The soon-to-be Children's Museum of Sonoma County is not quite yet a reality, but you'd never know that by the crowd of kids and parents who came out to play there Saturday.

Close to 200 attended what was billed as a "groundbreaking festival" on a 4-acre West Steele Lane lot that this summer will sprout a mini Russian River, cocoon and butterfly sculptures, water-play toys, a fort-building area and other fun features that make up the first phase of the new museum, set to open next year.

"Children love to learn by touching, feeling, and experiencing with their bodies," said Collette Michaud, the museum's founder and chief executive, during an address to the crowd before dignitaries symbolically shoveled a small patch of earth to symbolize construction set to begin in about three weeks.

The museum still needs to raise about $2 million toward the $8.3 million project, which includes refurbishing a 5,400-square-foot building formerly used as a church on property adjacent to the Charles M. Schulz Museum honoring the late Santa Rosa-cartoonist. His widow, Jean Schulz, all but donated the building and land under a 30-year lease, organizers said.

Inside the building, creators envision a colorful world that reflects Santa Rosa's traditions and scenery while inspiring creative play, hands-on experimentation and artistic expression.

An old farmhouse nearby is to be renovated as an art studio, named after Ella Bisbee, an 8-year-old Petaluma girl who died after a fall on a family vacation. An event center for birthday parties and workshops will be named after Gordon Dow, the fonder of Dow Pharmaceutical Science and a contributor to the museum.

Dow, who leads the capital campaign, said he often finds it hard "to put words to it" when trying to describe the future museum's multi-faceted offerings. But watching children interact with the myriad exhibits, "it all sort of comes to life for me," he said.

On Saturday, dozens of babes in arms and older children, from toddlers to grade-school kids, built forts out of cardboard boxes, played with magnets, experimented with sound waves and air pressure, made paper butterflies and wove coccoons out of sticks, yarn and sheep's wool.

Eight-year-old Olivia Diaz was busy fashioning a kind of tepee out of willow switches leaned against the limb of a redwood with her 6-year-old brother, Spencer.

"You get to create something and build whatever you want, and use your imagination while you do it," Diaz said.

Abbie Johnson, 6, said her favorite activity was climbing on giant tractor tires.

Crawling out from under a large appliance box, Amit Kumthekar, 7, said he and Yulupa Elementary School classmate Hayden Byrne were playing Old West Indians and trying to build a fort and make it so no one could see them.

"We go to the Sausalito museum a lot, and the Exploratorium in San Francisco," said his mother, Lucrezia Kumthekar, who was helping her 4-year-old daughter, Anjuli, make a bow from string and willow.

"It would be great to have something here," she said, then corrected herself. "It will be great."

You can reach Staff Writer Mary Callahan at 521-5249 or