Tuesday, March 21, 2006

Taking the fall...


Questacon is cool. I guess each major city these days has a science centre of sorts, where kids and adults can go and learn about science in a hands-on, funky and appealing sort of way. I think, though, that Questacon was the first of these centres, and it started when I was in my first Canberra incarnation around 1975 or so. It used to be in the old Ainslie Primary School, and was very rudimentary but heaps of fun. I never got the science of the exhibits though. I still don't. I just go and admire the pretty colours and shapes.

My favorite exhibit from my childhood is still with them -- but it's in the foyer. I tried to find an image of it, but they don't have one clear enough. It's a huge contraption of wire tracks that twist and turn throughout a clear perspex case, and snooker balls roll down through it and are transported back to the top by a myriad of mechanical contraptions. It always reminds me of that old Sesame Street clip where the same sort of thing is happening to a soundtrack of funky bass riffs and voices chanting '1 2 3 4... 5... 6 7 8 9 10... 11 12!' in absolute glee. I can stand in front of that case for ages listening to the chant in my head, long after whatever kids I've taken have got bored and are running wild in the Gift Shop.

We are Questacon members, which means that we are privy to special events like the chance to run wild in a couple of the galleries tonight with very few other people. Since BB is up north (unscathed and SMS-savvy, in Townsville now, Brisbane tomorrow), I took Bumblebee and his two cousins, Tooth and Rim. They had a ball running around and trying things without huge queues, while I managed to find an acquaintance who is not only mad about printing woodtype but plans to carve his own! Be still my beating heart.

The three cousins decided to go on the FreeFall, a daring adventure that you can just see on the right hand side of the picture above: you have to don a pair of overalls, climb up the stairs, sit on a ledge, hold on to a bar, hang off an edge, tuck your chin in, let go and... freefall! You actually only fall about a foot, then the slick stainless steel surface catches you gently and you slide the rest of the way. Stomach-lurching, however, and while you're hanging from the bar, it looks like you have a long way to fall.

They climbed the stairs and proceeded to scare each other and try to dare each other to do the fall. Bumblebee had done it before, but only with Best Beloved egging him on. The others had wanted to do it for ages, but had never made it all the way. I was very supportive, told them I'd be proud if they did it, but there was no shame in not doing it. I stood and looked patient, but they hummed and hawed and sat on the edge and pulled back, and wiped their hands, and go the attendant to wipe the bar and sat and looked and pulled back and conferred and tried and then gave up. Tooth actually got to the hanging stage, and I could see her trying her best to cope, but she also looked terrified, and she just couldn't bring herself to let go of the bar. They had to haul her up again (this is quite a common occurrence).

Lucky there wasn't a crowd! The poor attendants did their best, but nothing happened, and eventually I encouraged them to come down and do something else for a while. The two boys blustered about 'going back when the bar had dried off from all the sweat' (!) but I knew they wouldn't go back. Tooth, who is an interesting girl, and has deeper qualities than I think her parents give her credit for, spent a thoughtful hour playing with other things, and then murmured to me that she was going to try again.

We left the boys doing something boyish (trying to drive the virtual car off the path into the wilderness, but the computer programme wasn't having a bar of it and kept putting them back on track) and went back to the FreeFall. She donned the overalls, went up, sat on the edge, hung, closed her eyes... and as I crossed my fingers, she let go. And slid to the end. Both attendants and I gave her a hearty clap. She was so delighted with herself that she did it again.

As she came down the second time, the boys caught up to us. They were shocked to find her succeeding, and of course wanted to try too. But they'd left it too late, and it was closing time. They were so grumpy. And when I pointed that out to Tooth, she was delighted. It's not often she gets to be the hero. I was so proud of her. She'd discovered the secret to being brave is to surrender yourself to the unknown, and cope with whatever happens. it's a valuable life-lesson, and I hope it stays with her.

As we left we were each given a bag containing a milo bar and some fancy lolly-water called a Thorpedo. So the kids got sugared up and delivered back to their parents in a energetic state of bliss... heh. Good old Questacon. Never fails to entertain.

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