Q. We have three children -- a daughter Moira, who is 7; Sean, who is 5, and Kevin, who is 2 and a terror. We try to do something with them every weekend but they act so much worse when we go out. Kevin falls apart after an hour in the museum and Moira and Sean are always picking at each other. We want them to have a good time and to learn something and all they do is have scenes. Besides, I count on the chance to get out once a week and enjoy myself and here we are -- practically defeated by three little children.

A. For sure, there are no perfect solutions in parenthood, but if you can stop thinking of it in terms of victories and defeats; if you can lower your expectations a little, and if you limit your time in a museum to no more than an hour, the outings are going to be more fun.

Actually, you can bet your children want exactly what you want -- a good time, and, although they might be surprised at the idea, a chance to learn something, for no one is more curious than a child. It's just that there are so many ways to teach.

Not only does a child learn best when he's happy, but he is happiest when he is part of the show and not a spectator.

That's why museum exhibits should be seen in context whenever possible. A child gets more out of the Navy Yard museum if he has toured the Constellation in Baltimore first, for then he can recollect the smell of the deck, the feel of the lines -- the very size of a ship -- as he looks over the models. A child is interested in anything past or present as long as he can understand where he would fit.

The Renaissance Festival in Columbia, Md., which opened its third season last weekend, is a good example of the power of this involvement. A museum exhibit of Shakespeare, or even a picture of a knight will come alive to the child who can draw on these memories.

For the next four Saturdays and Sundays, from 10-6, fairgoers of all ages (many of them in costume) will wander through the straw-strewn paths of Symphony Woods. The place boggles the mind, which is what all children need.

There are 200 authentically dressed performers who sing madrigals, act in mime, juggle and do magic tricks along the paths and in the clearings and at 1 o'clock each afternoon Elizabeth I is carried on a litter at the head of a parade. At 4, she and Falstaff and other actors put on a rowdy game of human chess, with a third of the players drawn from the audience. And then there are the Shakespearean characters, like Kate and Petruccio, who argue from one end of the fair to the other, and the Weird Sisters from MacBeth who have their witches' house. There also are the giant puppets who put on "Noah's Fludde," one of three morality plays, and Avner the Eccentric, who walks a slack rope between trees and in mime.

All of this is part of the general $4 admission for adults, with children under 12 to $1 and under 5 for free. Community groups charge small fees for the games, like the quintaine, where a child rides a ridiculous-looking stuffed horse down a cable from a telephone pole and tries to spear the ring in the knights shield.

The Johns Hopkins varsity fencing team will let Moira and Sean wear fencing jackets with a red balloon tied heart-high and the first one to pop the balloon with his sword is the winner.

And that's not all. Costumed craftsmen sell handmade leather and metal games, ocarinas, brass rubbings (you can do them yourself), dulcimers, wooden puzzles, beeswax candles and honey (from the beemonger). Other vendors sell some of the best, most natural food you'll find at any fair. There's the knave sanwich -- sausage sauteed with onions and red and green peppers on a thick slab of bread; turkey drumsticks and steak-on-a-stake, for there were no plastic forks and paper plates at a 16th-century harvest festival. For dessert, there is carrot cake, apple pieces covered with warm caramel and goat's-milk fudge.

Your older children can rest awhile and make Renaissance masks or vegetable puppets -- for a fee but with no time limit -- while Kevin naps on a bale of hay, and you, in fact, can do the same. Since parents can't get pushed in strollers, this place is pretty tiring, but if it's nearly as good as last year it'll be worth it.