Past Picks: The 10 Best Children's Museums

5. (tie) Discovery Center, Rockford, IL

  • Features a planetarium where kids can pretend they're astronauts.
  • Conducts live broadcasts on a local CBS station from the Kids News Studio.
  • Offers a Tot Spot area with a 5-foot-wide, 4 1/2-foot-high custom-made dollhouse.
  • Allows kids to climb floors on a spiral staircase featuring a giant mouse-hole maze.
  • Boasts 25% of employees with a degree in early childhood education.
  • Best for ages: 3 to 10

Children's museums aren't just about play. And that's amply evident at Discovery Center, which aims to educate kids in the "science of fun." More than half of its exhibits bring the subject to life for preschoolers and school-age kids.

How does the museum work its magic? "We take the objects kids love and the things they enjoy doing and use them as a starting point to teach scientific principles," says Sarah Wolf, executive director. In the "Amusement Park Science" exhibit, for instance, kids can build a model of a roller coaster from premade sections and test their creation to see if it'll, well, actually fly. "Lots of kids want their coaster to be mostly hoops -- and they learn through the principles of action and reaction that it simply won't work," says Wolf. "So they'll make some changes until they get a winner."

Once children tackle the indoor exhibits, they can head out the back door to Rock River Discovery Park for dozens more fun and educational activities such as operating a waterwheel and using the Whisper Dish system -- a set of two 6-foot-wide satellite dishes -- to send secret messages back and forth to each other.

Contact: 815-963-6769; Entrance fee: $4 for adults, $3 for kids.

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