Taking the Kids -- To An Airport Play Area

CHICAGO -- The Mitchells weren't flying anywhere, but they'd driven a half-hour to spend the afternoon at O'Hare International Airport with David, their 3-year-old son.

``David loves airplanes. He's happy as a clam,'' said Adele Mitchell, who lives in Darien, Ill., and was glad her asthmatic son was willing to spend the afternoon indoors. ``It's very restful for me,'' she added.

Restful? An airport, especially one as big and crowded as O'Hare, was the last place I could relax with my noisy, rambunctious, sometimes crabby kids. When they were preschoolers, they'd never stay in one place, and I was always worried they'd annoy other passengers or, worse, get lost in the middle of the world's busiest airport.

But that was before Kids on the Fly existed. Managed by the Chicago Department of Aviation and developed by the Chicago Children's Museum, the enclosed, 2,200-square-foot area in Terminal 2 is the perfect spot for kids to run, jump and yell, while their parents relax on benches nearby, awaiting their flights.

Even my preteen, who wouldn't deign to play, was sitting contentedly during our recent visit, listening to her music on a portable player, instead of whining about the long layover or begging for drinks, candy or a Michael Jordan shirt.

An added plus: The exhibit is free and open until 10 p.m., and offers the chance for the entire family to learn something about airplanes while they wait. There's a two-story air-traffic control tower (kids can slide down from the top); a cockpit, where little passengers can be pilots; a cargo hold, complete with ``luggage'' to load; and even a padded crawl-through area for babies. Budding architects can build their own skyscrapers out of blocks alongside the 10-foot-tall LEGO Sears Tower, while pilot wannabes can watch real planes take off and land through the floor-to-ceiling windows.

``It's going to be hard to get my son to leave,'' joked Doug Jahns, who had stopped with his 6-year-old before driving home to Wisconsin after putting his teen-ager on a plane.

In fact, it took me 15 minutes to pry my 6-year-old daughter away from the place, and it took the promise of an ice-cream cone to do it.

``Kids need to be able to run off their energy if they're going to behave on a plane,'' observed Lynne Seyb, a Chicago pharmacist, as she let her children, ages 2 and 4, to do just that before their flight to Idaho. ``Every airport should have one.''

Actually, I was surprised to learn that many do these days -- more than ever before, says the Airports Council International North America, which represents all of the U.S. and Canadian airports. Nearly 50 airports reported to the council in a survey that they have children's play areas. They include large airports like Boston's Logan International Airport and smaller ones in Bangor, Maine, and Burbank, Calif.

Some of these ``kidports'' are large, airport-run facilities, while others are airline-established, such as Air France's Planete Bleue playroom at New York's Kennedy International Airport or the terminal play areas that Southwest Airlines has set up in Phoenix, Dallas, San Antonio and Houston.

During the summer and holidays, Delta goes a step further, staffing Dusty's Dens playrooms at nine airports around the country, from New York's JFK to Orlando to Los Angeles, where kids and their parents can watch movies, play games or share snacks along with youngsters traveling solo while awaiting their Delta flights. There's no charge. (For $35, parents qualify for an array of travel discounts by enrolling their children ages 2 to 12 in Delta's expanded -- but formerly free -- Fantastic Flyer program. The new program may be worth the fee because it includes coupons for Delta discounts, as well as for hotels, car rentals and theme parks. Call 1-800-392-5437; or visit the Fantastic Flier web site at www.delta.air.com/fantastic).

Talk about a mood-fixer. Even the crankiest young traveler in Indianapolis is bound to cheer up at the sight of the 1,400-square-foot Geokids exhibit. It was developed in cooperation with the Children's Museum of Indianapolis to teach kids about weather and geography. Parents could brush up on their map-reading skills, too.

At Baltimore/Washington International Airport's two-story Observation Gallery, families can view live radar images of planes or listen to the control tower. And just in case you were kicking yourself for not buying that certain Smithsonian Institution souvenir, you're in luck; there's a Smithsonian Museum Shop there.

The flashing lights along the ``runway'' lead downstairs to the children's play area, decorated with a 51-foot children's mural and complete with a ``climbing-perfect'' make-believe plane, baggage and fuel cart.

``Airports are more attuned to serving customers' needs, and that includes children,'' says Linda Greene, spokeswoman for the Airports Council. ``These children's play areas are a growing trend. More kids are flying, and that means a lot of children traveling through airports.''

We're talking lots of kids. The Travel Industry Association of America, which monitors these trends, says its most recent study shows that in one year, nearly 11 million plane trips included a child, nearly 20 per cent of the annual total.

Now, with increased airport security everywhere, families must arrive earlier for flights; this necessitates keeping the kids amused for longer periods before boarding a plane. And it's also no secret that layovers frequently last a lot longer than expected.

``People now typically are spending an hour and 15 minutes at the airport, and you can't take the kids to the cocktail lounge,'' says Greene. `If the kids can play while they wait, they'll be happier fliers, and that's what the airlines and airports want.''

Parents too.

(c) 1997, Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Los Angeles Times Syndicate.

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