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Destination: Rainforest Adventure at the N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences

Rainforest Adventure opened at the downtown Raleigh museum in late April. The educational maze features questions about the rainforest along with a number of interactive play pieces.

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It would be tricky to walk through Rainforest Adventure, the new exhibit at downtown Raleigh's N.C. Museum of Natural Sciences, without learning at least a little something.

Because, to get through this exhibit, visitors must navigate a maze, answering 10 questions as they move along from the highest treetops of a tropical rainforest to the forest floor.

It's easy to find your way even if you make the wrong choice when answering questions about the soil quality in the rainforest or what percentage of the forests have been destroyed, for instance. You just make a quick turn back where you came from and you're on your way.

"This is not about testing," said Albert Ervin, coordinator of special exhibits and 3D movies. "This is about exploring and just having fun and learning."

Rainforest Adventure opened in late April and remains at the museum until Sept. 1. The exhibit is designed for kids ages 3 to 12 and their families. It's a perfect outing for those hot summer days ahead of us.

This isn't a purely educational exhibit. Rainforest Adventure also offers plenty of play opportunities beyond running through the maze. There's the "brachiation station," a fancy word for monkey bars where kids can swing like a monkey. There's a spider web made of sturdy rope that kids can climb on. And, if adults want to get in on the action, they're welcome to test both, Ervin tells me.

A question or two away, kid will find a short zip line to fly through the rainforest like a butterfly (there's a weight limit of 175 pounds on that one, adults). Then there is the short corridor full of hanging ropes, which aims to simulate the feeling of walking through the vines in the actual rainforest.

"It's a maze and a place to play, to be a critter," Ervin said.

The exhibit ultimately emphasizes how essential rainforests are to human health and survival. A station at the end lets visitors identify smells such as chocolate or coffee and other items that come from the rainforest. Museum goers can sign a pledge to help the rainforest by recycling, buying local produce and powering down electronics when not in use, for instance. Cards available at the end of the exhibit direct visitors to other parts of the museum that draw a connection between the rainforests and North Carolina.

Once you leave the maze, you end up in a classroom full of activities developed by Ervin and his staff. Kids can learn about fireflies by playing an old-fashioned Simon game. There are books, specimens, microscopes to investigate bird feathers and other activities. Some of them were developed with help from Marbles Kids Museum. Some will change over run of the exhibit.

Here, Ervin said, visitors can expand on what they've learned in the exhibit. And if you have more questions beyond what's out to look at, just ask the museum staffers manning the desk. They are armed with even more information.

"We're not just giving the answers," Ervin said. "It's a chance to explore."

I walked through the exhibit with my kids - ages 4 and 9 - this week. My older daughter enjoyed the challenge of answering the questions and moving through the maze. My younger one loved discovering the active play pieces as we walked through. They were wonderful surprises for both of them. We spent about 30 minutes inside the maze and another hour or so in the classroom, where they read books, played games and talked to staff.

The questions inside the maze won't change during the exhibit's run, but we will definitely be repeat visitors (thanks to our museum membership, which makes it free). Ervin said there are many ways to enjoy the exhibit - kids can run through, answering the questions; go through again and just play on the play pieces; or take their time, reading all of the panels.

Like the rainforest itself, there are many layers within Rainforest Adventure.

Admission into the natural sciences museum in downtown Raleigh is free. Tickets for Rainforest Adventure are $7 for adults; $5 for children ages 3 to 12; $6 for students, seniors and the military; and free for members. You can go through the maze multiple times before leaving the exhibit.

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