"Daddy, which way do you turn it?" asks a little girl wielding a screwdriver and trying to drive a screw into a board.
As the child's father helps her start the screw, another girl is using a screwdriver to take apart a banged-up typewriter.
"How many simple machines can you find inside?" asks a sign. "Remember a simple machine is a pully, a lever, a screw, an inclined plane or a wheel and axle."
All around us, in the Simple Machines room of the Capital Children's Museum, are larger examples of such machines: a lever, which the legend explains is a bar that rests on a steady object called a fulcrum -- in this case, a large cinder block; and a balance, described as a "lever that is used to weigh things," where two little girls are finding that they weigh about the same.
"Try it with my mother," suggests one, jumping off her side of the see-saw-like machine. A mother gets on with a little girl, and three other kids pile on the other side.
"Those two weigh more than the three of you," explains a father to the kids on the light side. Then the little kid on the mother's side gets off and the mother see-saws up. "But the three of them are heavier than I am," she says triumphantly.
Other kids are fiddling with pulleys set up to lift cinderblocks. There are three blocks the same size, but when the kids strain to lift them with a rope they decide that some must weigh more than others. Then they discover that the "heaviest" block has no pulleys to help in the lifting and the "lightest" has several pulleys.
Next door in the museum's City Room, a mother is explaining to two girls about a clever tool called a pulley line.
"See, if it starts to rain you can just pull the line and take your clothes in without stepping off your back stoop," she says, dropping clothes into a basket and clothespins into a plastic bag.
"But our house is over there, and we have a dryer," says one of the girls running into a brick-front townhouse and pointing to what turns out to be the gas meter. Forgetting the wash, they open the kitchen cabinets and take out the makings of hot chocolate.
"We keep our milk in the cabinet instead of the refrigerator so it will be warm enough for hot chocolate," one explains.
The hot chocolate causes a pretend fire, and the girls run to plug the fire hose into a hydrant. Then they spot another attraction.
"Let's pretend we're manhole people," says one, and they vanish under the room.
Soon half the kids that were in the room are under it, fixing pipes and wearing hard hats from the costume room. In the costume room, outfits are constantly being changed. A little boy tries on a mail carrier's coat and hat and drags around a leather pouch. Then he trades it all in for a bus driver's hat and heads for the training bus.
"We ought to just buy a steering wheel and some stuff and put together something like this at home," says an ambitious father.
"Want a ride?" asks a girl in a battered Subaru. "Get in the back." Another little girl opens the hood and fiddles with the engine. "I'm fixing it," she explains. "It died. It has blood."
Phones are ringing all over the room -- in the house, in a phone booth, in the costume area -- as kids dial one another. At a C&P Teletrainer, they can also get busy signals, and dial tones by pushing the right buttons.
"You can't always be dialing somebody," one little girl admonishes another. "We've got to do our chores." As the two girls dutifully hang out their wash, a toddler picks up the bag of clothespins and walks off.
"Lucy, we have to put the clothespins back. It's time to go," says the mother to the kid, who lets a bloodcurdling protest. Other parents are also having trouble getting their kids to leave the museum. A father holding a boy's coat sticks his head down into the manhole, but the boy says:
"I can't go yet, Dad, we're fixing this pipe. It's got a big crack in it."