We recently purchased a membership to a small, local science museum. It is an ideal place to take our son when I don’t have other activities for him. This museum has many hands-on exhibits for older children, but also an area especially designed for young children. In this area there are exhibits that teach about air, sound and color, but that is not what you hear the children talk about the most. There is also a small tunnel for them to crawl through. If they go to the left, they will see a small aquarium that is totally hidden from view from the outside. To the right is the bear’s den.
This is about as scary as it sounds, given that it is in a play space for small children. It is small and dimly lit with a big mound of real, furry bearskin reposing in one corner and taking up a sizeable portion of the den. A sign outside the den explains that this bearskin comes from a female bear that was hit by a car in northern New Hampshire. That alone was enough to discourage me from peeking inside, but I am a chicken when it comes to such things. My son is probably too young to be afraid of it; one day, my husband went in with him and he crawled all over the bear, even pulling up and tapping it with the palms of his hands.
Older children, however, speak of the bear in hushed tones.
“Did you know there’s a bear in there?” they will ask me as I sit watching my son chase around the inflatable beach ball that should be floating atop a current of air.
Our most memorable encounter involving the bear happened several weeks ago. The play space was mostly empty and my son was playing with the beach ball again near the opening of the tunnel that led to the bears’ den. I sat nearby on a step leading to the upper level.
An older boy came bounding into the play space and went right up to my son, arms outstretched. I thought he was about to take the ball from my son, but he wedged himself between us and began cooing at him.
“Hi, little guy!” he said, patting my son on the head. He turned to me. “I’m seven,” he announced. He pointed at my son. “And he’s one.”
I nodded and said, “Almost.” My son was a couple of months from his first birthday.
The boy turned back to my son and pointed to the tunnel leading to the bear’s den.
“Don’t go in there, okay? There’s something scary in there.” My son had now forgotten the beach ball and was up on his knees, staring curiously at the boy.
The boy turned back to me. “I don’t want him to go in there,” he said in a conspiratorial tone.
“Actually,” I said, “he’s been in there once before."
The boy was undaunted by this news. “Well, I don’t want him to go in again,” he said firmly, as though my oversight could be pardoned for letting it happen once, but no more.
At that moment, he looked past me toward the entrance to the play space. A man with a mustache and glasses was gesturing to the boy to come out. He pointed at the sign over the entrance, the one that read “For children five and under and their caregivers.” The boy bounded back out to his father and that was that.
We have been duly warned.
J LeBlanc is a former high school teacher who resides in Lebanon, N.H. She is currently taking a break from teaching to stay home with her 8-month-old son.
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