A band of pirates invaded The Magic House Friday morning.
“What’s with the pirates?” said Tim Herron, a guide at the children’s museum.
“It’s our logo,” shouted 33 Valmeyer fourth-graders, sitting at the entrance of the special exhibit, Children’s China: Celebrating Culture, Character and Confucius. Most wore tie-dye T-shirts with a pirate logo.
“Do you think China has pirates?” said Tim. “You would be surprised. Pirates come from all over the place. They were quite common long ago.”
So began their field trip on a recent Friday. They traveled 40 minutes by schoolbus to the Kirkwood, Mo., children’s museum for a day of fast-paced fun. China was their first stop in the three-story 55,000-square-foot house that’s full of educational things to do and see.
“We are going on a pretend trip to China today. Is it near or far?”
“Very far away,” said the kids.
“Children in China have a lot in common with you,” said Tim. “They wear the same clothes, play the same sports, listen to music on iPods. They don’t use forks and knives. We’ll invite you to use chopsticks. It’s a challenge to take food from a plate.”
In his China preview, guide Tim talked about Confucius, the importance of education there, and National Teachers Day.
“Do you ever say ‘thank you’ to your teacher? We are going to have thank-you cards and you can make a flower for your teacher, too.”
He even had them saying “Happy New Year” in Chinese.
He touched on markets: “It’s very common to shop every day. We invite you to use Chinese yen to buy fruit and vegetables.” And pandas. “It’s the only place in the world where you can find pandas. They eat for 14 hours. Could you do that?”
Some yeses, some nos.
“Do you have real pandas?” asked a student.
“No,” said Tim. “The closest to us is in Nashville, I believe. Another rule we have here, which is very difficult, is to have fun. Can you follow that rule?”
The kids leaped up and headed into the exhibit to show just how much fun they could have.
A bright yellow stationary motorcycle was a hit with Owen Carron and Thomas Phillips.
“Now, it’s your turn to drive,” said Owen as he and Thomas switched seats.
Fourth-graders ran from one part of China to the next, sending stuffed pandas down slides, playing ping pong and practicing writing Chinese characters. Wall-size murals of markets, parks and busy cityscapes provided a realistic backdrop. Confucius sayings (“Study as if you will never know enough” and “Everything has beauty but not everybody sees it”) and writing in both English and Chinese gave visitors the flavor of a faraway place.
Matthew Espinoza, 10, was an old hand at handling chopsticks in a restaurant area equipped with fabric food.
“I learned when I first went to a Chinese food place. They gave me these,” he said, holding up chopsticks. “It’s hard when you first start.”
Jordan Vest poured imaginary tea into tiny cups for Lydia Henerfaugh, Josephine “Josie” Niebruegge, and Nicole Engelman. The writing beneath “Tea Ceremony” read “Drinking tea with family and friends is an important tradition still practiced today.”
Most fun so far? “Probably the tea,” she said.
Brynna Allen, 9, liked the tea corner, too, but she’d trade all the tea in China to go down the three-story slide — which she got to do later.
Jennifer Kohn helped daughter Mackenzie make a paper flower for her teacher. She was having as good a time as her daughter.
“It’s fun. It’s neat here,” she said. “When I was a kid, the only thing I remember is the static ball where your hair goes wild.”
That electrically charged ball, located in the original part of the 35-year-old museum, is still a favorite. Dad Jason Reynolds stood at a window watching a line of kids — and some parents — wait to touch the giant ball.
“It if makes my hair grow, I am taking it home,” he said.
“We’re one of the only places that has one of its size,” said Carrie Hutchcraft, Magic House spokesperson. “It’s been here since the very beginning. It makes static to make hair stand on end. When you take your hand off the ball, hair will begin to fall.”
Mom Darcy Vest took a turn with the ball as her daughter Jordan and friends watched.
“Great, Mom. Awesome,” said Jordan as Mom’s long blond hair went wild.
“I did it when I was a kid,” she said. “I still have the button with my photo. I feel dizzy from shaking my head. It was fun. It brought back memories.”
“We still make the buttons downstairs,” said Carrie. “A lot take photos on their phones now.”
Fourth-graders moved from magnet rooms to bubble rooms and took a turn on the three-story slide. They followed a math path and wandered along a Lewis & Clark trail. Teacher Matthew Osborne watched his students bubble with enthusiasm as they took turns making enormous bubbles or attempting to build a bubble to surround them.
“It’s fun for me to watch the kids being engaged,” he said. Students made paper flowers for him and for teacher Pam Loos.
“My flowers will be on my desk,” he said. “They will be with all the other creative stuff they have made for me. It’s a very creative class.”
A couple of students added to her growing bouquet.
“Thank you, girls. I have a whole bouquet,” she said. When she’s not leading a field trip to The Magic House, she brings her own three children. That sunny spring day, she and her students would eat a picnic lunch outside, then come back in and revisit their favorite exhibits.
“There’s so much hands-on to explore,” she said. “ They are learning science and math and don’t even know it. I wanted them to see the culture element of the Chinese exhibit (through Sept. 7).
“You never have to worry about kids being bored here. If you can keep them engaged and moving, you don’t have to worry about behavior. They are having so much fun, they don’t have time to misbehave. I like to find a good balance between playing and learning. The Magic House is great for that.”