At Maine museum, playtime is the rule

Matthew Ranger of Kingston, N.H., keeps his focus at the Children’s Museum in Portland. Matthew Ranger of Kingston, N.H., keeps his focus at the Children’s Museum in Portland. (Photos By Dina Rudick/Globe Staff)
By Shelley Cameron-McCarron
Globe Correspondent / September 27, 2009

E-mail this article

Invalid E-mail address
Invalid E-mail address

Sending your article

Your article has been sent.

  • E-mail|
  • Print|
  • Reprints|
  • |
Text size +

PORTLAND, Maine - Do you want to slide down the fire pole? Or milk the cow? Can I take your picture on the boat, holding the lobster?

At the interactive Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine, where tots to teens are not only encouraged, but expected to touch everything, such questions are common.

The museum, located on Free Street in the arts district of this compact city of just over 64,000, puts little ones front and center. Here it’s all about playing and exploring.

Start with the Attack of the Bloodsuckers! exhibit, featuring live mosquitoes and leeches, or a guided tour to a windowless room on the third floor to see one of the best views of Portland through the camera obscura, using technology that has been in existence since the Renaissance.

Or, like me, dash after your 6-year-old to the L.L. Bear Discovery Woods, then on to check animal tracks in the Ranger Station before climbing a rock wall and settling (finally) for a quiet moment in the book nook.

Everything is kid-friendly, right down to the step stools in the bathrooms so children can reach the sink to wash their hands. This got a big thumbs-up from my 4-year-old.

When we first pulled open the museum’s doors, my three daughters were too awed by the wonders stretching before them to consider Reba Short’s offer to attend a play about Raggedy Ann and Andy. “It’s about toys that come to life,’’ said Short, the 20-something artistic director, who won the girls over.

“So how did you like that?’’ Short asked 40 minutes later as they left the museum’s Dress-Up Theatre. “I was on the edge of my seat, but I didn’t fall off,’’ replied my 6-year-old, who later listed the performance by a cast of pre-teens as a highlight of her trip to Maine, right up there with making her own waffles in a hotel breakfast room.

The museum makes good on its mandate to inspire discovery and imagination through exploration and play. You can ring the bell on the fire truck, paint in the Explore Some More room, and see the starfish in the touch tank.

Two birthdays were in full swing during our visit. “What a great party!’’ one grandparent said as youngsters ran from place to place, running a vet’s office, and weighing items in the grocery store.

We Are Maine, a multicultural exhibit reflecting the diversity of the local community, brings the local culture to the fore in a fun, informative way.

When my 2 1/2-year-old decided she’d had enough of the stage, we slipped out and found Toddler Park, a haven for the under-3 set. It’s in the middle of Our Town, the bustling center of the first floor where visitors can collect eggs, fix a car, and role play with the sorts of things they see around them on a day-to-day basis. The developmentally appropriate “park’’ lets children blow off steam in a safe, enclosed area.

“Is that new?’’ one local mother said as she watched her children scamper through a tree house, then slide down the other side. “Oh, they’re so clever here.’’

Shelley Cameron-McCarron can be reached at smccarron@east

If You Go

The Children’s Museum & Theatre of Maine

142 Free St.


Interactive fun for all ages; $8 per person, under 1 year old free. Monday-Saturday 10 a.m.- 5 p.m., Sunday noon-5, Memorial Day-Labor Day. After Labor Day, closed Mondays except during school vacation.

Where to stay

Embassy Suites

1050 Westbrook St.


Near the airport. Suites are roomy and family-friendly, and breakfast is included. Packages available.

Where to eat

Flatbread Company

72 Commercial St.


In the Old Port. Watch pizzas bake in a wood-fired oven while you wait.

Silly’s Restaurant

40 Washington Ave.


Wraps, burgers, vegan fare, and thick milkshakes served in an atmosphere beyond eclectic.

What to do

Downeast Duck Adventures


A fun-filled guided tour in the amphibious vehicle “Eider.’’

Mackworth Island>

Walk the 1 1/4-mile loop and build fairy houses.