Truth is, a kid would have a blast in any children's museum. Turning knobs, building stuff, dressing up, touching everything -- what's not to like? But as moms, we're pickier -- especially if it takes a couple hours to get there and we're going to spend up to $50 on our family's admission. That's why Parents surveyed children's museums to see which ones have clever educational exhibits, mommy-and-me outings and festivals, healthy places for lunch, nursing areas, family restrooms, and stroller parking. We started with the 300-plus members of the Association of Children's Museums and nixed those without a lot for kids under 3. Then we asked the rest 30 questions to help us decide which museums were the leaders. After tallying the scores, we got great insider tips from local moms. Go gallery-hopping with us!
It thinks big -- Texas big. Instead of playing at a plain water table, your kid can create aqueducts, race boats in different currents, fill up an 18-foot cauldron until it tips over, and turn on a geyser in a massive outdoor play area. Or your little shopper can pick up a make-believe $40 debit card from the ATM to buy groceries or dine out in the three-story Kidtropolis exhibit. There, she can also earn a paycheck by taking on one of 24 jobs, including chef, police officer, and artist. "In a few hours, it taught my 3-year-old concepts about money that I'd been trying to get across for months," says Jocelyn Jane, who was visiting from Florida. For kids under 2, there's Tot Spot, an area with cushy stairs, balls, mirrors, and doorbells. "Several moms have told us their kids took their first steps in there," says Tammie Kahn, the museum's executive director. Best for ages 6 months to 10 years. ($8 for adults and children, kids under age 1 free)
No matter what your child likes, this museum has an exhibit for it. Taking along a wannabe astronaut? Check out the planetarium, which holds five different star shows. Got a toddler obsessed with Dora and Diego? She can help the cartoon cousins search for baby animals in the rain forest. Have a kid fascinated with trains? "My 3-year-old son loved the tool car in the All Aboard! exhibit, where he took a simulated train ride with moving video scenery and sound effects," says Elizabeth Newell, who has traveled there several times from Celina, Ohio. But the coolest of the museum's 13 permanent exhibits is probably one that your kid wouldn't pick out -- Take Me There: Egypt. The museum has turned one of its wings into a modern-day Egyptian village. Children can learn about the country's currency, try on Egyptian clothes, and shop in a market for local foods. Once they get a taste of this exhibit, it's bound to become an all-time favorite. Best for ages 6 months to 10 years. ($16.50 for adults, $11.50 for children, kids under 2 free)
It's easy to take siblings to this Philadelphia attraction. Rather than designing a separate room for babies and toddlers, the museum incorporated elements for them in many of the exhibits when it relocated and expanded two years ago. "We don't want toddlers to have nothing to do while their older siblings play and vice versa," says museum president Laura Foster.
In the museum's much-loved Wonderland exhibit, for instance, a 1-year-old can pick out giant flowers in the Fairytale Garden while her 5-year-old sister has a pretend tea party with Alice at the giant table nearby. Or an older kid can try out musical instruments from around the world in the Rainforest Rhythm exhibit as her little brother crawls on a lily pad that makes nature sounds. Set aside some time to watch one of the live theater shows and take a spin on the refurbished antique carousel. Best for ages 6 months to 6 years. ($15 for adults and children, kids under 1 free)
Take notes. While your kid is catching a pretend bus, putting books and pencils in a backpack, and playing school in the new Countdown to Kindergarten! permanent exhibit, you can ask a volunteer teacher questions you have about the first day of school. Or drop by PlayLab, where scientists from MIT give child-development advice and may ask if your kid (3 months to age 8) wants to watch a puppet show, listen to a story, or play a game as part of a study. "The results from PlayLab help us shape the activities in our room for babies and toddlers," says Jeri Robinson, Ed.D., vice president of early childhood education and family learning. "We do more with messy materials like shaving cream and sand because the scientists found they're useful for developing fine motor skills in young kids." Parents of Dorothy and Toto fans: Save your visit until the Wizard of Oz traveling exhibit rolls into town from May 23 to September 10. Kids can create a tornado, experiment with color prisms in the Emerald City, and climb into the Wicked Witch's castle. Best for ages 6 months to 8. ($12 for adults and children, kids under 1 free)
It's gone green. Check out the nature-inspired exhibits this Wisconsin museum added when it moved into a new environmentally friendly building last August. Up on the roof, your kid can plant in the children's garden, collect eggs from the chicken coop, or learn about homing pigeons. Then, if she's 5 or under, head over to the Wildernest exhibit to cross a Bone Bridge, hide out in the tree house, or play games in mini huts. Crawlers and early walkers have their own padded play area in this exhibit, which is made from local natural materials. Loop back to the front desk to go on a scavenger hunt in which your family can compete to find features marked on a reusable treasure map. Getting hungry? The Bean Sprouts caf? is packed with healthy foods, and rest assured that your table (and the entire museum) has been cleaned with all-natural products. Best for ages 6 months to 6 years. ($7 for children and adults, kids under 1 free)
Pretend play doesn't get any cooler than at this museum in Glenview, Illinois. At the Pet Vet exhibit, kids can nurse sick stuffed animals back to health. Over in Hands On House, your pint-size construction worker can lay bricks or tile a floor. "We even have a car wash that kids can drive through, with flaps, air nozzles, and pretend bubbles," says Sheridan Turner, the museum's CEO. Take a break from make-believe in the 2-acre outdoor space with a painting wall, mazes, and a giant kaleidoscope. Best for ages 6 months to 6 years. ($8.50 for children and adults, kids under 1 free)
Mister Rogers inspired this place. The museum's Neighborhood exhibit, dedicated to the Pittsburgh native, has an alphabet wall where your kid can open 26 little doors to discover surprises (Shh! It's a secret!). Then the whole family can hop on a full-size replica of the neighborhood trolley or play peekaboo through the window of the house from the "Mister Rogers' Neighborhood" TV show. The educational icon would also be proud of the museum's Curiosity Lab (kids can take apart everyday appliances to see how they work) and the Gravity Room (where all the items are tilted at a 25-degree angle, tricking your brain into thinking they are floating). A favorite for playdates: a stage where kids can use drapery, lighting, and sound to put on a show with their friends. Best for ages 6 months to 6 years. ($11 for adults, $10 for children, kids under 2 free)
Oh, baby. When the museum moved into a 100-year-old schoolhouse two years ago, it created an incredible room just for kids ages 3 and under. Crawlers can open small wooden boxes filled with fuzzy balls or run their hands across a tree trunk made from different kinds of brushes. A hit for the toddlers: wooden playhouses with pretend kitchens, strollers, baby dolls, and a flower bed they can plant. "We also put a suspension bridge and a see-through slide in the room," says president and CEO Deborah Gilpon. "Kids are often wary at first but they usually work up the courage to try. We wanted to help children learn to take a risk when the stakes are low." If you're bringing preschoolers, check out the pretend pizza restaurant, the art studio, and the building zone. Best for ages 6 months to 6 years. ($11 for adults and children; kids under 1 free)
It has a little bit of everything. On the first floor of this museum, in Rochester, New York, your family can take a spin on a carousel, check out the fish in one of the largest aquariums in the Northeast, or visit the butterfly garden. Toddlers will go crazy over the Elmo's World section in the Sesame Street exhibit, in particular the piano they can pound on. For older kids, make a beeline to the TV studio, where they can star in a commercial or a cooking show. Upstairs you'll find the National Toy Hall of Fame, one of the largest collections of memorabilia in the world. It's worth a spin through to look for the toys you had as a child. A thoughtful feature: If you forget diapers or your kid spilled juice all over his shirt, the staff keeps a complimentary stash of baby and child stuff for minor mishaps. Best for ages 2 to 8 years. ($12 for adults, $10 for children, kids under 2 free)
Bring your budding scientist to St. Paul. There will be plenty of stuff for her to do in every gallery -- from manipulating light so that it casts shadows to learning the properties of water while racing boats to hearing about the life cycle of a turtle. She can put on a princess, horse, or dragon costume and test out her physics principles by building towers and fairy-tale castles in the special Lego Castle Adventure exhibit, which runs from February 15 to September 11. If you're taking a baby or preschooler along, retreat to Habitot, the padded, toy-filled gallery just for kids age 4 and under. Best for ages 6 months to 6 years. ($9 for children and adults, kids under 1 free)
Originally published in the March 2011 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.