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Past Picks: The 10 Best Children's Museums

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You've probably taken your family to a children's museum -- and been back again and again. After all, the nation's 200-plus museums designed specifically for kids keep breaking attendance records, with 33 million visitors in 2000. "As the amount of leisure time in the U.S. shrinks, parents are looking for educational but fun places to bring their family," says Janet Rice Elman, director of the Washington, DC-based Association of Children's Museums (ACM). "Children's museums are poised to help you meet that need. Inside their doors, play inspires lifelong learning."

Because of your interest in children's museums, Child embarked on the nation's first-ever survey to uncover the best of the best, working with advisers to find -- define, even -- what sets the top institutions apart. We sent a 44-question survey addressing issues such as quality of exhibits and programming, availability and experience of staff, and comfort factors like food service and diaper-changing stations to over 200 ACM members. What we discovered was amazing -- museums where kids can work with dinosaur fossils, host a television show, or design a roller coaster. You'll find the top 10 museums here -- plus the 40 runners-up and details about the survey.

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  • Fills 365,000 square feet of gallery space -- the largest in our survey -- with 14 major exhibits, such as "Bones: An Exhibit Inside You," where children can build a skeleton, shop for calcium-rich foods, and walk through a giant model of a bone enhanced with fiber optics.
  • Displays more than 10,000 artifacts (just one-tenth of its collection), including a 55-ton steam engine, a working 1927 carousel, and a 33-foot-tall waterclock, the largest in North America.
  • Boasts 36% of employees with degrees in early childhood education.
  • Holds classes and camps, featuring circus and space themes, in its 185-acre nature preserve.
  • Offers a 130-seat planetarium with programs that teach kids how to identify stars, planets, and other highlights of the solar system from their own backyard.
  • Best for ages: 4 to 12

The Children's Museum of Indianapolis has its fair share of dinosaur memorabilia -- a life-size replica of Tyrannosaurus rex, the museum's mascot, greets kids at the entrance to the six-story building and the "What If" gallery features a fossil dig. "But the kids -- toddlers to teens -- told us they wanted more," says Jeff Patchen, Ph.D., chief executive officer of the 75-year-old museum. "So when we had the chance last year to buy the third most complete T. rex fossil in the world, we jumped at it."

The fossil, a juvenile dinosaur named Bucky, will be one of the centerpieces of the museum's $25 million, 8,000-square-foot "Dinosphere: Now You're in Their World" exhibit, which is under construction. Featuring misty ponds, a wide variety of greenery, and a state-of-the-art sound system to pipe in noises from the period, the exhibit will immerse kids in the Cretaceous era of 65 million years ago.

A lab, where kids can work side-by-side with scientists to prepare Bucky and additional fossils for display, opened a few months ago. "Many history museums would simply display the dinosaur with a little card about its origin," points out Dr. Patchen. "Instead, we're striving to create an extraordinary learning experience that has the power to transform the lives of children and their families."

  • Contact: 800-208-5437; www.ChildrensMuseum.org. Entrance fee: $8 for adults, $3.50 for kids.

 

  • Has a TV studio that lets kids see themselves on camera, read scripts from the anchor desk, and work the control panel
  • Offers a Victorian playhouse where kids can host a tea party
  • Will kick off a Dr. Seuss exhibit on February 23; highlights will include a one fish, two fish, red fish, blue fish pond and a kitchen where kids can pretend to make green eggs and ham
  • Operates the "Think Tank" exhibit to enhance problem-solving skills with hidden picture puzzles, palindromes, and rebuses
  • Contains a Parent Resource Library with videos, books, and computers with Web access for researching early childhood issues
  • Best for ages: 4 to 8

In addition to a dozen fabulous galleries -- including an art studio and an outdoor eco-station where children can create a nature journal -- The Children's Museum of Houston (CMH) also features multicultural exhibits and programs. For instance, in "Yal?lag, a Mountain Village in Mexico," kids can explore a replica of a real Oaxacan village -- shopping in the mercado (open-air market), making tortillas in the kitchen, and learning Spanish and Zapotec words in the schoolhouse. Plus, many of the museum's Wonder Weekends include cultural themes such as the Chinese New Year celebration on February 9 and 10. The special project that day: Kids can make hats to ring in the Year of the Horse.

  • Contact: 713-522-1138; www.cm houston.org. Entrance fee: $5 each; free Thursdays from 5 p.m. to 8 p.m.

 

  • Created the award-winning "Arthur's World" exhibit, where kids can role-play, read, or write in the character's favorite settings, like the Read Family Kitchen.
  • Has a stage like one in an opera house, where visitors 2 to 6 can perform.
  • Operates The Minnow, a life-size lobster boat that lets kids dress up as sailors.
  • Teaches children about Japanese culture in a two-story silk merchant's home.
  • Features an extensive doll and dollhouse collection.
  • Best for ages: 2 to 8

One of the few museums with many activities for toddlers and preschoolers -- there's a special version of the facility's rock-climbing wall just for 3- to 5-year-olds, a treehouse with hidden pathways, and a red car with a radio that plays Elmo's version of the Beatles' hit, "Baby, You Can Drive My Car" -- The Children's Museum, Boston (CMB) makes sure its youngest visitors enjoy their trip as much as their older siblings do.

Most of the activities for younger kids, including infants, are found in the museum's 4,500-square-foot PlaySpace area, which the museum recently redesigned based on the latest research in early childhood education. A new feature: a Messy Sensory Station where toddlers can dig "treasure" such as balls out of shaving cream. "The kids don't realize this, but by using plastic scrapers and other tools to find the treasure, they're developing the fine-motor skills that allow them to grip a pencil and start writing," says PlaySpace coordinator Tim Ireland.

  • Contact: 617-426-8855; www.BostonKids.org. Entrance fee: $9 for adults, $7 for children (2-15).

 

  • Features KidWorks, a three-story treehouse where children can crawl through tunnels, cross a narrow rope bridge, and play in a room full of balls.
  • Teaches kids to make a papier m?ch? balloon that resembles the museum's HiFlyer hot air balloon.
  • Hands out PD Kid Club communicators, wireless devices that make the exhibits even more interactive.
  • Houses Exploration Center, a library branch with over 3,000 books, Internet access, and sing-alongs.
  • Best for ages: 6 to 12

One of the nation's newest children's museums, Port Discovery aims to bring kids' dreams to life. In some exhibits -- like the new HiFlyer hot air balloon, which gives children a 15-minute ride above the city's family-friendly Inner Harbor area -- the message is quite subtle. "The HiFlyer is a metaphor for children reaching for the stars," says Alan Leberknight, chief executive officer. More obvious examples include the R&D DreamLab (kids can construct any project) and The Dream Squad (characters inspire kids to make their wishes come true).

Contact: 410-727-8120; www.portdiscovery.org. Entrance fee: $11 for adults, $8.50 for kids.

 

  • 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; www.discoverycentermuseum.org. Entrance fee: $4 for adults, $3 for kids.

 

  • Features a new 1,700-square-foot Totally Tots area, where little ones can enjoy adventures in the Baby Patch, Sand Spot, and Peek-A-Boutique.
  • Holds nearly 27,000 cultural and natural history objects, including dinosaur footprints, shadow puppets from Indonesia, and meteors.
  • Operates a greenhouse, where kids can don an apron and use a magnifying glass to see how plants grow and dig for worms in a compost bin.
  • Schedules plays, concerts, and many other performances during the summer months in its rooftop theater.
  • Offers the award-winning Museum Team program, which allows children as young as 7 to visit the museum unaccompanied by an adult and participate in artist and science residency programs, peer tutoring, and other educational activities.
  • Best for ages: 2 to 12

Founded in 1899, the Brooklyn Children's Museum -- the world's oldest -- is still keeping pace with its much younger (and flashier) counterparts. The key: charm. You enter the building, located underground in the side of a hill, through an authentic 1905 New York City trolley kiosk. Then you pass through the "People Tube," which connects the four exhibit floors -- and opens kids to a world of wonderful opportunities.

In the "Together in the City" exhibit, for instance, kids can make a pizza, produce a movie, and sing a rap song; in "Animal Outpost," they can pet rabbits, frogs, and even snakes. Over in the "Music Mix" center, children can play a wide variety of instruments such as South American steel tom-toms, Asian steel drums, and African xylophones. The bottom line: "We want kids to experience the real thing, rather than a picture in a textbook," says Carol Enseki, president.

  • Contact: 718-735-4400; www.brooklynkids.org. Suggested entrance fee: $4 per child and adult.

 

  • Created the "Can You Tell Me How to Get to Sesame Street?" exhibit, which has dozens of interactive components such as driving Elmo in a taxicab, working the cashier's drawer at the Square Cinema ticket booth, and going on camera with the famous characters.
  • Displays more than 500,000 objects from the 1820s onward, including 5,000 dolls.
  • Allows kids to view old TV and movie clips and check out historic sports gear and clothing in its "TimeLab" exhibit.
  • Features the circus-themed "Count Me In" Children's Theater where kids can learn concepts related to numbers and sorting to improve their math skills.
  • Operates an authentic 1956 diner and a 1920s-style soda fountain so that families can enjoy a meal or a snack together without leaving the museum.
  • Best for ages: 2 to 10

Over the past several years, the Strong Museum has been building muscle: The Disneyesque first floor is filled with dozens of fun and one-of-a-kind activities for kids, like riding on a 1918 carousel, starring in a cooking show, and climbing into Big Bird's Same and Different Nest. On the upper levels, families can sift through one of the widest-ranging collections of cool stuff in the world, from 200 dollhouses to 50,000 pieces of antique advertising materials. "Our memorabilia bridges the generations," says executive director G. Rollie Adams. "Parents and grandparents will spot a toy or a game they had when they were children and then tell the whole family the story."

On every level, the customer service is impressive -- private "guest rest" stations where moms can breastfeed or just take some time out with their kids are sprinkled around the museum. The staff also provides complimentary diapers and even changes of clothing for small mishaps.

Contact: 716-263-2701; www.strongmuseum.org. Entrance fee: $6 for adults, $4 for kids.

 

  • Operates Habitot, a large area where curious visitors 6 months to 4 years old can safely creep, cruise, and crawl through four kid-friendly Minnesota habitats -- the prairie, the pond, the forest, and the bluff caves.
  • Schedules special environmental programs that include live animals, crafts, singing, and storytelling.
  • Houses a Korean restaurant where kids can pretend they're the owner, chef, server, or patron.
  • Holds an Inventor's Workshop on weekends; recent themes include "sticky stuff" and "soft and fuzzy materials".
  • Features "World Works," an exhibit where kids can make giant waves at a wild water table, use a crane to construct a building, and turn a gooey mess into paper art.
  • Best for ages: 6 months to 10 years

With lollipop-shaped lights and huge artistic fish suspended from the ceiling, the Minnesota Children's Museum takes kid-friendliness to a new level. "All day long, we hear little voices exclaiming, 'Wow,'" says Carleen Rhodes, president. "They think they're just here to play. We know they'll be learning a lot too."

Many of the exhibits, says Rhodes, are designed to inspire learning through role-play. In "Earth World Gallery," kids can don ant suits and crawl through the mazelike tunnels and chambers of a giant anthill, meet live turtles, play in a stream, and create a thunderstorm with movable clouds. Upstairs at "The Amazing Castle," children can pretend to be Lords and Ladies, hone their carpentry skills in Royal Workshops, and wake up Herald, the sleeping dragon. And coming in August: Kids can try their hands at puppeteering Miss Piggy, Kermit the Frog, and the rest of the Muppets live on-screen at the "Vision of Jim Henson" exhibit.

  • Contact: 651-225-6001; www.mcm.org. Entrance fee: $6.95 per person.

 

  • Houses a 120-seat theater where kids can create their own plays, costumes, and set designs.
  • Features the "Step Into the Past" exhibit, where kids can watch a bee colony, sit on a porch swing, use a grinding wheel, beat carpets, and wash clothes by hand.
  • Produces an online magazine in CDMedia.Studio, where kids can also learn computer graphics and make a movie.
  • Offers an environmental study program in which students perform authentic scientific tests of the local water quality.
  • Encourages children to create a two-dimensional flap map of their head in the "Map Your Head" exhibit.
  • Best for ages: 2 to 12

In 1998, Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose invited developmental psychologists from the University of Santa Cruz to videotape the interactions of parents and children in the museum's "Current Connections" exhibit, which focuses on energy. "To our great surprise, the researchers told us that parents were three times more likely to cue boys on science content than girls," says Marilee Gandelman Jennings, director of development.

Immediately, the psychologists and museum staff began brainstorming ways to get girls more involved. The following year, they tested the addition of Power Girl, a pigtailed character clad in overalls and a toolbelt who appears throughout the interactive components. "She did the trick," says Gandelman Jennings. "Now parents are just as likely to discuss the exhibit with girls as with boys."

The museum decided to keep the psychologists around, making it the only children's museum in the country with an ongoing university partnership. Their latest project: testing the prototype of the museum's new "Alice in Wonderland" exhibit, which opens in full swing this month.

Contact: 408-298-5437; www.cdm.org. Entrance fee: $7 per person.

 

  • Features a barn where kids can dress up like a farmer in a pair of overalls and brush, groom, and milk life-size fiberglass cows Gertrude and Melba Sue.
  • Operates the award-winning "First Feats" exhibit for kids under 5; highlights include playing a tune on a giant thumb piano and unearthing a dinosaur skeleton.
  • Gives kids real tools to dig for dinosaur fossils.
  • Hosts overnight stays for children ages 8 and up complete with a flashlight scavenger hunt.
  • Offers a Shadow Room, which lets children freeze their shadows on a phosphorescent wall.
  • Best for ages: 6 months to 8 years

Located in a 102-year-old building, Madison Children's Museum took a great deal of inspiration from the area's extensive history as a farming community to develop -- and constantly improve -- its facility, exhibits, and programming. "We wanted our museum to reflect the region's natural beauty," says executive director Karen Dummer. "Many of our exhibits are hand-crafted out of natural materials by local artisans."

The most extraordinary ones: "First Feats," a tot area made entirely of nonsynthetic materials such as wood, stone, straw, clay, sand, and cotton. Even the toys in its infant section are all-natural. Across the museum, the "Let's Grow!" exhibit teaches kids about organic gardening, sustainable agriculture, and nutrition. Children can plant and harvest crops, shop for produce at a farmers' market, and make a smoothie.

  • Contact: 608-256-6445; www.kidskiosk.org. Entrance fee: $4 per person; free on the first Sunday of every month.

 
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The following museum experts helped to develop the survey: Janet Rice Elman, director of the Association of Children's Museums in Washington, DC; Joann Norris, the Okeechobee, FL-based author of Children's Museums: An American Guidebook; Susan Delson, editor of Museums Magazine in New York City; and Ismael Calderon, Ed.D., science director at The Newark Museum Victoria Hall of Science in New Jersey.

Super Specialty Museums
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Because some members of the Association of Children's Museums focus exclusively on science and art, we judged them separately. Here, the winners and runners-up in each category:

Science

Winner: COSI (Center of Science and Industry), Columbus, OH
In its space exhibit, kids become armchair astronauts and use a computerized flight simulator to land a space shuttle, dock with the Hubble Telescope, and reach the moon.

Runner-Up: Science Museum of Virginia, Richmond
Children can check out a 36-foot-tall model of a DNA molecule, travel through a white blood cell, and solve a crime in the popular Science Sleuth Theater.

Art

Winner: Young at Art, Davie, FL
In its Global Village, children can explore an ancient Mayan temple or create Haitian metal sculpture.

Runner-Up: Buell Children's Museum at the Sangre de Cristo Arts Center in Pueblo, CO
Kids can have a great deal of fun creating imaginative computer art and pretending that they are artisans such as weavers and potters.

The Top 10

1. The Children's Museum of Indianapolis

2. The Children's Museum of Houston

3. The Children's Museum, Boston

3. (tie) Port Discovery, Baltimore

3. (tie) Discovery Center, Rockford, IL

6. Brooklyn Children's Museum

7. Strong Museum, Rochester, NY

8. Minnesota Children's Museum, St. Paul

9. Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose, California

10. Madison Children's Museum, Wisconsin

The Runners-Up

11. Children's Museum of Richmond, VA

12. Children's Museum at Holyoke, MA

13. Creative Discovery Museum, Chattanooga, TN

14. Children's Museum of Maine, Portland OR

15. Exploration Station, Bourbonnais, IL

16. Garden State Discovery Museum, Cherry Hill, NJ

17. A.C. Gilbert's Discovery Village, Salem, OR

18. Lincoln Children's Museum, NE

19. Providence Children's Museum, RI

20. Children's Discovery Museum of the Desert, Rancho Mirage, CA

21. Children's Museum of Portsmouth, NH

22. Children's Museum at Yunker Farm, Fargo, ND

23. Children's Museum of Illinois, Decatur

24. Buell Children's Museum, Pueblo, CO

25. Magic House, St. Louis, MO

26. Pittsburgh Children's Museum, PA

27. Children's Museum of Southeastern Connecticut, Niantic

28. Exploration Place, Wichita, KS

29. Ollie Mae Moen Discovery Center, Waco, TX

30. Children's Museum of Denver, CO

31. Chicago Children's Museum, IL

32. Museum of Discovery, Little Rock, AR

33. Staten Island Children's Museum, NY

34. Children's Museum of Manhattan, NY

35. LIED Discovery Children's Museum, Las Vegas, NV

36. Greensboro Children's Museum, NC

37. The Discovery Museums, Acton, MA

38. Hands On! Regional Museum, Johnson City, TN

39. Betty Brinn Children's Museum, Milwaukee, WI

40. Lynn Meadows Discovery Center, Gulfport, MS

41. Treehouse Children's Museum, Ogden, UT

42. WOW! Children's Museum: World of Wonder, Louisville, CO

43. Virginia Discovery Museum, Charlottesville

44. Fort Worth Museum of Science and History, TX

45. Discovery Depot, Galesburg, IL

46. EarlyWorks Museum Complex, Huntsville, AL

47. Lexington Children's Museum, KY

48. Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia, PA

49. Stepping Stones Museum for Children, Norwalk, CT

50. Wonderscope Children's Museum, Shawnee, KS

Almost all of children's museums in Child's survey have a Web site, but the 10 below offer superb games, experiments, and other educational activities that bring a little bit of the museum home for kids.

  • COSI (Center of Science and Industry), Columbus, OH, www.cosi.org. Children can assemble pieces of a human heart and construct a circulation model. Tips are given along the way.

 

  • Creative Discovery Museum, Chattanooga, TN, www.cdmfun.org. Kids can practice the drums, create an artistic masterpiece, and play a dinosaur game.

 

  • The Children's Museum of Boston, www.bostonkids.org. The special kids' section features an online tour of the museum's Arthur's World exhibit plus Buggin' Out, an on-line activity book about insects.

 

  • The Children's Museum of Indianapolis, www.childrensmuseum.org. This Web site features more than a dozen games and projects on-line that match the museum's exhibits, including Build Your Own Bones, which teaches kids to construct a skeleton.

 

  • DuPage Children's Museum, Naperville, IL, www.dupagechildrensmuseum.org. Aunty Math helps kids solve challenging arithmetic word problems.

 

  • Liberty Science Center, Jersey City, NJ, www.lsc.org. It offers an online science curriculum, including Antarctica adventures and deep-sea exploration.

 

  • Lincoln Children's Museum, NE, www.lincolnchildrensmuseum.org. Contains a "Museum at Home" featuring activities to coincide with its most popular exhibits. Plus, the "Family Time" page suggests discussions parents can have with their kids to build on what they learned at the museum.

 

  • Shenandoah Valley Discovery Museum, Winchester, VA, www.discoverymuseum.net. Children can look for highlights from the museum's Kid-Vention Day, including instructions for constructing telegraph key and creating talking tubes that produce the clearest sounds.

 

  • Strong Museum, www.strongmuseum.org. The Just For Kids page features two multiple-choice quizzes -- one asks kids to identify interesting objects from the museum's collection of antiques, the other challenges kids' knowledge of the environment.

 

  • Whatcom Children's Museum, www.whatcommuseum.org/childrens. Younger children will enjoy the online coloring book and easy mazes.

 
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Last June, Child magazine contacted the more than 200 full or sponsor level U.S. members of the Association of Children's Museums to fill out a survey about their museum. The 44-question survey, developed in conjunction with an advisory board of museum professionals, addressed a wide variety of issues including:

  • The extent and quality of monthly programming
  • The diversity and quality of exhibits
  • The experience and availability of staff
  • Comfort factors like bathrooms, diaper-changing stations, and food service
  • The overall value

By September, the results were tabulated; the top 10 winners were featured extensively in the February issue of Child magazine. You'll find the top 10 museums here -- plus the 40 runners-up and details about the survey.

Copyright © 2001. Reprinted with permission from the February 2002 issue of Child magazine.