Who are the smartest people in the world? Toddlers.

They have to be. They face the daunting task of programming their own brains to create order out of chaos. They have to learn cause and effect, up and down, in and out, hot and cold, light and dark and thousands of other abstract concepts. These are the make-or-break years. If they don't learn all they need to learn, they'll play catch-up for the rest of their lives.

Sadly, there are precious few resources for children younger than 5 -- the age by which child development experts say you've learned more than you'll learn the whole rest of your life. One shining exception is the Habitot Children's Museum in downtown Berkeley, where little ones can play at their own pace in a variety of stimulating environments. Among them:

  • Finger painting and sculpture making in the Art Studio;

  • Learning about gravity, motion and the power of falling water at the Waterworks; and

  • Learning where food comes from at the Back To The Farm exhibit, featuring a chicken coop, fishing pond, hay bales and child-size John Deere tractors.

    And all this is for a modest admission fee: $8 for kids, $10 for grown-ups. But Habitot also has free programs for the families who need them the most -- the poorest of the poor. They include families in homeless shelters, recently incarcerated mothers trying to regain custody of their kids, teenage parents who are still children themselves and special-needs kids who never go outside because people stare at them and make them feel uncomfortable.


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    "More importantly, while the parents see their kids playing in the museum in a social way with other kids, they get tears in their eyes because they didn't realize what was possible for their children," said Gina Moreland, Habitot's founder and executive director.

    "One mother with a 13-month-old baby carried it around 24/7 because there was no safe place to put it down, which meant the baby was missing out on crawling, which in turn is crucial in developing hand-eye coordination. She was thrilled to be in our infant/toddler area with clean mats for the baby to crawl on."

    Habitot will celebrate its 15th anniversary on April 20 with a birthday party featuring a giant birthday cake, children's songs in both Spanish and English, and a dance party. Admission for the day is free, thanks to a donation from ScholarShare.

    There is no way Habitot could provide all these desperately needed services without our help. Yes, it could raise admission fees, but that would price it out of the reach of the very people it is trying to serve.

    Government and foundation donations are both down. That leaves you and me. You can donate online at habitot@lmi.net or mail a check to Habitot Children's Museum, 1563 Solano Ave., Berkeley, CA 94707.

    Get creative! If your service club, church group, fraternal organization or just plain friends want to invent your own fundraising project, call Moreland at 510-647-1111 ext. 11.

    "We even take tiny BART tickets," she says. "Last year, we raised more than $1,000 that way. There are so many ways to support us, even if you don't have a lot of money."

    It's up to us, folks. So what if you don't have any small children of your own? These kids are the only future we have.

    Reach Martin Snapp at catman@sunset.net.