Sam McManis

Discoveries: Temecula Children’s Museum

Should you and The Fam find yourselves in this Riverside County suburb – and face it, unless you’re a hard-core wine lover, you’re probably on your way to somewhere else – you need to pay a visit to Professor Phineas T. Pennypickle.

You’ll never see the mad professor, actually, but his imprint is everywhere at the Temecula Children’s Museum, aptly subtitled “Pennypickle’s Workshop.” Fictional character though he may be, Pennypickle is worthy of a Nobel Prize (to go along with its 2009 best-museum award from a website run by the kids TV channel Nickelodeon and a California Park and Recreation Society honor) for artfully engaging young children in science, a subject not often referred to as wacky.

It’s really a clever and devious “workshop,” a classroom disguised as theme park. Pedagogy has never been more playful. Watching toddlers and young elementary school-age kids cavort amid a labyrinth of hands-on science exhibits that turn abstract concepts such as gravity and perspective into tangible teaching vehicles pleased Hemet mom Blanca Gallegos, who brought her 4-year-old son, Simon, for a morning for serious fun.

“I’m thinking, why didn’t they have anything like that when I was a kid?” Gallegos said.

Maybe because, back in the day, the world wasn’t so engagingly interactive. When our generation touched our screen of choice – the TV – nothing much happened except Mom got mad because handprints smudged the picture. Now, kids are accustomed to being transported to different worlds at their fingertips. And, as Pennypickle’s Workshop proves, it doesn’t have to be computer-generated bells and whistles to hold kids in thrall.

Many of the displays in this city-owned and -operated museum are surprisingly old-school. There are secret passageways through which children can crawl, whirling machines upon which they can fixate, hidden closets and rooms where their sense of perspective and balance is upended. Nary a square foot of space is unused. Everywhere are pulleys and belts, Rube Goldberg machines and toys that develop both the mind and fine motor skills.

Along the way, a narrative runs through the museum, though most kids seemed too hyped up by visual and aural stimulation to follow along. But parents can be entertained by the missives left by the time-traveling professor explaining concepts like physics with his best buds Einstein and da Vinci, scrawled messages on the walls, little notes about how he’s turned discarded plastic bottles into T-shirts or skateboards and how his trusty assistant Beaker, a mouse, shows up in the darnedest places with questions kids might ask.

For $5, kids and parents can explore for two hours, plus get treated to a formal chemisty “lab” experiment by one of Professor Pennypickle’s white-coated assistants. It’s nearly impossible to take in all the attractions in that short a span, which is why Fallbrook mom Juliette Pineda was dragged back to the museum for the third time in a year by her son Kai, 31/2.

“He learns something new each time,” she said. “He soaks up the information. Maybe he’ll be interested in science.”

True, some of the concepts put forth are a tad advanced for the preschool set, but the exhibits are meant more to spark curiosity. Get kids to, say, marvel at the birthday cake in the “Physics Room” that defies gravity and slides up a counter and seemingly into mid-air. A letter typed by the professor next to the display explains to parents the concept of “magnetic repulsion” that enables the cake to deft gravitational pull. Theoretically, the parents will explain the concept to the kids, but on this morning, it looked as if most parents were just as fascinated with making the cake “float.”

It’s interesting to watch as parents who haven’t really given much thought to science since they took their SATs in the 1990s try to suss out the phenomena of “The Impossible Triangle,” a metal-plated hole in the wall with an arrow pointing toward it and “Look Through Here” enticingly scrawled nearby. As the eye followed the lines, the triangle shifted its shape. It actually is a two-dimensional figure that the eye sees as a three-dimensional object even though it’s geometrically impossible. Some parents just fell back upon the professor’s typed explanation: “Normally you make assumptions, size and distance of objects you are (seeing). When you’re forced to look at it from one point of view, you can’t see the entire object, therefore your brain is tricked into seeing an impossible shape.”

Confusing young minds and messing with their equilibrium seems a mission of the professor.

Take the framed photo of red and black stars about six inches apart on a white background. The professor tells kids to cover their right eye and walk toward the photo. Kids gasped and told their parents, “The red star’s gone.” Some of the optical illusions are just plain silly, exploiting kids’ long-held fascination with potty humor. A wardrobe closet beckons the little ones with the come-on, “Don’t Tell Anyone ... It’s a Secret.” Once they step inside, they see through a two-way mirror into a bathroom (don’t worry, parents, not a real bathroom; this isn’t a peep show), where a child is washing his hands.

Another room melds futuristic time travel with old-fashioned devices like a telegraph and Morse code. The toddlers seem perplexed, almost afraid to touch the keyboard. What they didn’t realize was that these machines were once cutting-edge, the Twitter of the 19th century.

After nearly an hour of mostly unsupervised – except for a few helicopter moms – fun, the kids were herded into a “lab,” where a museum worker performed the old reliable, blow-up-a-balloon-with-water-and-Alka Seltzer chemical reaction, using a baby bottle with rubber nipple, in this case.

“So we’ve created a gas and the gas is making that top of the bottle expand, get bigger,” the “scientist” said. “Pretty cool, huh? I don’t know how big it can get, but I’m hoping it does explode on us.”

Of course, after she set the bottle aside and moved on to the next experiment, the bubble burst and the nipple went flying across the room. The kids roared with approval. And nobody’s eye was taken out, so even the most protective of parents were cool with it, too.