The best children's museums pique curiosity, encourage imagination, help develop crucial skills, foster creativity and spark a life-long passion for our world. The goal is for kids to learn -- and have fun doing it - so that they may lead richer and fuller lives. Here are 10 museums that have achieved this goal:

1. Children's Museum of Indianapolis
The biggest children's museum in America, the 472,900-square-foot mammoth is known for its quality, variety and comprehensiveness. Besides, what child can resist the life-sized dinosaur replica climbing its exterior? Its National Geographic Treasures of the Earth exhibit examines three major archeology excavations -- China's Terra Cotta Warriors, an Egyptian pharaoh's tomb and pirate Captain Kidd's shipwreck. Kids use interactive tools to decipher hieroglyphics, dig for clay fragments, assemble them into a warrior and trace the ill-fated ship's Caribbean route. Dinosphere features dinosaur fossils - like a teenage Tyrannosaurus Rex, a baby dinosaur curled in its nest and a rare dragon-like specimen. The exhibit also studies the links between dragon myths in many cultures and dinosaurs.

A moving exhibit describes three children who changed the world - Anne Frank, Ruby Bridges and Ryan White - and the prejudice all faced for being different. The rooms where the Jewish Frank family hid from the Nazis; the classroom where Bridges, one of the first African-American children to attend a desegregated school in the South, sat alone for a year with her teacher; and the bedroom where White, an AIDS-afflicted child retreated after discrimination at school, are recreated. Daily life in a foreign culture is explored in another exhibit, with food, clothing, traditions and art.

2. National Museum of Play
The nation's second-biggest children's museum, this Rochester, N.Y. museum has one of the world's largest collections of dolls, toys and games. What kid can resist dressing up like Superman or Batman, or climbing up a building in the comic book superheroes exhibit? Kids love romping in landscapes inspired by beloved books like Harry Potter, Nancy Drew and Grimm's Fairytales, playing with 40-plus current or classic computer and video games, and cavorting on TV with their favorite Sesame Street characters. In the National Toy Hall of Fame, kids can play with toys that have stood the test of time, from LEGOs and Hula Hoops to Slinkys and hundreds of Barbie dolls.

It's easy to spend days in the 282,000 square-foot museum, whose playful architecture consists of caterpillar-shaped structures and colorful building blocks. Climb inside a giant kaleidoscope to create your own patterns, gape at your appearance in the Exaggerated Proportion Room and admire the 1918 carousel, live butterfly garden and aquarium, which resemble life from a century ago - imagine no e-mail or cellphones! Parents appreciate thoughtful amenities like free diaper changes for kids with accidents, and relaxation stations for breastfeeding.

3. Boston Children's Museum
A century old in 2013, Boston Children's Museum is a pioneer in innovative children's programming - removing all no-touch signs in the 1960's and creating a play area for young children in the 1970's. Babies and toddlers develop fine motor skills in PlaySpace's Messy Sensory area, playing with Play-Doh, bubbles, paint and shaving cream. Older children learn about other cultures by touring a 100-year-old silk merchant's house from Kyoto, Japan, and perusing the collections of 50,000 historic and natural history objects. Concerts, storytelling, dance and KidStage, where children perform fairy tales, pack the program schedule.

From April through October 2013, special programs will offer activities about imagination, friendship and exploration. Parents will be happy to hear admission is just $1 per person on Friday nights. And even if you're too far away to visit, free learning resources are listed on the museum's website, such as a list of 26 activities to enjoy at home. Themes include health, creativity and nature.

4. Brooklyn Children's Museum
Opened in 1899, the Brooklyn Children's Museum became the world's first museum just for children. It now boasts an amazing collection of 30,000 objects from all over the world, including Carnival masks and Indonesian shadow puppets, nature specimens from a shark's jawbone, minerals and an elephant skeleton. A rarity for a children's museum, this vast collection is on rotating display, and also searchable online by object type, country and continent.

Taking full advantage of New York City's multiculturalism, this museum lets kids try on lion costumes to celebrate Chinese New Year, decorate their own Caribbean Carnival costumes, observe Mexican Day of the Dead altars, make pizza and dance to videos of Arab and Bangladeshi folk dance and Russia ballet. A nature exhibit explores the city's surprisingly varied habitats, from woodlands to saltwater beach, and the animals who call them home. New York's first "green" museum, heated by solar panels, also has a padded play area for babies and toddlers, and a room for autistic children to explore their senses.

5. Kohl Children's Museum
Kids examine sick and hurt stuffed animals - usually dogs, but also cats, guinea pigs and snakes -- by stethoscope, microscope and X-ray. Pet Vet is definitely one of the most popular of the 16 permanent exhibits at this museum in Glenview, a Chicago suburb. As budding home improvement contractors, kids add wood, stucco or brick to house facades and tile floors at Hands On House.

At Baby Nursery, they change, dress, feed and play with baby dolls, as well as staff a supermarket as bakers, cashiers and stock boys at another exhibit. Melody, rhythm, tempo and various musical instruments are the theme of Music Makers, while the value of teamwork is the focus at Cooperation Station, where kids use simple machines to reach their goals. Kids learn about the qualities that make them unique; they listen to recordings of their voices in eight languages and explore themselves on camera at All About Me.

Kohl also offers an annual monarch butterfly exhibit in late May through September. Animal groups host events about pet care, and bring assistance animals to visit on a quarterly basis.

6. Please Touch Museum
A popular Philadelphia museum, Please Touch was the nation's first museum designed for children under the age of 7. The Alice in Wonderland area, filled with quirky characters and riddles - which you enter by descending the rabbit hole - is just one of eight themed interactive exhibits with play areas for both toddlers and their older siblings. There's Rainforest Rhythm, where musical instruments and faux jungle animals abound, along with City Capers - a mini-Philly complete with a hospital, supermarket, construction zone and neighborhoods. Children also love Flight Fantasy.

A 150-seat theater features music, folklore and movement programs four days a week. Storytelling from beloved children's books often includes appearances of characters from the books. Special programs based on science, technology, math and a generous dollop of the arts abound at Please Touch. Every first Wednesday of the month, admission is $2 from 4-7 P.M.

7. Audubon Butterfly Garden & Insectarium
At Audubon Butterfly Garden and Insectarium in New Orleans, exhibits and factoids about the most populous species on earth (insects comprise about 80 percent of all living things) provide the "yuck factor" kids find irresistible. An amusing animated film about Academy Awards for insects explains their unusual attributes. The "Best Special Effects" winner is the bombardier beetle, who deters predators by emitting a stinky chemical (whose smell fills the theater), while the honeybee is "Best Bug in a Supporting Role" for tireless efforts in pollination services to help food crops?grow.

Kids in various stages of horrified delight snack on spicy roasted crickets, mango worm chutney and chocolate chirp cookies - made with crickets - at Bug Appetit, an exhibit that explains how many cultures, from Asia to Latin America, regard insects as food. A cooking show, held three times daily, offers free samples. They meet an entomologist and live insects in a recreation of a tropical jungle at Field Camp, play interactive games to identify and classify insects and learn about the destruction potential - but admirable resilience - of cockroaches and termites. Mounted butterflies are arranged by color, size and continent, and there's a serene, Asian-style garden with koi pond and birds, where butterflies alight on your shoulder (particularly if you've sprayed cologne or perfume in advance).

8. Discovery Center Museum
Not only does this Rockford, Ill. children's museum boast over 250 hands-on, science-based exhibits, its Rock River Discovery Park is the nation's first community-built science park. Kids learn the geometry and physics behind sports from baseball to tennis; fly an airplane in a cockpit simulator; explore the wonders of electricity, color, weather, the human body and the planetary system; learn how farming impacts our daily lives by doing things like studying a beehive and milking cows; and participate in live news broadcasts. Outdoors, they dig for dinosaur bones, send whispered messages by satellite dish and operate a water wheel.

During frequent themed family fun days, you can watch a volcanic eruption and eat at a luau during the Hawaii day, or explore bubbles, healthy eating and astronomy on other days.

9. Minnesota Children's Museum
Located in St. Paul, Minnesota Children's Museum invites kids to crawl through Minnesota's four distinctive environments of prairies, forests, ponds and caves in Habitot, a padded play area. In Earth World, they can search for the queen ant in a giant anthill and play with turtles and snakes, while in World Works, they can make objects from recycled paper and race boats down chutes.

On the third Sunday of each month, admission is free. The museum has a fascinating collection of articles and books on the importance of imagination and creativity, including Harry Potter author J.K. Rowling's Harvard commencement speech. She said: %22Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the foundation of all invention and innovation."

10. Children's Museum of Houston
In Kidtropolis, a children's city, kids can choose one of 24 occupations - from a cop, to a chef - and dress the part, go to the bank and shop at the supermarket. At Invention Convention, kids learn ingenuity, creating their own inventions from spare parts and half-finished gadgets. They learn science concepts behind why a car runs and how messages are sent by fiber optics at the How Does It Work exhibit. Critical thinking and math are part of the Cyberchase exhibit, based on the award-winning PBS math mystery cartoon.

The Gullah culture of South Carolina's Sea Islands, the most well-preserved African culture among African-Americans due to isolation prior to the construction of a bridge, is explored through its storytelling, traditions, language and crafts. The exhibit is part of a rotating multi-cultural series, which previously included Mexico and Vietnam.

More on Family Vacation Critic
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Written by Sharon McDonnell



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