- The Washington Times - Sunday, September 23, 2001

Museums have been transformed over the decades from stodgy repositories of history to interactive wonderlands working to attract children to engaging educational experiences. One place succeeding handsomely, the Children's Museum of Indianapolis, was voted the ninth-best family destination and the No. 1 museum in the Midwest by readers of FamilyFun Magazine. The museum also offers a Web-based companion loaded with learning and fun.

The Children's Museum

Site address: www.childrensmuseum.org

Creator

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, which just celebrated its 75th birthday, brought the site to the Web six years ago.

Creator quotable

"We created this site to provide information to the many people who visit and participate in the wide selection of programs of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis," says Debbie Babcock, manager of client support and Internet services.

"We also, however, want the site to provide for those people who cannot visit the museum the same type of unique experience that is obtained from a visit to the museum. We are hopeful that the site, like the museum, will appeal to kids and adults and be of particular benefit to teachers and those who home-school."

Word from the Webwise

The world's fourth-oldest children's museum has succeeded over the years through innovation and a hands-on approach in its presentation of exhibits. Its Web site mirrors this approach with colorful learning modules that use games, pictorial histories, hints for parents and teachers, animated scenes and plenty of text-based information to prompt exploration of a small selection of topics.

Visitors need only click on the "Fun On-line" section of the front page to be taken to the primary portion of the site, which offers five places of interest "Kinetosaurs," "Geo Mysteries," "CosmicQuest," "Arts Workshop" and "Bones: An Exhibit Inside You." Of these, I found the latter two to be most impressive by comfortably melding current Internet technologies with varied activities.

First, "Arts Workshop" allows children to express their creativity through a list of 11 off-line projects, including building a PVC flute, or visitors can stay online and create a multimedia puppet show. Within "Lights, Puppets, Action!" young producers select names for their hero and villain and develop a three-act story using drop-down menus or by supplying original prose.

Producers then can select puppets from around the world to star in their show. Of course, children can learn the history of each figure which all reside in the actual museum's collection. Next, a set must be chosen or developed using an online paint program, music selected (I used a bit of boogie-woogie to start with and a Bulgarian chorus for my riveting final act) and movement given to the characters. Finally, children can post their production online for others to enjoy.

Many of the choices involved are peppered with facts and definitions of items used in the show. For example, children learn about Ludwig van Beethoven's "Moonlight Serenade" or the myths behind a Chinese dragon as they make their selections.

Also under "Arts Workshop" is a focus on sculpture, which explores areas ranging from what sculptors do to the purpose of sculpture, utilizing real world relics and interviews with artists.

The second outstanding module, "Bones: An Exhibit Inside You," hones visitors' knowledge of their internal framework by explaining the fundamentals of bone biology, looking at the museum's real exhibit on the subject, explaining differences in certain animals' structures and presenting six games to reinforce concepts.

Ease of use

Each module does a great job of teaching and provides a completely different looking and acting environment to keep children interested. Visitors will need Java enabled on their computer browsers, the latest Macromedia Flash Player and Adobe Acrobat

Don't miss

"Cosmic Quest" looks at the stars and those who travel to them. A very cool simulation found in this section, "Living in Space," allows children to build a space station by presenting a wide range of choices (with appropriate facts) for the outer and inner workings of the massive craft.

I had to decide on items such as menus for the astronauts, what they can breathe, power, the amount of water needed and even toilet facilities. Successful engineers are rewarded with a printable certificate toutingtheir accomplishments.

Family activity

The obligatory dinosaur section, "Kinetosaurs," includes a list of Earth's mightiest creatures, a look at fossils and information from artist John Payne on his dinosaur sculptures. Visitors will really enjoy creating a model of the triceratops using papier mache techniques. Detailed instructions are, of course, found on the site.

Cybersitter synopsis

The Children's Museum does not overwhelm with topics which is a good thing but enlightens through a well-developed roster of modules to give children a great experience on the Web as well as a knowledge base to flaunt before their fellow classmates.

Overall grade: A

Remember: The information on the Internet is constantly changing. Please verify the advice on the sites before you act to be sure it's accurate and updated. Health sites, for example, should be discussed with your own physician.

Have a cool site for the family? Write to Joseph Szadkowski at Webwise, The Washington Times, 3600 New York Ave. NE, Washington, D.C. 20002; call 202/636-3016; or send an e-mail message (jszadkowski@washingtontimes.com).

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