The best discovery we made during our six month road-trip around the USA was Children’s Museums. Actually the name is slightly misleading, as they’re not full of priceless ancient artefacts as you find in most museums. They are actually vast buildings, often in warehouses and spanning several floors, that combine education with entertainment over 100s of fun interactive exhibits. The focus is very much on ‘learning through play.’
Great Rainy Day Activities for families in the USA
Because there is usually at least one Children’s Museum in pretty much every American state, sometimes several, they are a dependable fallback for a rainy day, a birthday party, a holiday treat or any occasion when you want your kids to be wowed by the world around them.
Over six months we must have visited at least 10 Children’s Museums, and would usually spend the best part of a day inside. In the UK you have plenty of children’s soft play centres, and museums that have children’s zones or that are ‘family-friendly,’ but there is nothing on the scale of American Children’s Museums, either in terms of size or impressiveness. If you’re travelling with kids in America, there are over 200 Children’s Museums to choose from, and I’m certain that once you’ve visited one, you’ll be as hooked as we were!
Our 15 best Children’s Museums
Here’s a list of our favourite Children’s Museums in the US. A lot of these we visited personally, and some of them would definitely be on the itinerary if we’re ever lucky enough to go back.
Louisiana Children’s Museum, New Orleans
This was the very first Children’s Museum we visited in the USA, while we were staying in New Orleans, so I have very fond memories of it. We’d spent the previous few days either driving or walking around the Big Easy, so wanted to reward our son with a day totally dedicated to him, and that’s how we first discovered America’s Children’s Museums, an incredible revelation! We spent a good hour role-playing in the emergency services zone, fielding 911 calls and dressing up. There’s a great section full of simple machines like rope-and-pulleys, that helps kids to understand basic forces, weight and height, and also a fun climbing wall. Highly recommended.
Boston Children’s Museum
The Boston Children’s Museum is one of the best in the country, and the experiential exhibits that they’ve created have been copied or hosted at many other museums around the US. They have an arts studio, an exhibit celebrating African American culture, a two-storey replica Japanese house, a mini-theatre and construction zones among many other interactive areas. The museum is just across the river from the brilliant Tea Party Museum, so you can easily do just as we did and combine the two in a single day.
San Francisco Exploratorium
This was the last Children’s Museum we went to before leaving, and one of our favourites. My Mum was spending a couple of weeks with us while we were on the west coast, and she was just as wowed by the Exploratorium as we were. There are six huge galleries to wander, covering everything from the living world to the geography and geology of the Bay area, senses and feelings. There’s a tactile zone that we missed, which is a darkened maze you explore with just your hands. Let’s be honest, in San Francisco you’re never going to run out of ways to entertain the kids, but I really do think this is worth a day out of any holiday because there is so much to see and do.
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago
This Chicago children’s museum is huge and really makes me wish the Windy City had been on our route as our son would have loved it. The incredible range of exhibits here include a huge model railway, a Lego-building section, displays dedicated to seafaring, coal-mining, the Space Race… oh yes, and an actual submarine!
International Spy Museum, Washington DC
With a vast permanent collection that uncovers (some of) the truth about international espionage over the centuries, this is an essential museum for older children, and for Dad’s who love James Bond. The fascinating exhibits here include miniature cameras, counterfeit currency, training films and specially adapted clothing and equipment, even a pistol disguised as a lipstick!
I’m cheating slightly as this centre is in Canada, and strictly speaking not a Children’s Museum either, but we were absolutely enthralled when we visited the Montreal Biodome, so I’m including it all the same. The Biodome showcases the natural world, especially in the Americas, and for us the highlights were a colourful bug collection, and huge tanks full of bright floating jellyfish. You can make a full day of it too, as there’s a Planetarium and a cool Insectarium within easy walking distance.
Portland Children’s Museum
We were only in Portland, Oregon for a few days but still managed to find a morning for their Children’s Museum because my son would not stop going on about them! There were two exhibits I really loved at this one – the Treehouse where kids can select a book then go off and find a quiet place for a read, and the play grocery, where my son enjoyed operating a cash register to scan the goods of other kid-shoppers, and filling his own trolley. They also have a play-veterinary centre, where the kids can learn how to look after their pets.
We loved the Austin Children’s Museum, the Thinkery, although it was probably best suited to children slightly older than our 3.5 year old. This was close to the start of the trip so I don’t remember a great deal about it, but I do have a couple of clear memories – we spent a long, long time having fun in the Spark Shop where you build your own paper plane then use an air pump to make it fly as far as possible, and also learning about currents with a big water display. A Kitchen Lab and an Innovator’s Workshop really lend themselves to experimentation and creative thinking. A great place for kids around 7 and up I would think, although there is still lots for younger children to do.
Dinosaur Ridge, Colorado
My son is obsessed with dinosaurs right now. We just took part in the Dinovember Challenge which he loved, and he’s got colouring books, toys, as well as a couple of fossils we picked up while we were in the US. Dinosaur Ridge was a museum we just kind of stumbled on as we were driving through Colorado. It’s not especially child-friendly, I don’t think, the exhibits are a little dry and the interpretation left a little to be desired, but we spend an enjoyable morning wandering around looking at fossils, and it’s very inexpensive at $2 entry. Worth a visit if your kids love dinosaurs or you’re passing through.
Children’s Museum of Phoenix
The Children’s Museum of Phoenix is definitely aimed at toddlers to pre-schoolers. We didn’t get to visit, but if we had then it would have been perfectly suitable for us, with a big climbing frame, a block-building zone, a painting studio and lots of role-play exhibits such as a grocery market. I love all the little cars shaped like pencils and pickles!
Brooklyn Children’s Museum, New York
Another we unfortunately missed as we skipped New York. I think that the Brooklyn Children’s Museum was the first in the country. They have a Life Sciences section with living animals, showing visitors the creatures they’d find in their own backyards, and a vast rotating collection of historic and artistic exhibits. They also have a big World section where children role-play in different shops to learn about the diversity of their communities – this type of exhibit is quite common and was always one of my son’s favourites.
Creative Discovery Museum, Chattanooga
Chattanooga is full of great family attractions, we absolutely loved it, but unfortunately the weather left a little to be desired while we were there. That did however give us a good excuse to visit another Children’s Museum. There are stacks of fun exhibits in the Creative Discovery Museum including a beehive observation tower, a rooftop factory and a basic woodworking shop, and it’s also very conveniently situated to explore the riverfront and the nearby Aquarium, so you can make a really good day of it.
Discovery Gateway, Salt Lake City
When we were in Utah we had to escape the desert heat for a while, and found the state capital quite a nice place to explore for a few days. Although we visited so many Children’s Museums, and the exhibits, from a sensory room to a ‘ball beehive’ stood out and it’s a really good option for a hot day, of which there are many in Salt Lake City!
Museum of the Lowcountry, Charleston
The Charleston Children’s Museum really covers a lot of bases, from performing arts in the Swing! Exhibit to water play, roleplay, painting, and not forgetting sections devoted to a medieval castle and pirates. Charleston is a beautiful city with so much charm to it, incredible architecture and great food. I’m not sure if it’s on the itinerary of many family travellers, but if you’re passing then the Museum of the Lowcountry is definitely worth a few hours of your day.
Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia
So often when we go out together as a family I find myself unconsciously repeating “Don’t touch that, put that down” and you kind of forget that to a child learning about the world it’s really limiting not to be able to feel things with your hands. This Philadelphia Children’s Museum positively encourages hands-on play, and there are several fantastic permanent exhibits such as a model of the Statue of Liberty built from found objects, and a beautiful wooden fairground carousel from the 1900s.
Top Tips for visiting Children’s Museums in the USA
Pace yourselves – Every Children’s Museum will have a huge number of fascinating exhibits. Allow plenty of time, I recommend at least a full morning or afternoon, and pace yourselves to avoid over-stimulation. If your little one wants to spend an hour playing in a giant sandpit instead of learning about colour and shape, let them. Children’s Museums are all about learning through play. If you don’t get to see everything, there’s always tomorrow, or the next city.
Prepare in advance – We found it helpful to check beforehand what collections and temporary exhibits there were in each museum so that we could decide what not to miss. We also called up the day before our visit to check if there were any special events likely to attract large crowds, or any big school groups were likely to be there and what times, as they do tend to take over a bit and individual children can feel a bit overwhelmed.
Link to the curriculum
If your child is school-age then you can get a copy of the curriculum they’re studying and try to tie the museum’s exhibits in with their learning. For example some museums have exhibits that play with light and shape, movement of the body, or particular cultures. This is especially useful if you’re travelling with your family for some time.
Wear old clothes
A lot of children’s museums in America have areas for water, sand or outdoor play, which can get a bit messy. I would always make sure I had a set of spare clothing with me.
A lot of Children’s Museums depend on donations from the public to keep going. Considering the fun and learning the whole family can get from them, they provide excellent value, so if you have a few bills in your pocket on leaving, stick ‘em in the box!
Children’s Museums are found throughout the USA and we found them to be a lifesaver on many occasions during our road-trip: an inexpensive, educational and endlessly fun way to spend a morning or even a full day. It was the first thing our son asked about every time we visited a new city, and these became some of the fondest memories of our entire time in the States.
I’d love to hear about any you’ve visited that are not on this list.