Where Children Discover Their Inner Child

11/11/11

The New York Times By LAUREL GRAEBER  A talking toilet at the Children's Museum of Manhattan. No such bathroom exists in New York City, but “The Royal Flush,” among more than 70 interactive exhibits in EatSleepPlay™: Building Health Every Day, the new show at the Children’s Museum of Manhattan, does something similar. When little visitors pull this fake toilet’s handle, it responds with images and explains, in the warm but slightly brisk tones of a no-nonsense nanny, that what we excrete provides clues to our well-being.

That Mary Poppins voice “adds a sense of decorum to a topic that could otherwise be misconstrued,” Tom Quaranta, the museum’s director of exhibition services and operations, said in an interview. But while some staff members initially recoiled, “The Royal Flush” ultimately won approval as an ideal expression of this 3,500-square-foot exhibition’s mission: to teach children about health in ways that can be vivid and visceral but also playful, memorable and easy to understand.

“It’s a huge arts installation,” said Andrew S. Ackerman, the museum’s executive director, as finishing touches were applied last week. “We want it to be at the heart of behavior change, the way a great movie can be or a great book can be.”

Mr. Ackerman explained that more than 10 years ago his staff noticed that a surprising number of visitors were overweight. The museum responded in 1999 with “Body Odyssey,” an interactive health exhibition that helped inspire EatSleepPlay™. Increasing news reports of childhood obesity prompted the museum to connect with the National Institutes of Health, whose We Can! (Ways to Enhance Children’s Activity & Nutrition) program provides resources to help 8-to-13-year-olds maintain a healthy weight. In 2009 the museum announced a $2.3 million initiative to combat childhood obesity, which included adapting a We Can! curriculum for children as young as 2.

The initiative, which also comprises the $1.2 million EatSleepPlay™ exhibition, gained further momentum when the first lady, Michelle Obama, announced Let’s Move! , her campaign for childhood fitness. Now the show, financed by the Laurie M. Tisch Illumination Fund and other private and public donors, incorporates information from more than 50 advisers, including the health institutes and the New York City Health Department.

“The impact of this exhibition is slightly but importantly different from when we first began,” Mr. Ackerman added. “Obesity prevention is still the core, but now it’s a blueprint for a child’s entire development.”

EatSleepPlay™, which opens on Friday for an open-ended run, literally swallows its visitors: They walk into a smiling child’s mouth leading to a room representing the brain. Another chamber imitates the stomach, while a chain of brand-new septic tanks constitutes a crawl-through colon, a fitting marriage of material and idea. (“The Royal Flush,” not surprisingly, comes at the end.) The show’s designers, Carol May and Tim Watkins, the married principals of May & Watkins Design, a Brooklyn company, also created a gigantic human heart.

“The design is not realistic, but it’s not completely abstract,” Mr. Watkins said. Industrial hoses wind across the ceiling like arteries, whose “blood” consists of red light bulbs. A child turning a wheel attached to an anatomical display of a clogged artery finds it hard to set that overhead current flowing; at an open artery, it’s easy.

Strands of lights also represent neural pathways. In one exhibit they’re connected to panels consisting of fake advertisements for products like potato chips and cigarettes. When children lift the panels to read the hard facts behind the cheery packaging, the lights go out. “It shows that you can shut off the advertising messages to your brain,” Mr. Ackerman said.

Making such choices is central to the show’s message. In the brain chamber, labeled “Decision Center,” children can compete in a digital game to achieve the longest life span. Another game, Choices Change yOUR World!, developed with Linda Gottfried of the company Color, Light & Shadow, lets them navigate a Central Park landscape as a tiny avatar, a beating heart. Lizzy Martin, the museum’s exhibition developer, demonstrated how children playing the game at side-by-side video screens could earn points by touching healthy choices — a banana or apple as a snack — or lose them by selecting, say, soda or a cupcake. The heart and the Central Park scene visibly brightened as points accumulated.

“I’m going to ruin our world together now,” Ms. Martin said. “I’m going to choose cigarettes. And see what happens. We’re in a very dark place.” She was right. The screens went inky; Central Park plunged into what looked like nuclear winter; and the entire game paused.

While digital exhibits appeal to children 7 and older, other displays focus on preschoolers. “We really wanted to have humor,” Ms. May said. “These shows can get didactic.” Thus the digestive system has, well, sound effects, and the stomach also talks to young visitors, who feed it by pulling a lever and watching a screen fill with different foods. The stomach complains if it’s given junk or overstuffed. “We went for a Brooklyn taxi driver,” Mr. Quaranta said of the voice, “but friendly.”

The “Eat” section draws in the youngest children with a two-tiered space representing a New York City Green Cart. Here they meet the Super Sprowtz, Muppetlike vegetable superheroes whose powers relate to their nutritive value. Colby Carrot, for instance, has supersight. Appearing in videos and dioramas, the Super Sprowtz, created by Radha Agrawal, give the area a “Sesame Street” feel, complete with jokes for parents. (Erica Eggplant’s deep, dark secret: “I like to roll around in bread crumbs.”)

The “Sleep” section illustrates all the functions the body performs during nonwaking hours while zeroing in on more choices. Small children can press buttons for poor bedtime options like “video games” and “TV in bedroom” and see Sleep Stealers — green fabric monsters — inflate. Older children may challenge themselves at a foosball table; one side is labeled “sleep deprived” and the other “well rested.” It’s rigged. “We made it so the sleep-deprived team will usually lose,” Ms. Martin said.

Children also feel the effects of health decisions in the “Play” section. “A lot of kids don’t play sports,” Mr. Ackerman said. “This concentrates on everyday things,” like dancing at home. In a soundproof chamber filled with laser beams, children invent dance moves — stepping in the path of any beam results in an electronic sound — or maneuver ninja style under and around the rays.

Another exhibit offers a variation on the Whac-A-Mole arcade game, accompanied by an electronic bar that players grasp to measure their pulse rates before and after. Children can also press a food choice on a stationary Zike,  a combined electronic scooter and elliptical machine, and see how long it takes to pedal away that snack’s calories. The machine, which uses quantities comprehensible to youngsters — sips and bites — is calibrated for a 100-pound person, but the message is clear no matter who gets on: Burning the 44 calories in two bites of pizza doesn’t happen quickly.

The exhibition, with text in both English and Spanish, includes information that may stun parents: Orange juice has more calories than soda; sleep deprivation causes cravings for fat and sugar; and perhaps most surprising, it takes 8 to 15 tries to persuade a child to accept a new food. So be patient. Those superheroes Erica Eggplant and Colby Carrot haven’t lost the battle yet.

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