I’ve never been a fan of large crowds or excessive noise. Amusement parks, malls, and even some bars (sad to say) can prove too much for me. With that being said, I took a huge step outside the parameters of my comfort zone this past Saturday when I agreed to accompany a friend and the child she nannies to the Exploratorium, at its new location at Pier 15 on San Francisco’s Embarcadero.
It was a mild day for exploration. It was sunny and cloudy off and on, but not exceptionally windy. My friend Brittany and her watchling, Mait, were anxious to indulge in the process of exploration offered by the museum. The two were veterans of the Exploratorium, usually making an appearance about once a month—but this was my first encounter. Although I do hate crowds and noise, I still possess a bit of a soft spot for children’s museums. They’ve usually got games, shiny things, and stuff you can touch. I really couldn’t ask for much else. Thus, I decided to brave the noisy masses for the sake of childhood wonder.
Founded in 1969 by American physicist Frank Oppenheimer, the Exploratorium is a museum and learning laboratory in San Francisco that provides interactive exhibits for guests, in hopes of igniting curiosity and encouraging exploration. As opposed to the often cold and rigid structure of other educational museums, the Exploratorium gives its visitors the chance to actively engage with the exhibits. The “no touching” rule does not apply here—and therein lies all the fun.
As the three us neared the building’s entrance, Mait was fit to burst with excitement. The closer we got, the more rapidly his 6-year-old mouth began to fire off statements, questions and declarations pertaining to the magical things laying just within the museum doors:
“Did you know they have a machine that lets you stand inside a REAL tornado?? The smoke just floats around you it’s like you’re INSIDE a tornado—like actually inside. Once when I was here I played this game that tests your memory with a computer and I have a REALLY good memory—have you played a game like that? I play it all the time. We can play it inside, I bet they still have it—or the magnet things that look like sand!!—I just know you’ll love it here, it’s SO fun!”
He continued on like that for the duration of our time in line, adding his own observations to the commentary as they came to him. After about 10 or 15 minutes our young explorer’s prayers were answered and we were allowed to pass through the doors.
The main gallery was a vast concrete structure, scattered with exhibits and various objects that showed their true function only after close inspection. Our youngest (and most excited) member wasted no time in herding us toward his favorite area of the museum. He took mine and Brittany’s hand, pulling us with remarkable force to the south gallery, which housed a multitude of tinker machines. There were kids all around the museum, but their numbers were greatest by far in the south gallery. This area was full of interactive games, challenges, and experiments. There were one or two young employees in Exploratorium shirts helping kids and explaining exhibits to them. The two I saw both looked young, probably around my age or possibly a couple years older. I started chatting with one employee while Brittany chased Mait around, trying to tell him he couldn’t take the marbles from one of the exhibits.
“Don’t even worry about it, kids always try to take the marbles,” Nikki Damien, 23, says to me, “we’ve got a big box of replacements in the back.”
“That’s a relief,” I told her. “How long have you been working here?”
“Just about five months,” replied Damien, “it’s kind of hectic sometimes—weekends are pretty busy. But I actually like it a lot, the atmosphere is exciting.”
I was about to return the small talk when the weight of a small boy collided with me. Mait had launched himself onto my back and was now clinging to me with exceptional force. I told him the piggyback ride was going to cost him. He giggled with excitement.
“I put most of the marbles back,” he whispered in my ear, “but I kept ONE in my pocket, don’t tell Brittany!”
I gave him a wink and told him we could keep it between us. That’s the beauty of not actually being the nanny; I always get to be the fun one and tag along on adventures while Brittany has to be the one to lay down the law. Far less awesome for her, to be sure, but I guess someone’s got to do it.
A few moments later we found our warden, panting and winded from chasing her escaped convict, and together we continued to make our way through the museum. Mait rode happily on my back for a whole three minutes until another attraction caught his eye and he began to flail wildly, demanding to be set free to investigate. We followed his hurried footsteps to a collection of tall glass cylinders near the back of the museum. Each of the 7 cylinders held a different amount of water, each representing the height of the tide in San Francisco bay at specific hours during the day.
“What’re these?” Mait asked. Brittany read him the paragraph-long description that was propped on a podium near the tubes. He listened longer than I thought he would, but soon realized he hadn’t much interest in tidal patterns and moved wistfully along to browse the last few exhibits. The Exploratorium’s new facility has huge windows that look out on the bay, so the lot of us spent the remainder of our museum visit looking for sea lions and sailboats. End-of-day-count: sailboats-4, sea lions: 0 (unfortunately).
"Did you have a good time, Mait?" I asked.
He nodded aloofly, but still grinning. I could tell he had a good time.