Fun Family Travel: 7 Awesome Art Parks

Seven cool sculpture parks let kids take in some culture -- and blow off some energy.

Children -- those masters of snowmen and fairy houses -- are potential aficionados of 3-D art from the time they can stack blocks. And it's not such a big leap, really, from those childhood creations to modern, grown-up sculptures. A bright orange tunnel of steel, a giant tower of boom boxes, a 12-foot-tall eyeball, a king-size bed in a Plexiglas box -- these are just a few of the playful, surprising works of art kids can see in sculpture gardens around the country. These open-air museums display their collections along trails, in meadows, and in landscaped gardens, which makes the experience ideally suited to small, curious beings with wandering feet and attention spans. Families are free to walk around (and often under and through) the art, picnic in its shade at most sites, and sometimes even touch it. The seven sculpture parks listed here make a particular bid for kids' imaginations with interesting collections, good family programming, or both. Ranging from a compact city garden to an expansive 132-acre park, they offer a dynamic, exciting introduction to sculpture for art lovers of all ages.

OMI International Arts Center
Sasha Sicurella

OMI International Arts Center

Ghent, NY

A bustling hub for musicians, dancers, writers, and artists in residence, OMI also is home to The Fields Sculpture Park and Architecture OMI. Together they feature more than 80 cutting-edge artworks displayed on some 120 acres of meadows and woods. Kids will dig Paula Hayes's planters with native trees and dive right into Alice Aycock's "Simple Network of Underground Wells and Tunnels," which is as cool as it sounds. For refueling, Café Omi has locavore fare. At Halloween, kids can trick-or-treat among the sculptures and listen to spooky stories. Free.

Getting into the art at New York's OMI (at right)

Queen Califia's Magic Circle

Queen Califia's Magical Circle

Escondido, CA

French sculptor Niki de Saint Phalle created a whimsical world from glittering glass, ceramic mosaic tiles, and river stones near San Diego. Visitors enter through a gate in the Snake Wall encircling a small maze, sparkling totem poles, and golden Queen Califia riding her giant eagle (Califia is the heroine of a 16th-century Spanish novel, and, according to legend, California was named for her). The circle is set within Kit Carson Park, which also offers a duck pond and trails. The circle was closed for repairs at press time, so check the website before visiting.

Decordova Sculpture Park and Museum

Lincoln, MA

The world-class sculpture at the deCordova is served up with fabulous family programming. Hands-on, collaborative workshops (blanket forts! giant webs of string!) get kids thinking about sculptural architecture and materials. Portable activity kits, with clipboards, pencils, questions, and other supplies, help families interact with artworks. Among the more than 60 pieces, plenty have kid appeal, such as a reflective glass room and a king-size bed encased in Plexiglas. $14 adults, free for kids under age 12.

Annmarie Sculpture Garden & Arts Center

Dowell, MD

A quarter-mile paved trail at this cozy arts center winds past 32 sculptures (many on loan from the Smithsonian Hirshhorn Museum), azalea and butterfly gardens, and a child-size wildlife observatory on St. John's Creek. From May through October, fairy and gnome houses made by local artists are hidden about the park's 30 acres; year-round, kids can hunt for Tree Pops: segments of masterpieces painted onto trees in the woods. Drop-in art projects transform discarded materials (like broken CDs) into cool art (like disco ball-style picture frames). $5 adults, $3 kids ages 6-17, free for kids under age 6.

Frederik Meijer Gardens & Sculpture Park

Grand Rapids, MI

In this 132-acre park, you'll find a wide variety of sculptures, from Rodin to contemporary colorful steel installations -- and eight intriguing gardens, including a carnivorous plant house, a five-story tropical conservatory, and a Victorian garden. There's also a five-acre Children's Garden, where kids can climb into a beaver lodge, sit in a tree house, and go on a sensory treasure hunt. For a midday meal break, the café offers a kids' menu (picnicking is not allowed in the park). $12 adults, $6 kids ages 5-13, $4 kids ages 3-4, free for kids under age 3.

Laumeier Sculpture Park

St. Louis, MO

Among the large-scale sculptures at this 105-acre park is a realistic, 12-foot eyeball -- a kid favorite. Some installations, such as a concrete face set into the ground, earthen mounds with inset stairs, and a triangular bridge crossing a creek, invite children to wander over, under, and through them. Adults can try Site/Sound, an iPod tour with musical tracks created in response to specific sculptures. Free.

Franconia Sculpture Park

Schafer, MN

Funky, homegrown, and wildly imaginative, Franconia packs 95 works into its 20 acres, just an hour north of the Twin Cities. Kids will love that it feels more like a playground than a museum, as several pieces double as fanciful climbers; one is even called "Playstation." Franconia is an active arts center with open studios, so the sculptors are right there, working, answering questions, giving tours (on summer Sundays), and helping kids make their own sculptures (on monthly summer Saturdays). Free.

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