- The Washington Times - Sunday, August 5, 2001

The newest exhibit at the Capital Children's Museum is a challenge. And that's the desired effect.

"Brain Teasers," a permanent ex-hibit that premiered at the museum in late May, is a hands-on collection of mind-bending activities for the inquisitive young. Showcased in a large, bright-yellow room just one of the many exhibit spaces in the quirky, century-old building that houses the collection the 20 activities include puzzles, tests of skill and number games.

The day we visited the museum on Third Street NE in the District, a gaggle of children from Camp Reston Goodtimes a day camp for children ages 6 through 11 swarmed the activity tables to work the puzzles. They laughed, they squealed, they argued, they concentrated and, ultimately, sometimes they succeeded.

"They really like this room a lot," offered Goodtimes counselor Lisa Poore. "The amount of time they've spent in here is pretty good."

Indeed, says communications manager Mimi Pham, museum staff members once clocked a family's stay in the exhibit at 2 1/2 hours. "They wanted to figure everything out," she says.

Glancing around, Camp Goodtimes administrator Julie Windsor agreed that her campers seemed to be enjoying themselves.

"This is a lot of 'using the mind' stuff that older kids really like," she said.

But "Brain Teasers" is not just for older children. Its sister attraction, "Teasers for Tots," is dedicated to preschoolers, inviting younger guests to match patterns and shapes and explore motion and color via simple toys and objects.

In the "Teasers for Tots" area, children sit at tables to complete puzzles leisurely and play with unusual sorters, scales and pyramids. Two mothers holding babies chatted as their two toddlers amiably matched rubber shapes to corresponding spaces on a large rug.

"'Teasers for Tots' is kind of a throwback that everything doesn't have to be razzle-dazzle," says Ms. Pham. "Kids tend to respond very well to very simple things like this."

Holly Sullivan, a tourist from Connecticut, said her three young children "love this exhibit. The different levels are great because everyone has something to do." The family was wrapping up its visit to "Brain Teasers" and was heading to the museum's Japanese collection next, she said.

The permanent exhibit called "Japan: Through the Eyes of a Child" was our next destination as well, and we were not disappointed.

Visitors step into the 2,500-square-foot space to a street flush with the trappings of modern-day Japan: an electronics shop with its replicated Sony and Aiwa CD and DVD players, a stationery store with enough Hello Kitty merchandise to make a young child drool, a kimono maker, a grocer, and a bento or boxed lunch counter, where children can serve lunches of shrimp, rice and seaweed to customers.

A money display explains the Japanese system of currency and invites visitors to calculate the exchange rate. They then can find seats aboard a simulated Shinkansen, or bullet train.

Next, visitors are invited guests in a Japanese home. Removing shoes, they can check out a Japanese bathroom, peer into the pint-sized refrigerator in the kitchen and sit at the floor-height table, legs crossed, in the sweet-smelling tatami room.

The last stop is a Japanese classroom, with its rows of small desks and a large abacus prominently displayed.

"'Japan' is one of our most popular exhibits," explains Ms. Pham. "Walking into a Japanese restaurant is probably the only experience many kids will have of a child living in Japan. This provides a glimpse of Asian culture in a way that is very difficult to experience from a textbook."

At any given time, Ms. Pham says, exhibit educators might be helping children make kites, teaching them how to use chopsticks or showing them how to draw Japanese characters.

The day we visited, one educator explained the essence of the tatami room while another, stationed behind the bento counter, discussed the Japanese luncheon choices, unfamiliar to many American children.

"The museum educators are there to facilitate your visit and answer any questions you might have," Ms. Pham says. "We encourage parents and children to be very participatory in a way that will make an enriching experience."

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