Education: Night school with voodoos: Learning is a children's adventure at Science Museum camp-ins, says Julia Hagedorn

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The Independent Online
On certain Friday and Saturday evenings a crowd of noisy children gathers outside London's Science Museum. Early the next morning, they emerge from the museum, white-faced with exhaustion.

In the intervening hours they will have made paper, built huge tetrahedrons out of six sticks, found out about the history of light, looked at chemicals and molecules, listened to ghost stories about the museum's exhibits, or wandered at liberty among the showcases. Some may even have managed to sleep in their sleeping bags, spread out in the shadow of the Triple Expansion Steam Engine or the giant pistons of the 1903 Mill Engine.

The Science Museum is the only one so far in the UK to offer 'camp-ins', which are already quite widespread in the US. Since its first Science Night in April last year, the museum has been inundated with requests from school parties, families, cub and brownie groups. Some children have birthday parties there.

Each Science Night can accommodate about 300 eight- to 11-year-olds, who have to bring their own adult supervisors to supplement 50 museum staff. Workshops start at 7.45pm and last until 10.30pm with a short break for supper. There is a story at bedtime and lights go out at 11.30pm. After breakfast there are more workshops from 8am until the museum opens.

Fears that children could damage priceless exhibits have proved groundless. Cub leaders, the staff say, are best at controlling their charges, and mothers with other people's children, worst. But on the whole, children refrain from creeping out of their sleeping bags and exploring the building at night - although it is rumoured that three white faces were once found among the voodoos by a guard.

But how much science do the children actually grasp? According to Graham Farmelo, head of interpretation at the museum, children enjoy the experience much more than a daytime visit. 'We create an unusual atmosphere that can turn people on to science,' he says.

Certainly, making paper surrounded by examples of early writing materials or building a geometric structure underneath examples of early aircraft suspended from the high ceiling in semi-darkness does add a certain excitement.

The staff make their demonstrations enjoyable by encouraging audience participation and keeping the children under control at the same time, so that they might learn something. One staff member, Rokshana Khan, says: 'I love doing it. Being here at night to impart science is fun - and it's great to see kids who have never met working together.'

The next two Science Nights are fully booked. For details of the next available dates call 071- 938 9785 at the end of June. Prices are pounds 15 per child and pounds 10 per adult.

----------------------------------------------------------------- Other museums and centres where children can have a 'hands-on' experience of science include: ----------------------------------------------------------------- The Exploratory, Bristol: 0272 252008. Has a newly opened Stradivarium,where children can climb inside a huge violin and experience the sounds of music. Xperiment] at the Museum of Science and Industry, Manchester: 061-833 0027. Holds theme days, and constantly adds to its 'interactive exhibits'. Satrosphere, Aberdeen: 0224 213232. The only hands-on discovery centre in Scotland. Techniquest, Cardiff: 0222 460211. Moving to a new building in 1995, which will include a planetarium and discovery centre. Eureka, Halifax: 0422 330012. First museum in the UK designed specially for children. Three main exhibition areas where children can role play, discover how their bodies work and explore the world of communications. -----------------------------------------------------------------

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