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The Mary Ann MacLean Play Museum at the Illinois State Museum offers activities for kids of all ages.

Photo courtesy of the Illinois State Museum

Road trips can be trying on the patience of a 1-year-old.

You are cooped up in a car seat for way too long and then, just when you think freedom is finally at hand, you are transferred to a stroller, restaurant high chair or a parent's tired arms.

After having his movement restricted all day during a recent trip to Springfield, our 1-year-old son was happy to cut loose and crawl in the Mary Ann MacLean Play Museum at the Illinois State Museum.

Owen grinned as he crawled in circles and later played with wooden blocks on the smooth top of a simulated cave. This plateau was surrounded by a rope-netting fence for safety. I was able to sit at the entrance, relax and enjoy the sight of him at play.

Meanwhile, our 6-year-old daughter settled in at an exhibit that focused on one of her favorite activities - digging. Hannah used plastic hand tools to excavate the simulated fossils of a mastodon and other Ice Age animals that were buried in a large basin full of recycled, shredded car tires.

My wife engaged in one of her favorite activities - excessive picture taking - and lovingly caught it all on film.

Opened last spring, this play area uses these and other hands-on exhibits to help children ages 3-10 learn what it is like to work at a museum.

The play area helps fill a niche for a children's museum in Springfield, where the planned Kidzeum of Health and Science is still in development.

The play area can be found in the lower level of the Illinois State Museum, located at 502 S. Spring St., Springfield, just south of the State Capitol. The state museum is open seven days a week and offers family-friendly free entry.

Our family also toured the museum's other two levels of exhibits, which spotlight the natural, cultural and artistic heritage of Illinois.

Hannah was drawn to the short film in the "Changes: Dynamic Illinois Environments" exhibit's theater, where the surround sound brought to life the rumbling natural forces that shaped Illinois geography. She also was fascinated by an exhibit area that simulated the dark confines of a coal mine. I did mention that she likes to dig.

My attention was caught by a model of giant dunkleosteus, a heavily armored fish that is estimated to have lived about 400 years ago when Illinois was covered by a tropical sea. The model depicts this monster-scale fish bursting through a wall as it pursues its prey.

In addition, I was glad to see the familiar sights of giant American mastodon fossil and life-size dioramas of early Native American life in Illinois on display. This brought back pleasant memories of visiting the Illinois State Museum when I was a child.

I found that the museum has gotten more high-tech since my youth. We were issued Changes Institute cards featuring the image of a prehistoric Tully monster invertebrate. We were able to insert this card into various exhibits to hear accompanying audio recordings, such as an account of a European traveler journeying up the Illinois River.

We had to keep our tour relatively brief due to the lateness of our arrival but were able to see the art gallery and all of the other exhibits, although we did miss the gift shop because it closed before the museum did.

Still, we left having accomplished the goals of introducing our children to the Illinois State Museum and burning off some of their energy. A nap can make the ride home in a car seat more peaceful for the 1-year-old and everyone else in the car.

For more information on the Illinois State Museum, go online to www.museum.state.il.us.

This column and previous entries in the series also can be read at www.facebook.com/RobStroud.DayTripper.

Rob Stroud is a staff writer for the JG-TC. Contact him at rstroud@jg-tc.com or 238-6861.

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