While plenty of adult museums offer specific exhibits with kid appeal, there is a whole genre of museums that take child-friendliness to a much higher level. These institutions are specifically designed to engage the younger set through hands-on, interactive exhibits that literally turn learning into child's play.
Compared to theme parks, whose admission fees can be pricey, the best children's museumsare typically a relative bargain. And more good news: finding a good children's museum is pretty easy. The non-profit Association of Children's Museums includes well over 200 members throughout the United States that together welcome more than 30 million kids and parents annually.
Among the scores of wonderful kid's museum out there, here are 8 standouts that have wowed us recently with their ability to innovate, engage, and expand their offerings.
Boston Children's Museum Give a birthday hat tip to Boston's kids' museum, located along Children's Wharf, which is celebrating its 100th anniversary in 2013. Of the 20 permanent exhibits here, be sure to check out Construction Zone, which was inspired by Boston's "Big Dig," the largest urban infrastructure endeavor in U.S. history. Children can sit in a real Bobcat excavator, balance on "high beam" girders, and feel the power of a jackhammer. Elsewhere, kids can create artworks, blow bubbles, explore an authentic Japanese house (a gift from Kyoto, Boston's sister city) and much more. Best for: Ages 2-8.
Madison Children's Museum This small but first-rate and oh-so-green museum in Madison, Wisconsin, gets high points for its focus on nature and environmental awareness. Get oriented with a fun scavenger hunt using a reusable treasure map, then bring the kids to the rooftop garden where they can collect eggs from chicken coops, learn all about homing pigeons, and get their hands dirty planting in a garden. There's a nice padded crawling area for babies (made with all-natural local materials, naturally) and a little treehouse for the preschool set. Best for:Ages 6 months to 6 years.
The name says it all. Opened in 1976 for the nation's Bicentennial celebration, this fantasticchildren's museum in Philly invites youngsters to explore eight themed exhibits, including City Capers, a realistic urban environment with buildings from Philadelphia's skyline, and Wonderland, which you enter by descending down a rabbit hole to find a hall of doors and mirrors, a circular maze, and a pretend tea party. In Flight Fantasy, you can carefully engineer your spaceship or engage in less lofty pursuits, such as shooting foam rockets at your sister. Best for: Ages 6 months to 10 years.
The Strong National Museum of Play Rochester's 150,000-square-foot kid space is the world's only collections-based museum devoted entirely to play. Highlights include a working Victorian carousel, massive comic book collection, indoor butterfly garden, and brand new America at Play exhibit that invites you to try your hand at video games and jump into the action on oversized versions of iconic board games. A recent update of the incredibly popular Super Kids Market now includes a market café, role-playing stations, and an organic farm for toddlers. Best for:Ages 2-10.
Children's Museum of Indianapolis (photo: Children's Museum of Indianapolis)
With five floors of exhibits covering nearly 473,000 square feet of floor space, this is America's largest children's museum and a blockbuster tourist attraction in Indianapolis. The iconic Dinosphere exhibit lets kids ogle life-size models of dinosaurs, hunt for fossils in simulated "digs," study specimens in a paleontology lab, and view one of the largest collections of dinosaur fossils in the country. Other exhibits include a planetarium, an age-appropriate biotech learning center, and haunted house. A family could easily spend an entire day here. Best for: Ages 2-10.
Discovery Children's Museum A swish new 26,000-square-foot home near Symphony Park in downtown Las Vegas gives this museum more than twice as much space as it had in its former digs. Nine interactive exhibits focus on science and the arts, with a special focus on innovation, healthy living, and the environment. Kids will especially love the three-story Summit Tower, which contains hands-on science displays as well as plenty of spaces for kids to climb and slide.Best for: Ages 2-10.
Houston's children's museum was one of the best in the country even before it doubled in size to 90,000 square feet of exhibition space. Most of the 14 galleries focus on high-tech and interactive learning, with wonderful outdoor spaces devoted to weather, ecology, and water flow. There's a tot-friendly play area and kids 5 and up get a three-story climbing structure with fun learning spots on the way up and down. Best for: Ages 2-12.
Exploratorium Another museum on the move, San Francisco's wondrous Exploratorium recently relocated to the Embarcadero on Pier 15. The new museum is now three times bigger, with waterfront location that allows families to explore the Bay Area ecology as it also tackles the science behind skateboarding, the principles of navigation, and mysteries of the human body. A mad scientist's penny arcade, scientific funhouse, and an experimental laboratory all rolled into one, the Exploratorium contains hundreds of hands-on exhibits to explore.Best for: Ages 4-12.