Trains have been used to teach kids all kinds of concepts: physics, technology, that dreaded math problem about Train A and B and when they'll collide.
But I was surprised when I heard that the latest exhibit at DuPage Children's Museum uses locomotives to explore something quite different: art.
Trains - All Aboard Art! opened on Sept. 17, and I took my nephew to check out just how they integrated such seemingly unrelated topics. The answer? Pretty well, if you consider his enthusiastic response.
The centerpiece of the exhibit is the play passenger train, where kids take turns driving. Adding to the realism is the ticket booth, where they can "purchase" Metra tickets that look just like the ones you get at any Chicago-area station. Plus, there's a control tower that kids can climb to survey the whole exhibit. My nephew probably could have spent all day pulling levers, pushing buttons and listening to the train whistle, if I'd let him.
But we also had to check out the rest of the exhibit. In one spot, model trains zip around a track that's brightly painted in the style of cubist artist Gino Severini's "Red Cross Train," while an on-board train camera broadcasts what the conductor would see.
Kids can try out their own design skills at a table stocked with wooden tracks that can even go under it, thanks to a few little tunnels.
We also enjoyed the opportunity to "load cargo" using a crane and various bright different-shaped soft blocks - although the popularity of that section meant our turn was brief.
In terms of art, the whole exhibit is centered around a large "hidden pictures" painting of artist Don Stewart's "Steam Train." If your kids (probably older ones) like those puzzles in Highlights magazine, they're sure to enjoy hunting for items like a phonograph, a clock and a bicycle in the 8-foot black-and-white drawing of a train.
Other pieces of "train art" hang throughout the exhibit, and seek-and-find cards encourage kids to actually look at them, rather than just pass them by.
Even with a short attention span, my nephew happily passed an hour in the exhibit before we moved on to the rest of the museum. And although he's still a little too young for serious conversations about art, he definitely enjoyed all the trains and exercised some of his creativity along the way.
Elizabeth Diffin is the associate editor at Chicago Parent. She lives in Wheaton.
See more of Elizabeth's stories here.