down and it echoed back. I also made everything work on pedal power - the train, the beacon light, the television, everything. The air canon was good. I hit one end and it sent a puff of air quite a long way to a target and if you stood in front of it you got hit.

Downstairs was quite dark and you had to read more to understand what to do. The things upstairs were much easier to understand just by looking at them. I enjoyed the music room where we played with something that made sound louder or softer.

Kito: I have always been interested in science so I love these sorts of places but I think this is a great place for everyone. There were never- ending things to do, lots to read and lots to learn but nearly everything was hands on.

I really liked the electricity section. There was a plasma tube which you put your hands on either side and it made a green band go from one hand to the other showing the current go across it. I was very interested in the display about artificial lighting. Pedal Power was good. It was interesting to see how much power is needed to run a television or a radio compared to a light bulb.

I failed to make an arch upstairs because it kept falling down - but I did make a nice picture with the Harmonograph and got good echoes out of the echo tube. I also liked the 3D noughts-and-crosses. There was a good exhibition on water where they explained how they cleaned water which I found very interesting.

The Deal

Bristol Exploratory, Bristol Old Station, Temple Meads, Bristol, BS1 6QU (0117 907 8000).

Opening Times: daily from 10am-5pm, Closed for one week over Christmas.

Admission: adults, pounds 5: children (5-17), pounds 3.50; family ticket, pounds l5.

Access: the Exploratory is two minutes' walk from Bristol Temple Meads station which connects with local services and the Intercity network. By car it is well signposted from the city centre. It lies on many bus routes; nos 8 & 9 connect from the city centre.

Food: a small museum cafe serves snacks and light lunches geared for children: jacket potatoes from pounds 2.50; pizza, pounds l.60, beans on toast pounds 1. Open school holidays and weekends only. Alternatively bring your own packed lunch to eat in the designated area.

Cloakroom & toilets: no supervised cloakroom. Coats can be left at your own risk on the ground floor by the toilets. There is a disabled toilet and baby changing facilities.

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