Packed with family-friendly experiments and plenty of stuff to touch, these winners cater to the younger crowd.
Everything in this slideshow
You might not think about visiting a science center until your kids are out of kindergarten. After all, what's there really to do with children who are still testing the principles of gravity by dropping their sippy cup? According to Parents' poll, about a third of the nation's 150-plus science centers have galleries designed specifically for children 6 and under. We sent the staff at these centers a detailed survey about what they offer for young kids. The result: this list of innovative places that are bound to inspire more than a few pint-size Einsteins.
COSI, Columbus, Ohio
All the 300-plus exhibits at COSI (short for the Center of Science and Industry) are meant to be touched. But if your children are of kindergarten age or younger, plan on spending most of your time exploring the health clinic, tree house, and power plant in Little Kidscape. A staff member checks families in and out of the gallery and enforces the age limit so young kids can play freely. Plus, there are six different shows daily (be sure to catch the one where rats shoot hoops) and stations where kids can watch exploding atoms, pour a bottle of air, and create electricity. Family restrooms, free use of wagons and strollers, and a cafe that serves nutritious food at a decent price make the outing even better. $12.50 for adults, $7.50 for kids 2 to 12, free on December 7.
Exploratorium, San Francisco, California
A very close second, the Exploratorium packs more than 450 interactive exhibits in an open space about the size of two football fields. Although it can be a bit chaotic, the quality of the exhibits, many of which are built at the in-house machine shop, is unmatched: Among other things, kids can make bubbles big enough to hold their parents, look into an "antigravity" mirror that makes them appear to fly, and watch dry ice drop into water to mimic the action of a comet. For an extra fee, kids 7 and over can find their way through the Tactile Dome in total darkness, "seeing" only with their hands to guide them. $14 for adults, $9 for kids 4 to 12, free on the first Wednesday of every month.
Museum of Science, Boston, Massachusetts
No matter what kind of science interests your kid, the 35-plus exhibit themes at this museum have it covered. Our favorites include the butterfly garden, dinosaur dig, planetarium show, and animal hatchery with baby chicks. Kids 8 and under also get to explore the Discovery Center, which features a geology field station, boxes chock-full of tot-size science tools, and regularly scheduled experiments like making slime. Researchers from Harvard and the Massachusetts Institute of Technology are often on hand to answer questions about how to foster a child's interest in science. Don't leave without seeing the lightning show -- it's so good that even staff from other science centers rave about it. $19 for adults, $17 for seniors 60+, $16 for children 3-11, extra for the planetarium and butterfly garden.
Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, New Jersey
The biggest wow for kids and adults: the skyscrapers. During a complete redo last year, the Liberty Science Center installed 30-foot-tall images of some famous buildings (along with video from construction sites) plus plenty for kids to try out for themselves, including a crane, a 20-foot wind tunnel, and materials to create their own tower. Exclusively for kids 5 and under, the new I Explore gallery has interactive displays like a xylophone made from five hanging rocks (to teach cause and effect) and a two-story ball machine (to illustrate gravity and momentum). Coming in the fall: weekend science workshops for families with children 4 to 8. $15.75 for adults, $11.50 for kids 2 to 12.
St. Louis Science Center, St. Louis, Missouri
A Children's Gallery Guide lists more than 50 super-fun things to do, but get your tickets for the Discovery Room before heading anywhere else. Kids ages 3 to 7 can try out magnets and gears, grind corn, and listen to their own heartbeat. This month, there will be even more special exhibits tailored to kids in kindergarten. Children of all ages will enjoy Science Goes Splat, a show where balls, water balloons, and even pumpkins are tossed out a third-floor window -- and the audience gets to guess which one will fall the fastest. Admission to most of the exhibits is free; $3 per person for the Discovery Room and $5 for adults and $4 for kids for the planetarium.
New York Hall of Science, Flushing, New York
There's plenty of neat stuff for little kids to do inside the New York Hall of Science -- like making a kaleidoscope in the activity area near the much-beloved Magic School Bus exhibit or seeing their shadow frozen on the wall -- but the real fun begins outdoors. An enormous science playground, open from April through December, lets children explore concepts like vantage points, sound, and reflection through obstacle climbs, mirror paths, and whisper dishes. Even traditional playground equipment takes on a whole new meaning: Swings power a windmill and an oversize seesaw helps kids learn about levers. On the way out, be sure to stop by the biochemistry lab to make your own cheese in a test tube -- it takes just 10 minutes and it's a lot of fun for little kids. $11 for adults, $8 for kids 2 to 17, free every Friday from 2 to 5 p.m.
California Science Center, Los Angeles, California
While the main galleries have a lot of stuff to touch -- like a lever that pumps blood into a giraffe's brain -- adjacent "discovery rooms" just for children under 8 are totally hands-on. The Creative World has a construction zone, hardware store, and TV studio with a camera. If you come on a weekend, be sure to catch the Science Spectacular show -- five chemistry demos, including exploding eggs and foaming volcanoes, that will keep even young kids enthralled. But the most mind-blowing thing about the California Science Center is the price. Admission is always free.
Sci-Port Discovery Center, Shreveport, Louisiana
Sci-Port has so many shows and demos that it creates a new visitor's guide daily. Regulars include chocolate science (kids use balloons to make a candy bowl), alligator antics (there's a chance to touch a baby alligator), and a cotton gin (families can operate a small version). An interactive kiosk in the planetarium lets you see how the stars appeared in the sky on the night you were born. And, of course, there are the actual exhibits, including the Animation Computer Lab and the Children's Gallery, where kids can run electricity and crawl through a hologram-filled tunnel. $12 for adults, $9 for kids 3 to 12, $2 for all on the first Tuesday of the month.
The Franklin, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania
Formerly the Franklin Institute, it's known worldwide for its giant walk-through heart. But your children will likely be more impressed with some of the newer exhibits, especially Kid Science: The Island of Elements. As families read a storybook from giant panels, they explore a lighthouse, cave, and sailboat packed with hands-on components that teach kids about sound, movement, and geology. And mark your calendars: An exhibit with real pirate treasure runs until November 2. $14.25 for adults, $11.50 for kids 4 to 11.
Maryland Science Center, Baltimore, Maryland
In the Kids' Room, wanna-be scientists 8 and under get to explore a cave, test buoyancy at the water table, and see whether they can construct a building that would withstand an earthquake. There's a planetarium show for young children -- The Sky Above Mr. Rogers' Neighborhood -- and a half dozen mammoth dinosaur skeletons at the entrance. Great photo op: your kid sitting in a nest of dinosaur eggs. Special events, like the CSI-inspired Whodunnit Day on September 20, add to the fun. $14.50 for adults, $10 for kids 3 to 12, discounts every Friday night.
The Best of the Rest
These runners-up are also tailored to young kids.
11. Discovery Science Center, Santa Ana, California
The massive T-Rex replica is fun to look at, but your kids can climb inside an Argentinosaurus to learn about a dino's body.
12. Detroit Science Center Detroit, Michigan
There's a new Kids Town gallery and, coming on September 20, The Secret of the Cardboard Rocket planetarium show.
13. Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Exploration Station gives kids a chance to pet a hissing cockroach and launch a rocket.
14. Gulf Coast Exploreum Science, Center, Mobile, Alabama
Kids can put on a white coat and goggles while working on one of six rotating experiments.
15. Louisville Science Center, Louisville, Kentucky
There's a cave in the ultra-cool The World Around Us gallery.
16. Pacific Science Center Seattle, Washington
The Tropical Butterfly House & Insect Village will be a hit.
17. WonderLab Museum of Science, Health & Technology, Bloomington, Indiana
Science on the Spot activities let kids do something different each time they visit.
18. Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois
The Water Spectacle exhibit -- where kids can set off a geyser -- is a family fave.
19. Discovery Place Charlotte, North Carolina
Preschoolers get their own room with water blocks that stick to the wall and a role-playing area.
20. The Children's Museum of Science and Technology, Troy, New York
At the weather station, kids can make up their own forecasts and broadcast them on a big TV.
21. SciWorks, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Children can play a giant game of Operation with kitchen tongs.
22. Union Station, Kansas City, Missouri
A five-story 3-D theater is a great place to watch a science-y flick.
23. Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley, California
Kids make art projects (such as a paper ladybug) to illustrate science concepts (like symmetry).
24. Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont
The inside of the facility is cozy, but it has miles of nature trails.
25. The Discovery Science Place, Tyler, Texas
An auto-repair center, a triage area, and a vet clinic are the backdrops for learning about science.
Used with permission from the September 2008 issue of Parents magazine.
This piece was accurate at publication time, but all prices, offerings, and availabilities are subject to change. Please contact each hotel and attraction for up-to-date rates and information before taking your trip.