- The Washington Times - Sunday, March 3, 2002

The National Museum of American History contains treasures to delight children and adults alike. All the favorites are there: The First Ladies exhibit. The history of the armed forces. The railroad and road transportation halls.

The next time you visit with children, add another destination: the Hands On History Room.

This self-contained section of the museum is reserved for children ages 5 and up. Visitors will find more than 30 activities centering on daily life in the past. The activities are built around reproductions of historical artifacts that offer the chance to feel, examine and apply objects such as those seen elsewhere in the museum.

The staff keeps crowds down and aesthetics up by limiting admission, clearing out the room and straightening up before each new group is admitted. This system works fine for families if you play your cards right: Stop by the Hands On Room early on your visit (or just before noon, when the room opens) to procure a timed admission ticket.

Patrons entering the bright room will find displays and tables of items to work with and plenty of friendly museum employees to assist and explain. Unlike many children's collections, the room is clean and orderly and all the exhibits seemed in working order.

"Until the early 1800s, children had little time to play …," reads the display on the "Toys and Games of 100 Years Ago" exhibit, where visitors can handle toys such as marbles from the 1800s and reproduction dolls. "But by the late 1800s, play was considered important in its own right and learning became secondary."

Nearby, children can gape up at the life-size nonhuman farmhand in "The Mighty Mule." Patrons can discover the role the mule played in early American life and actually lift the heavy leather, wood and metal apparatus to harness the great plastic beast.

At the "High Wheelers" area, children can tour turn-of-the-century roadways from atop one of two highwheeler bicycles, those giant trikelike bicycles with their huge front and tiny hind wheels.

Over at the "Try Making Rope" exhibit, Allendale, N.J., lawyer Virginia Shea and her two children, Clare, 5, and Jerry, 7, were trying their hands at rope-making principles of the 19th century.

"What better place to be on Presidents Day but Washington?" asked Ms. Shea. "We came primarily to see the Smithsonian museums."

Her children twisted and hooked, with the help of a Hands On Room employee, as Ms. Shea looked on.

"This seems a little bit above their level they're not readers yet. I guess that's why the parents are here," she said, "But it's much more interesting for them to be able to touch things than to be passive."

The Hale family, including Danielle, 5, and Dylan, 7, buzzed around the "More Work for Mother" exhibit, which shows inventions designed to make housekeeping easier for women in the late 1800s.

"We've been waiting for years to do this, because they don't let them in until they're 5 years old," said Donna Hale, a Herndon stay-at-home mother. "We came early and spent the morning in the science center downstairs."

The children treadled on a reproduction sewing machine of the period, one of those devices "that were invented to make household chores easier and less time consuming for mothers of the expanding middle class," reads the display.

"It's wonderful. The kids have enjoyed it," said Ms. Hale. "I have a sewing machine at home and I won't let my kids touch it. But they can come in here and put their hands on things."

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