The Best Children's Museums

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By Jenna McCaarthy


It happens all the time: You overhear another mom bragging about how well 3-year-old Becca is doing in her advanced Spanish class, or how Jack Junior, 14 months, just adores watching his Little Genius DVD over and over. You can’t help but wonder: Are Becca and Jack going to be smarter than your children? Will they have more friends, get into better schools, land better jobs? More importantly, are you doing everything you can to give your kids every possible advantage? I’m sure parenting has always been competitive, but some days it feels like an Olympic sport.

The race to get this one reading and that one writing is exhaustive—and, as it turns out, more than a little overrated. “Of course we want our kids to be enriched and to do well in school, but at what expense?” asks Kenneth Ginsburg, M.D., pediatrician at the Children’s Hospital of Philadelphia and author of A Parent’s Guide to Building Resilience in Children and Teens (American Academy of Pediatrics, 2006). “When structured learning takes time away from just being with our children, listening to them and playing with them, we have a problem.”

Ginsburg recently authored a paper for the American Academy of Pediatrics that stresses the importance of spontaneous, unstructured play. “It’s an important message because many parents feel trapped on the competitive treadmill,” he insists. “We know that for kids, having time with their parents is amazing, and we know that play is magnificent. It fosters imagination and creativity, and teaches them to master the world with confidence and competence.” Instead of schlepping your tot to a preschool prep class or spending an arduous hour with him studying flash cards, why not schedule a visit to a nearby children’s museum?


These environments are carefully created to stimulate pint-size imaginations— and think about how many times a day your little one hears the refrain “Don’t touch!” What could be more magical to a curious child than to be set free in a fascinating new space where he is not only allowed to explore every inch, but is actually encouraged to do so? Beyond their childproof appeal, children’s museums offer a wealth of benefits. Here are a few to consider.

Accidental learning
Try this experiment: Tell your toddler that a fire engine is a large red truck with hoses on the back that drives around and puts out fires. Wait five minutes, then ask her what a fire engine is. In all probability, she will gaze at you with blank eyes, shrug her shoulders and ask you for a cheese stick.

Ah, but let her don an authentic-looking miniature firefighter’s suit, climb up onto an actual fire engine, hold the heavy hose in her pudgy hands and pretend to extinguish a wall of make-believe flames, and she isn’t likely to forget the experience any time soon. “Memory is influenced greatly by whether or not the child has put the experience to a use that has some relevance to her,” explains George Forman, Ph.D., professor emeritus of education at the University of Massachusetts in Amherst and president of Videatives, Inc. Museums are brimming with opportunities for toddlers to engage in hands-on learning.


Individual pacing
How often does your toddler get to call the shots? Museums offer vast expanses of “safe” terrain that your child can explore at his own pace. To get the most out of a museum visit, try to leave the “amusement park mentality” at the door. “It’s not about seeing everything, or getting the most out of your admission price,” insists Janet Rice Elman, executive director of the Association of Children’s Museums in Washington, D.C. “It’s about learning by doing and, most of all, having fun.”

If your child is drawn to a particular exhibit or area, being allowed to enjoy a depth of connection with the subject matter can be a profound experience for him. “When parents drive the museum experience, to the child it’s just another example of being assessed and not living up to expectations,” Elman explains. “If you use these wonderful places as opportunities for kids to fi nd their own pace, it’s child-driven play and it’s incredible.”

Downsized fun
Imagine living in a world of giants, where kneecaps and table legs were everyday eye-level attractions. Now you have a vague idea of what it’s like to be a toddler. But in a children’s museum, the world is—sometimes literally—his oyster. Pared down playthings encourage exploration in a way oversized toys cannot. “When a child is allowed to push a miniature cart through a miniature grocery store, it allows him or her to be in charge of the experience,” Elman explains. “The support that provides for role-playing is very important.” If you watch a group of children in this situation, they’ll often decide among themselves— with no adult intervention—who is, say, the cashier and who are the customers.


That kind of negotiation and collaboration teaches critical social skills. Why is that important? Social skills were once built on the playground—but an ever increasing emphasis on academics is rendering the concept of “recess” as we once knew it a virtual relic. The role-playing encouraged by a museum’s miniature exhibits fosters communication and cooperation—two valuable teamwork skills that will benefit your child in school, sports and beyond.

Advanced reasoning
Beyond simply noticing what an object looks or feels like, museum exhibits show children what these descriptive words mean. When children touch something, explains Forman, they are trying to test previously held assumptions: What does this object do? How does it act in the world? If this object is smooth and that one is rough, which one is likely to roll across the slick tabletop faster and farther?

That type of thinking engages the brain’s frontal lobe, which is the part responsible for speculation and hypothesizing. “Involving the senses is just half of the story,” explains Forman. “The other half is how the child takes that sensory information and relates it to something he wants to do. When a child uses information he has gathered to think ahead and predict, that’s the beginning of higher-level thinking.” And really, isn’t that a whole lot more fun for both of you than endlessly flipping flash cards?

Go to the next page to get a list of the Top 10 Children’s Museums…


The Top 10 Children’s Museums in the U.S.*

Brooklyn Children’s Museum – Brooklyn, N.Y.
The Center for Puppetry Arts – Atlanta, Ga.
Chicago Children’s Museum – Chicago, Ill.
Children’s Discovery Museum – San Jose, Calif.
Children’s Museum of Houston – Houston, Texas
Children’s Museum of Indianapolis – Indianapolis, Ind.
Exploratorium – San Francisco, Calif.
Liberty Science Center – Jersey City, N.J.
Please Touch Museum – Philadelphia, Pa.
Science Museum of Minnesota – St. Paul, Minn.

*selected by the editors of

These interactive learning environments provide a rich playtime experience for little ones. Here’s why.

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