Our nation is home to over 200 children’s museums, receiving over 33 million visitors each year. From hands-on interactive exhibits to physically engaging facilities with climbing walls and various structures, there’s plenty of fun to be had for kids of all ages. Other than all of the indoor exercise and play time, which are often associated with these museums, there’s also an important educational impact that also inspires many school groups to head to these museums as well. Nearly every city has one and there’s no excuse for not taking your kids or grandkids and even becoming a member so you can return for special exhibitions and extended playtime. Those interested in budget travel also have no escuse not to take your kids, whether out of town or on a “staycation,” being that many offer free admission on certain days of the week. So without further ado, here’s the best of the best.
1. Children’s Museum Indianapolis, Indianapolis, IN
This 472,900 square foot world class museum is spread across five floors of exhibits, making it the single largest children’s museum in the world. It is perhaps best known for it’s beloved Dinosphere, which contains a working paleontology lab, hands-on simulated fossil “digs,” several life-size simulated dinosaurs, and one of the largest collections of real fossils and dinosaur art in the country. Take note of the life-sized replica of a Tyrannosaurus rex, which is the third most complete T. rex fossil in the world. Throughout the museum, over 10,000 artifacts are on display, including a 55-ton steam engine, a working 1927 carousel, and the largest waterclock in North America. Also visit the toy and doll house displays and Fireworks of Glass, a 43-foot-tall blown-glass sculpture by Dale Chihuly. Then head to the 130-seat planetarium, which offers programs that teach kids how to identify stars, planets, and other highlights of the solar system. General admission is $13.50 for children, $18.50 for adults, and $17.50 for seniors. Open free for families 4–8:00 p.m. on the first Thursday of each month, as well as January 20th, April 27th, and December 24th.
2. Boston Children’s Museum, Boston, MA
2013 marked the 100th anniversary of this award-winning museum–the second-oldest children’s museum in the country–which welcomes its guests with the sight of a 40-foot-high red-and-white milk bottle out front. Among 18 permanent exhibits, a favorite is the Construction Zone, which is based on Boston’s Big Dig, the largest urban infrastructure project in US history. This exhibit allows children to jackhammer, walk on “high beam” girders, and ride in real Bobcat. It also stands out for being one of the few museums to offer many activities for toddlers and preschoolers, featuring attractions like a rock-climbing wall that’s been designed just for 3- to 5-year-olds. Kids will especially love the fully functional 100-yeard old Japanese house, with a 3-story climbing sculpture, as well as the Global Gallery, which temporarily imports exhibits from the finest museums around the world. The museum in and of itself is practically a work art, as it’s a certified green building that’s housed in a converted wool warehouse. Admission is $14 for both children and adults. Every Friday evening from 5-9:00 p.m. is when families can enjoy the entire museum for $1.
3. Children’s Museum of Houston, Houston, TX
After recently doubling it’s size to 90,000 square feet of exhibit space, these 14 galleries are every child’s fantasy. Consider coming on a warm day to explore several outdoor exhibit galleries, which include a Weather Station, Eco Station, and the watery Flow Station. Experience a TV studio that lets kids see themselves on camera, read scripts from the anchor desk, and work the control panel. Another re-creates the Mexican Indian village of Yalalag, allowing locals to practically take a vacation within their “staycation!” Tot Spot focuses on the 6-month- to 3-year-old crowd, helping build motor skills through various forms of play. Admission is $9 for both children and adults, and $8 for seniors. Every Thursday evening from 5-8:00 p.m. is when admission is free of charge.
4. Port Discovery, Baltimore, MD
Votes “Best Children’s Museum In The US” by Forbes, this 80,000 square foot facility resides in a renovated fish market and is one of the anchors of Baltimore’s Inner Harbor. One of the highlights is Adventure Expeditions, allowing kids to travel back in time to Egypt in the 1920’s and search for a Pharaoh’s lost tomb, decoding hieroglyphics along the way. In Down on the Farm, children get to milk cows, plant seeds, and even brush the tail of an actual horse. KidWorks is a three-story treehouse where children can crawl through tunnels, cross a narrow rope bridge, and play in a room full of balls. Houses Exploration Center is a library branch with over 3,000 books, Internet access, and fun sing-alongs. The new HiFlyer hot air balloon gives children a 15-minute ride above the city’s Inner Harbor. Walt Disney Company Imagineers designed many of the exhibits, so you know they have to be good! General admission is $13.95. Admission is reduced to $8 from 1-4:30 p.m. on Tuesdays and Thursdays through April 10, 2014.
5. Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia, PA
As indicated in the name, this facility is extremely hands-on, as it’s divided into six themed interactive exhibit zones. The grand journey begins with an entrance through Memorial Hall, which is the site of the first-ever World’s Fair in 1876, which more recently underwent an $88 million restoration. A favorite for urban enthusiasts like myself is City Capers, which is a “neighborhood” within the museum featuring buildings from Philadelphia’s skyline, a mock supermarket, medical center, and construction zone, each with many interactive features. Wonderland takes kids down the rabbit hole of Alice in Wonderland, complete with a circular maze, hall of doors and mirrors, and the Tea Party. Also come for story time in a castle and see a performance at the Please Touch Playhouse. General admission is $17. Admission is reduced to $2 per person on the first Wednesday of each month from 4-7:00 p.m.
6. COSI: Center of Science and Industry, Columbus, OH
Featuring 320,000 square feet of exhibit space, this is one of few children’s museums that can actually keep adults entertained. They have engaged with over 30 million people and established a role as a leader in innovation. One of their signature attractions is WOSU@COSI, the only working television station in a science center. Also visit “little kidspace,” a 10,000 square foot area for kids not yet in first grade, designed by early education experts. The museum consists of 10 permanent exhibits exploring space, the oceans, our bodies, minds and spirits, gadgets and much more. One unique highlight is the daily live shows, including rat basketball, with real rats playing basketball! It’s easy to see why Parent Magazine named it the #1 science center in the country. General admission is $12.95 for children, $17.95 for adults, and $16.95 for seniors. Admission is $10.95 for all ages 2 and up on the last Friday of the month from 5-9:00 p.m.
7. Children’s Museum of Denver, Denver, CO
Since first opening in 1973 in a converted school bus, this museum has quickly grown to become one of the cities favorite attractions. With permanent exhibitions consisting of 13 “Playscapes,” catering to different ages and interests, these exhibitions start with the Center for the Young Child, for newborns through age 4, who can crawl through a storybook landscape of lily ponds and bridges, while slightly older aspiring engineers can design and build their own structures, vehicles and even helicopters using blueprints and real tools in The Assembly Plant. General admission is $9 and senior admission is $7. Admission is free on the first Tuesday of each month from 4-8:00 p.m.
8. Brooklyn Children’s Museum, Brooklyn, NY
Founded in 1899, this New York City landmark is the world’s first and oldest childen’s museum, yet remains among the best! With over 100,000 square feet of exhibit space, exhibits include Neighborhood Nature, which allows kids to explore the various natural habitats that can be found throughout our nation’s largest city, ranging from woodland fields to ocean tide pools. See nearly 30,000 natural-history specimens and cultural objects, from Egyptian scarabs to carnival masks. Then explore a fun 1,700-square-foot Totally Tots area, where youngsters can enjoy adventures in the Baby Patch, Sand Spot, and Peek-A-Boutique. They also operate a cool greenhouse, where kids can use a magnifying glass to see how plants grow and dig for worms in a compost bin. Best of all, the journey all begins by entering the building, located underground in the side of a hill, through an authentic 1905 New York City trolley kiosk. Admission is $9 per person.
9. Discovery Center Museum, Rockford, IL
This two story museum includes more than 250 hands-on attractions, such as a snowboard simulator. I highly recommend coming in decent, sunny weather (or come all bundled up) to explore Rock River Discovery Park, which is located right behind the museum; it’s the first community built science park in the nation. Children get to learn the geometry and physics behind sports from baseball to tennis; fly an airplane in a cockpit simulator; and explore the wonders of electricity, color, weather, the human body and the planetary system. See how farming impacts our daily lives by doing things like studying a beehive and milking cows and even participate in live news broadcasts. From digging for dinosaur bones to sending whispered messages by satellite dish, the kiddos are sure to leave with a smile. Also visit the planetarium and a major interactive robot exhibit. The museum and science park also share the Museum Park Campus with the adjacent Rockford Art Museum and Burpee Museum of Natural History. Admission is $8 per person.
10. Minnesota Children’s Museum, St Paul, MN
With exhibits ranging from a giant anthill kids can enter, and uniquely regional topics, like Habitot, which encourages young children to run or crawl through representations of four of Minnesota’s distinct and different natural habitats, there’s plenty to do here. The water-centric World Works exhibit features a wide variety of hands-on machinery and experiments, allowing kids to try their hands at everything from racing boats down flowing streams to making their own recycled paper. Operates Habitot is a large area where curious visitors 6 months to 4 years old can safely creep, cruise, and crawl through four kid-friendly Minnesota habitats, including the prairie, the pond, the forest, and the bluff caves. General admission is $9.50. General admission is free of charge every third Sunday of each month, from 9-5:00 p.m.
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What’s your favorite children’s museum? We’d love to hear from you in the comments section below!