If you've ever brought a young child to an art museum, then you're all too familiar with the high-stakes anxiety involved — like keeping them from touching that prized Monet or from bumping into an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus.
We propose saving The Met for a few more years and taking your brood instead to a family-friendly children’s museum, where just about everything is meant to be touched. The concept of “hands-on learning” in a museum was introduced by the Boston Children’s Museum back in 1913, and today’s children’s museums deftly balance play with educational opportunities.
Whether your kids are inspired by reptiles, outer space, skyscrapers or puzzles, our favorite children’s museums offer plenty of ways to engage young minds. —Christina Valhouli
Please Touch Museum
Located just outside Philadelphia’s city center in Fairmount Park, the Please Touch Museum, true to its name, welcomes kids to touch everything in sight. Housed in the Beaux Arts-style Memorial Hall, the museum has 157,000 square feet of hands-on exhibits. Kids can sip tea with the Mad Hatter in an Alice in Wonderland-themed area or ride a restored 1908 carousel. The Flight Fantasy room will appeal to budding NASA scientists, while the Rainforest Rhythm exhibit offers conga drums and a canoe.
Insider Tip: Fairmount is Philadelphia’s biggest park, spanning more than 9,200 acres; stick around for its playgrounds, the Philadelphia Zoo, and plenty of trails for biking and horseback riding.
Liberty Science Center
Where: Jersey City, New Jersey
Whether your kid's showing signs of being a budding engineer — or, perhaps is content enough to simply watch reptiles in action — head to New Jersey's Liberty Science Center. The Skyscraper exhibit, where brave kids can walk across an I-beam suspended 16 feet above the floor, is the largest permanent display here. Look, too, for exhibitions centered on Hudson River wildlife, infections or even the Rubik’s Cube, and stick around for the IMAX theatre.
Insider Tip: Liberty Science Center is home to over 110 species of animals, including the popular (and endangered) cotton-top tamarin monkeys (you can sneak a peek of them via the museum's webcam).
Children’s Museum of Indianapolis
Where: Indianapolis, Indiana
The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is often cited as one of the best children's museums in the country, and for good reason. Some of the most popular exhibits include Dinosphere, which showcases Leonardo, the mummified duckbill dinosaur, as well as Dracorex hogwartsia, a newly discovered dinosaur species. Take Me There China explores contemporary Chinese culture, encompassing panda-themed displays, calligraphy, shadow puppets and more.
Insider Tip: Look out for the museum’s resident experts who regularly give talks, like underwater archaeologist-in-residence Dr. Charlie Beeker, who explores historical shipwrecks, or former astronaut Dr. David Wolf.
Boston Children’s Museum
The second-oldest children's museum in America, Boston Children’s Museum is credited with introducing the concept of “hands-on learning." Today the museum is also a LEED-certified “green” museum. Permanent exhibits include the Construction Zone, where kids can hop on a Bobcat; an authentic two-story Japanese house; and Johnny's Workbench, a family-friendly workshop area complete with tools and hardware. Kids can also physically challenge themselves by tackling the three-story New Balance Climb, a climbing sculpture made from a series of curved platforms.
Insider Tip: The Museum is also famous for its giant Hood Milk Bottle landmark, set just outside the entrance; it was originally crafted in 1943, and stands 40 feet high.
The Strong National Museum of Play
Where: Rochester, New York
Set in New York's Finger Lakes region, The Strong National Museum of Play is fully devoted to the power of play, utilizing play methods as a tool to explore topics like American culture and history. It's also home to the National Toy Hall of Fame and the International Center for the History of Electronic Games. All together, the complex hosts the world’s largest collection of toys, dolls and games. Popular exhibits highlight comic book heroes and the evolution of video games, and there’s also a pretend supermarket.
Insider Tip: Another perk of visiting: The museum houses a year-round indoor butterfly garden (an additional fee is required).