Let’s get busy!

In case you haven’t noticed, children and adults gather information about the world around them in vastly different ways. If, for example, a child wants to know how something works — say, whether Newton’s law of gravity applies equally to glasses filled with grape juice and those containing milk — he or she will investigate experientially (which may help explain the color — and the odor — of my carpet), learning all sorts of things in the process. But when adults want to know how something works, they seek out a specific answer, often by calling customer service — after which they’re placed on “hold” until senility ensues, and the reason for calling is forgotten.

The theory goes like this: Children are process-oriented (they need to do stuff), and adults are goal-oriented (they need to get stuff done). And usually, adults have the upper hand (although it may not always seem so): We’re bigger and stronger, and our tasks — working, shopping, cleaning, cooking — seem more important (to us, at least) than seeing if all crayons taste the same. So it’s good to be reminded that, for the first eight or 10 years of life, a child’s job is to learn how the world works. This mission is incredibly important to kids, and the hands-on, try-it-and-see, repetitive nature of a child’s “play” is, of course, the way they do their job.

In that spirit, author Richard Scarry began writing and illustrating his Busytown series of children’s books, some 35 years ago. He created a bunch of simple, archetypal animal characters — including youngster Huckle Cat, his friend Lowly Worm, the ungainly but cheerfully earnest Hilda Hippo, and the rule-enforcing canine motorcycle cop Sergeant Murphy — and placed them in a changeable village called Busytown. Much of the action of the elementary plots involves the discovery of how normal, everyday machinery and systems work. Scarry’s illustrations are also pretty simple, but they include action aplenty. Many of the objects are labeled as well, which helps beginning readers understand the relationship between written words and pictures.

Scarry died in 1994, but his characters live on in toys, books, on television and, most recently, in a traveling exhibit called Busytown, now on display at The Health Adventure at Pack Place. It’s the first Health Adventure exhibit in recent memory that caters to the preschool crowd.

In order to balance my pragmatic adult perspective, I took my 5-year-old daughter, Lily, and her friend Molly, also 5. They bounced up the stairs, loudly recognizing the various Scarry characters on the walls, and into the exhibit, where they stopped cold, momentarily overwhelmed by the busy-ness. “What’s really fun is seeing them come in,” says The Health Adventure’s child development educator, Susan Lumpkin (in a conversation interspersed with frequent, astonishingly patient suggestions for kids having problems with a particular activity). “At first, they’re overwhelmed,” she points out, “but then they begin to settle in, and you can see their minds begin to work.”

True to form, in a few moments Lily and Molly were hard at work in the “grocery store,” poking at the calculator, failing to balance anything on the scales, and sending various items of plastic produce back and forth via an eight-foot-long conveyor belt run by big wheels at either end, necessitating cooperation. The posted literature says that this area of Busytown teaches kids about sorting and balancing, among other things. One quickly realizes, however, that this is adultspeak. “The main idea that parents should know is that playing is learning,” explains Lumpkin. “A lot of parents want to teach their kids specific things, but kids learn by discovery. Don’t tell them what to do: Ask leading questions, and let the kids figure it out for themselves.”

Besides the grocery store, Busytown includes four other areas: a “factory” with gears, pulleys and another conveyor belt; a “power plant” with moving currents of air that push parachutes up and fling little balls around; a “construction area” where kids can design and build their own structures; and Lily and Molly’s favorite, a “shipyard” where cargo can be moved on and off a boat with a really neat crane that I’d have played with more, if the two girls had let me. (They also liked making rude noises at each other through the twisting tubes that connect two “phone booths.”)

Asheville resident Kirk Kennelly was there with his two sons, 3-year-old Sebastian and 5-year-old Nicholas. “This is probably one of the best [children’s exhibits] I’ve seen,” Kennelly told me. “It encourages communitarian [sic] effort … and the kids take it seriously.”

The exhibit was crowded on a Friday snow day, and seemingly hectic, but a careful look revealed that most kids were working systematically from area to area. No mayhem ensued during the couple of hours we spent there, and only one or two “sharing” problems occurred — which were quickly defused by the friendly and helpful staff. If parents wish, they can join in the fun. “This is a great place for parents to interact with their children and see how much fun [they have] and how much they can learn from playing,” says Lumpkin. And if parents need a break, the exhibit room is small enough that they can easily find a perch to sit and read, or chat, while keeping an eye on the kids.

It’s hard to specify precisely what Lily and Molly may have learned. When I asked them, they rolled their eyes and remembered that they were hungry. They sure had fun, though, and they got to tinker with a decidedly larger variety of objects than they have access to at home — without anyone telling them what to do.

But as the adult, I can easily identify some specific information I learned, or maybe relearned: Sometimes, the best thing a parent can do is back off and let the kids just mess around with stuff. And Busytown, where the objects are stimulating and unbreakable — and the carpet isn’t yours — is a great place to do just that.

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