You know the scene: It’s summertime (or yet another school break) and the brood's all at home, playing video games or whining about how bored they are. Good news: There are excellent kid-friendly museums across the United States that will stimulate your young Einsteins or Picassos — whether you're on a family vacation or just looking for something fun to do at home. And you won't have to shush your little ones at these venerable institutions either. In fact, each of our editors' top family museums provide educational outings under the guise of child-like fun, with hands-on exhibits, scavenger hunts, DJ sessions, and more, that are bound to keep the adults entertained, too.
1. American Museum of Natural History
This natural-science museum, the world’s largest in both size and scope, bursts at the seams with massive dinosaur skeletons, cool rocks (including a 34-ton meteorite), life-size dioramas, and even a gigantic 94-foot model of a blue whale, all bound to leave your little one feeling positively wee in comparison. Family-friendly special exhibitions, hands-on stations in the Discovery Room, and superb cosmos-centric shows in the Hayden Planetarium are just some of the additional offerings guaranteed to fascinate young and old alike.
2. The Art Institute of Chicago
Rarely does a serious art establishment “get” kids to the extent the Art Institute of Chicago does. Its impressive "adult" collection of masters like Monet, O'Keeffe, and Warhol aside, the organization also caters to children’s artistic tendencies through its Kraft Education Center. This dedicated gallery-cum-workshop space holds art classes; a "Touch Gallery" that teaches form, scale, and texture (by letting kids feel sculptures with their hands); and organizes special interactive treasure hunts that make museum-going fun. Tip: The center’s Family Room makes a good rest stop for frazzled parents, too.
3. Charles M. Schulz Museum
The Peanuts gang, first syndicated in comic strip form in 1950, takes on new dimensions at the Charles M. Shulz Museum, set in the cartoonist’s onetime Santa Rosa, California, home. Though the younger set may not fully appreciate some of the exhibits (like artist Christo’s delightful Wrapped Snoopy House), other diversions in the 27,384-square-foot space will definitely appeal. Parents can count on a labyrinth shaped like Snoopy’s head, a recreation of Schulz's studio, craft/cartooning sessions, and a theater screening documentaries and cartoons starring none other than Charlie Brown.
4. The Children's Museum of Indiana
The only museum on our list to officially focus on children’s interests, this massive facility ranks as the largest institution of its kind in the world and boasts scads of exhibits spanning physical and natural sciences, history, world cultures, and the arts. Tykes tour the land of the dinosaurs in the "Dinosphere," explore ancient Egypt in the "What If …?" gallery, and admire the stars in the planetarium. The museum's popularity (over one million visitors annually) proves that, when the atmosphere is right, kids really do love to learn.
5. Experience Music Project
Would-be rock stars (or kids who just like to make noise) should make a beeline for Seattle’s Frank Gehry-designed Experience Music Project for fantasy jam sessions and the like in a first-rate sound studio. Indeed, in the Sound Lab, youngsters can learn to DJ or play an instrument — and even record a CD to take home with them — while the On Stage experience lets them emulate starring in a live show and review their performance after the fact on a closed-circuit television. Other exhibits showcase musical history through memorabilia and recorded interviews with greats like Pearl Jam member Mike McCready.
6. ExploratoriumLearning about science has never been more fun than at this interactive playground chock-full of exhibits that get kids up close and personal with the mysteries of Mother Nature. Curiosity is easily satisfied via on-site lab experiments that study stem cells or fruit flies under microscopes and kids who love being grossed-out can sign-up for even wackier exploits (past instances have included drinking from a toilet and dissecting a cow’s eyeball). The littlest explorers shouldn’t miss the Tactile Dome either: This pitch-black labyrinth will really put their sense of touch to the test.
7. Franklin Institute Science Museum
No matter how old you are, the Franklin Institute, one of America’s oldest and foremost science museums, is bound to entertain. Known for its two-story-high walk-through Giant Heart for some 50 years now, the museum’s other exhibits, like Kid Science (which lets tykes save the planet in the name of science) and The Train Factory (where kids are invited to get a working 350-ton train rolling) easily guarantee an action-packed day out. The Planetarium, IMAX theater, and outstanding visiting exhibits (like King Tut and Real Pirates) also make this museum a hit every time.
8. John F. Kennedy Space Center
Why play astronaut at nearby Walt Disney World when you can meet a real one at NASA's launch headquarters in Cape Canaveral, where daily astronaut-hosted lunches are part of the appeal? Indeed, the complex has witnessed some of mankind’s most spectacular technological achievements, and while the full astronomical scope might be lost on the little ones (and even on big ones), exploring a full-size replica of the Explorer space shuttle and touching a moon rock are sure to provide kids with an experience that’s truly out of this world. If your timing’s right, you might even get to watch a live launch, too.
9. National Air and Space Museum
Located on the National Mall, in a cavernous building that resembles an aircraft hangar more than it does a museum, this superb ode to aviation and space flight is loaded with historic propeller planes, high-speed jets, satellites, and spacecraft that are sure to appeal to wanna-be pilots of all ages. Indeed, the sky’s the limit for an informative and fun-filled experience here, whether it’s climbing in the cockpit for a simulated flight, handling moon rocks, or walking through a replica of an airport control tower. Equally appealing, this is one family museum that costs nothing at all to visit.
10. National Baseball Hall of Fame and MuseumBaseball fans of all ages make pilgrimages to the National Baseball Hall of Fame, the country’s singular mecca to the sport in Cooperstown, New York. And, while displays of bats, mitts, and pennants belonging to legendary teams and players is often enough to enthrall kids (and grown-ups), additional offerings like Sandlot Kids' Clubhouse, which fully immerses youngsters in the sport by allowing them to step up to the plate while learning the game’s storied history, baseball fantasy camps, and frequent appearances by living baseball stars round-out the impressive family-friendly roster.
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