Lifestyle | CHILD'S PLAY

Get kids' education down to a science

by Jason Jenkins

Special To The Japan Times

If you’ve read my earlier Child’s Play columns, then you probably know that my family and I will visit just about any place that deals with science and technology. Lucky for me, Tokyo is full of these places, but it certainly isn’t the only city in Japan with learning opportunities like this.

Whenever the family heads to Kansai, we have our favorite spots to visit: In Osaka, for example, there’s the Kids Plaza and Big Bang children’s museums, and the city’s Science Museum. But the last time we were in the area, we wanted to try somewhere new, so we headed further west to the Kobe Science Museum.

The planetarium is just inside the entrance on the left, but I can’t give it a hearty recommendation unless you really love planetarium shows. It started off interesting, as a narrator used the starscape above to show us exactly where on the map of Japan we were. Not long after, however, the staff flipped a switch and the light show became a projected cartoon whose simplified explanation of astronomy bored all but the 6-year-old in our party.

The real fun began once I woke from an unintended nap and guided the kids into the first-floor activity room. Here, exhibits explain the principles of energy, physics, magnetism and mechanics. My slumber-induced daze ended abruptly as the kids set upon the first exhibit, which used air pressure to blast a plastic rocket across the room. Kids interested in planes, trains and automobiles will find much to entertain them here, and perhaps learn a thing or two about kinetics, horsepower and weight distribution in related exhibits nearby.

This floor also uses some space to explain the mechanics of the human body, with diagrams detailing the systems we use for our five senses. A family favorite for us, however, were the exhibits dedicated to magnets and magnetism. Here you can see iron powder floating in a clear disk of water. Send an electric charge through the water and watch the metal powder create intricate patterns in the fluid as it becomes magnetized. Nearby is a circular table covered with shiny metallic ball bearings. Maneuver a small magnetic crane overhead and you can try to pick up all the ball bearings at once. Then, even better, turn off the magnet and watch the balls drop to scatter and clatter across the table.

These are the type of activities you find in most science museums in the world. The buttons are worn around the edges and they’re not decked out with iPads and the most recent technologies, but they’re still interactive and educational. They may show their age, but the fun (and the science behind them) is timeless.

Moving on to the second floor, my son enjoyed a variety of exhibits that tested his strength, balance and reaction time, while my daughter and her cousins enjoyed speaking into a microphone to look at visual representations of the sound waves emanating from their mouths. We also enjoyed running through the Future Pass exhibit, where the kids become reporters for a fictional newspaper. Each child had to capture images of town life (“town” being an ornate diorama) using the display’s massive toy-like cameras, and then file their stories before deadline. English instruction here was lacking, but the act of making the snapshots may make it worthwhile for any age or language level.

After the kids tired of their imaginary careers in the press, we moved to the third floor, where the exhibits are dedicated to space. Here, things begin to look more modern and futuristic. For example, stepping into the cavernous main room, you are confronted by a massive screen dazzling passersby with facts about space, speed and the history of the universe. In a room nearby, staff helped us into a harness and we experienced a simulation of low gravity — if interested in this activity, check the schedule for operating times, as it isn’t open all day.

There was much more to see and do, but we were running out of time, so we moved quickly upstairs to one of the museum’s crown jewels: the telescope and observatory. It was the middle of the afternoon, but we were encouraged to look directly at the sun. Don’t worry — we used protective gear. We were there to look at sun spots, and in a small group, the staff slowly explained what they were and why they mattered to us on Earth.

Then, one-by-one, each child (and parent) closed one eye and placed the other at the end of the telescope to gaze directly at that blazing star. What did we see? Not much: a fuzzy white spot with a small gray blob flickering over it. Or was that my own eyelash? I’m not sure, but the kids all got a kick out of being able to look through a huge telescope and be a part of the observation process. At their age, that is all that I can hope for.

Kobe Science Museum is located in Chuo Ward, Kobe; open 9:30 a.m.-4:30 p.m. (Fri.-Sun. until 7 p.m.). The last planetarium show starts from 7 p.m.). Closed Wed. Entry is ¥600 for adults and ¥300, planetarium is an additional ¥400 for adults and ¥200 for children. kobe-kagakukan.com/kobe-science-museum