- The Washington Times - Saturday, March 5, 2005

ExploraWorld has some 24,000 square feet in which to pretend and play, dress up and slide down. The hands-on activity center stretches through a former office building in Columbia, Md. It’s advertised for children ages 1 to 10, but the preschool crowd will have the most fun.

The center is divided into about two dozen “rooms,” each with a different activity or theme. The rooms are divided by brightly painted half-walls, so parents can let the children explore but still keep an eye on them.

Given the typical short attention span of a 4-year-old, that is good planning. On a recent weekday morning, preschoolers sprinted from the nautical-themed sandbox section to the puppet theater to the dance studio and its dress-up clothes. They hopped like frogs through the painted lily pads and shopped for groceries in the mock grocery store. They tried a few computer games and taught their mothers lessons in the schoolroom.

“Is there going to be a test?” asked one of the grown-ups squeezed into a child-size desk.

“Yes,” piped up one of the youngsters, who then continued with the ABCs lesson on the giant chalkboard. “Then it’s story time.”

One of the highlights for the children is a real fire engine parked in the facility.

“The kids can climb all over it,” says co-owner Lisa Vogt. “They can pretend to put out a fire.”

The fire engine — which recently was refurbished — has hoses that unravel and firefighter gear the children can wear.

An ambulance is parked nearby. Children can go inside it and “administer” emergency care or conduct dental and medical exams in the mock doctor’s office.

Mrs. Vogt and her husband, Tim, bought ExploraWorld about two years ago. They want it to be an educational destination, so there are lessons to go along with all the pretend play. In the medical area, for instance, elementary school wall charts detail the bones and body systems. In the closed-circuit TV area, children can pretend they are TV weather forecasters in front of a large map showing all the states.

The Vogts are fine-tuning the educational experience at ExploraWorld. They will be changing the name of the place soon — to PlayWise Kids, a name Mr. Vogt says better explains what the facility is all about.

ExploraWorld has an educational resource store that features puzzles, pretend play items, workbooks and other goods. The store soon will be expanding its merchandise, Mr. Vogt says.

ExploraWorld does a good job of entertaining visitors who fall outside its target audience. A section with foosball tables and a basketball game keeps preteens busy, and several toddler rooms let smaller children climb safely on foam blocks and play with puzzles.

The building and its rooms are also wheelchair-accessible. On a recent morning, a special-education class came through on a field trip, and the students who used wheelchairs were able to get the full experience.

ExploraWorld offers field-trip programs for education-based groups that include general hands-on discovery or 30-minute guided science programs. The science programs, geared for different levels from pre-kindergarten to third grade, are centered on themes such as plant life, outer space, rocks and fossils, and weather.

When you go

Location: ExploraWorld is at 6570 Dobbin Road in Columbia, Md.

Directions: From the Beltway, take Interstate 95 north to Route 175 west. Take a left on Dobbin Road. ExploraWorld is about a half-mile on the right.

Hours: 9:30 a.m. to 5 p.m. weekdays, 9:30 a.m. to 7 p.m. Saturdays and 11:30 a.m. to 6 p.m. Sundays.

Admission: $3 for adults and children age 13 and older, $8.50 for children ages 2 to 12, $4.95 for children ages 12 months to 23 months. Children 11 months and younger are admitted free. Memberships are available.

Parking: Free parking in lot.

More information: 410/772-1540 or www.exploraworldcolumbia.com.

Notes:

• ExploraWorld is a hands-on educational and play center designed for children ages 1 to 10, but preschoolers will have the most fun.

• The facility offers special events (free with admission) several times a month. Upcoming special programs include Grandparents Day (March 14), arts and crafts (March 17) and martial arts (March 23).

• The facility has party rooms for birthday parties.

• ExploraWorld has a snack bar and lockers where families can store backpacks and other items.

• ExploraWorld soon will be changing its name to PlayWise Kids.

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