An eerie serenity has taken over the normally bustling Discovery Museum in Old Town Eureka. It's after hours now, on the first Saturday night in February, and the lights in the lobby and gift shop have been turned off. Julia Grosby is shuffling through brightly colored paper, sorting it into piles and cutting out rectangles. Cynthia Perez is parceling out pieces of graham crackers and spooning blobs of peanut butter onto paper plates. It is very, very quiet.
Outside, occasional passersby stop to press their faces against the window. Outside, grownups are gearing up for another evening of art, music, food and drink, the monthly meander that is Arts Alive. Inside the shadow-drenched museum, Perez and Grosby are gearing up for Kids Alive -- an evening of activities, exploration and allergy-friendly snacks for 3- to 12-year-olds.
It's 5:20 p.m. now, and the noise comes in a wave, silence to cacophony within seconds. Kids bolt through the half-door barrier between the museum's gift shop and exhibit floor, shedding coats and eagerly awaiting nametags, the one hurdle between them and an educational, kinetic wonderland. Perez plasters pink tags on the little ones 5 and younger, green on those 6 and older. These kids are regulars. They know each other, know their favorite stations and know how much free-play time they have before the first activity begins.
Despite the age range, the kids mingle jovially, sharing stations, lining up for the ship with a slide, maneuvering around each other to get to the next exhibit. The two oldest, at 10½ and 11, finish a scavenger hunt in seconds flat, collect their prizes and make a direct line to the Discovery Nursery. "We usually know how everything works here, and we're like always the older ones here," says one, as she and her friend rock bizarrely realistic baby dolls in a crib. The two girls tell me they like being the oldest -- they can play with the smaller kids, help the grownups and catch up on important preteen things like determining the cutest member of One Direction. As we talk, several kids with pink name tags disembark from the ship and drop anchor in the nursery, capturing the older girls' attention. The two groups merge and play until Perez rings a triangle at the front of the museum. It's story time!
Every Kids Alive night has a theme, and tonight's is Dr. Seuss. The 3- to 6-year-olds are being treated to Cat in the Hat, while the older kids enjoy the tongue twisters of Fox in Socks. Though the older group seems moderately entertained by counting the number of times Perez gets tongue-tied, their unrest eventually squirms to the forefront. A small, lispy voice rises above the tittering to ask, "Are we going to do something funner?!" Honestly, you can't blame the kid. Sitting at a table filled with arts and craft supplies (paints, glitter, you name it), surrounded by interactive science toys (you guys, there's a 20 foot ship with a slide!) is not the most conducive environment for reading. Before any more unrest can bubble to the surface, activity time begins: Cat in the Hat masks and Horton Hears a Who ears for everybody!
Throughout the evening, as the kids bounce around inside the museum, several adults pop in to ask about vacancies. Grosby smiles and tells them that Kids Alive fills up fast -- attendance is capped at 18, and they're still holding a spot for someone -- so it's best to pay a $5 deposit in advance to hold a place for your child. (The deposit goes toward the $15 fee, which provides fun, food and even a little education from the 5:30 p.m. drop-off time through the 8 p.m. pickup hour.)
When the first crafting efforts wind down, the kids break for clean up, some more play time and a snack. Then the two activity groups switch: masks for the ear gang, ears for the mast crew. The night concludes with more free time, the kids playing with a little more desperation now, knowing the night will soon end. I've been waiting all night for one of them to use the Smell Lab, an olfactory guessing game that seemed sure to entertain. But the Water Lab, Shadow Wall and the S.S. Discovery eclipse it. One smiling 4-year-old spends every moment of his free time at the Floating Ball Station, a vertical leaf blower that sends rubber balls flying into the air.
As 8 o'clock nears, red-faced parents, either from the wine or the wind, arrive sporadically at first, then in a steadier stream. The youngest kids, grumpy and half-awake, leave with their heads resting on their parent's shoulders, their craft projects clutched in their tiny hands. Some battle time, pulling parents toward their favorite exhibits, begging for more trips down the slide.
Kids, man, they have no idea how much more awesome their childhoods are than the generations before (my generation included). If I were a few years younger, I would have been all over that Smell Lab.
Dev Richards is allergic to everything and regrets nothing.