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Playing hard at science;Museums

EXPLORERS' WORLD. The Museum of Army Flying,Middle Wallop, Stockbridge, Hampshire, SO20 8DY. Tel: 01264 782177

Ever wondered what a bluebottle sees as it buzzes round the room? The children swarming round Explorers' World, a new interactive science and education centre in Middle Wallop, Hampshire, peer through a plastic exhibit which replicates a fly's eye view of life to find out. They see bizarrely fractured, multiple images of their classmates. "You look disgusting," a seven-year-old tells her friend.

Joe Kaplonek, manager and education officer of Explorers' World, says the hands-on centre - which focuses primarily on key stages 2 and 3 - is "a return to the fundamentals. Science centres have become very high-tech and glossy, with lots of push buttons, flashing lights and graphics."

Within seconds, children are hard at play. They switch on the magic microphone - which supplies a range of weird sound-effects - talk to each other through a whispering tube and release evil smells from a scratch-and-sniff book.

They create a rainbow with prisms on the lights table, use their fingertips to "move" harmless lightning made with ionised gas within a plasma ball, and slap an imprint of their hands on a luminous wall behind a blackout curtain.

Concave mirrors give the appearance of shaking their own hands; trick ones make them look fat. A friendly computer says "hello", while others let the children hear themselves talking backwards. More traditional but equally absorbing are mosaics and puzzles in the maths section.

It's all great fun, but is this really the right way to fuel children's curiosity? Joe Kaplonek inisists it is: "They learn through play, then take things one step further in the classroom."

Teacher Colin Heath from Rookwood school in nearby Andover agrees. He says his pupils' visit will reinforce work done during the term on light, sound and shadows. "It's a shared learning experience which you couldn't have in a classroom. The children are very excited, they are finding things out for themselves and it motivates them."

All centre staff are qualified teachers with science backgrounds who can tailor activities to meet the needs of groups and run in-service training programmes for teachers.

One complaint: information labels are still minimal. Anyone with a sketchy knowledge of science would struggle to explain hows and whys to children. But Joe Kaplonek insists that it's the hands-on element which is crucial for visitors, whatever their age - including a coachload of pensioners who piled in not so long ago. "They had a good old play, and thoroughly enjoyed themselves."

The centre and museum are open from 10am to 4.30pm, seven days a week. Admission for schools is normally pound;2.50 per pupil with free entry for teachers and accompanying adults, but a 50 per cent discount runs until May 31 (phone first).A family ticket for two adults and two children costs pound;11

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