At this castle, kids rule

For more than six years, children have loved the drawbridges, ponies, peasant dresses and shining armor in Exploration Place's medieval-inspired "Once Upon a Castle" gallery.

So much, in fact, says museum president Jan Luth, "They loved it to death."

On Saturday, the museum will open a newly renovated, redecorated, cleaned-up and colorful castle pavilion designed for children ages 5 to 11.

More than a year and about $80,000 in the making, "Where Kids Rule" features the same three-story stone castle and alcoves as the previous exhibit, which opened in 2005.

But the area has been "re-imagined," Luth said, to include new and different hands-on activities.

"We wanted kids and families to cross the threshold and be immersed into this colorful, fun, playful space," she said.

"They'll be learning about science, engineering and math concepts, but they won't even realize they're learning. They'll just be having fun."

The exhibit marks the second major renovation of the Exploration Place pavilion — originally named "Once Upon a Time" — since the museum opened in 2000. Officials wanted to retain popular activities from the exhibit but make it even more fun and colorful, Luth said.

Previously blank walls opposite the stone castle have been covered with watercolor images of knights on horseback and medieval countrysides. A path across the gallery depicts a moat that youngsters can navigate by jumping over it, crossing on a balance beam or building a bridge.

Once inside, visitors can "shoe" a horse in the blacksmith shop, create a colorful stained-glass window, experiment with gears, pulleys and other simple machines, or use a catapult to shoot plastic balls across the kingdom. (Signs point out that real medieval catapults could have been used to launch "discarded carcasses and rotten garbage," but none could be found in the exhibit Thursday.)

Upstairs in the castle kitchen, play food and dishes have been replaced and reorganized to illustrate the U.S. Department of Agriculture's new "divided plate" dietary guidelines.

"You'll recognize some of the activities, but everything's just been freshened up," Luth said.

Special opening-day activities on Saturday include demonstrations of blacksmithing, "Games of Olde" and Renaissance dancing. At noon and 3:30 p.m. in the Kemper Creative Learning Studio, visitors can learn about chivalry, and the Renaissance musical group SMYDGYN will perform.

At 1 and 2:30 p.m. Sunday, the Society for Creative Anachronism will demonstrate medieval fighting.

"We're very excited about it, because this has always been one of our most popular areas," said Luth, the museum president. "What a wonderful thing for us and for our community to be able to bring it back to life."