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. These children’s museums — especially perfect for toddlers — achieve that goal and more.
Written by Sharon McDonnell
Children's Museum of Indianapolis
The largest of its kind in the U.S., the Children's Museum of Indianapolis
features a 472,900-square-foot mammoth, and 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.
The Strong National Museum of Play
The nation's second-biggest children's museum, The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, New York, 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.
Boston Children's Museum
The 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. Concerts, storytelling, dance and KidStage, where children reenact classic fairy tales, pack the program schedule.
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.
Related: 10 Best Museums With Special Needs Programming
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, Illinois, 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.
Please Touch Museum
The Please Touch Museum
in Philadelphia 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 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.
Visit on the first Wednesday of any month, when admission is just $2 from 4 to 7 p.m.
Audubon Butterfly Garden & Insectarium
At the 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. Kids also 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).
Discovery Center Museum
Not only does this Rockford, Illinois, 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.
Minnesota Children's Museum
Located in St. Paul
, the 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: "Imagination is not only the uniquely human capacity to envision that which is not, and therefore the foundation of all invention and innovation."
Children's Museum of Houston
In Kidtropolis at the Children's Museum of Houston, 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.
EdVenture Children's Museum
Ranking as the largest children's museum in the south, EdVenture features nine exhibit galleries with over 350 hands-on activities. The main focal point is Eddie, the world's largest child. You can climb inside this exhibit to see organs and his skeletal systam. Future doctors and nurses will enjoy the educational play experience of scaling his vertebrae and investigating his brain, then descending down his intestines on a slide. (Grown-ups are welcome to join them!)
Your littlest ones will love spending some time in My Backyard, an enclosed space designed for toddlers. Downstairs, in the World of Work, they can shop in a pint-sized supermarket. Mission Imagination is fun for younger and older kids, particularly the Sounds Good Music Studio, where they can hop out melodies on the sound trigger pads on the floor.
Glazer Children's Museum
Though not as large as some others on the list, Glazer Children's Museum
features scores of interactive exhibits on two floors. We spent most of our time on the first floor, playing in KidsPort. Think about a water play table, multiplied by 100. Kids work in water at a waist-high table, manipulating shipping channels and tides to move boats, among other fun activities. Other exhibits recreate a vet clinic, hospital, firehouse, supermarket, bank, cruise ship, and more.
Center for Puppetry Arts
See some of the most famous puppet collections at this one-of-a-kind museum in Atlanta
-- including Kermit the Frog, Miss Piggy and Jim Henson's other beloved favorites. The Center for Puppetry Arts
also features puppets from around the world, each with a different appearance from the next; it's fun to see how they vary from country to country. Your kids will truly be in awe. After you tour the museum, catch a puppet show!
We don't know who will have more fun at The DoSeum in San Antonio
-- your toddlers or you! This three-story museum features hands-on fun in six different sections. Spy Academy is one of our favorites, providing kids with everything they need to crack codes -- mustache and all. Little Town, with police cars, a veterinary office and grocery store, will teach kids what it's like to be a grown-up. And Innovation Station is seriously cool, with various activities tailored to different age groups. Toddlers can build and connect bridges, while big kids (age 8 to 11) can program robots!
Related: 12 Tech Attractions for Teens
While similar museums have popped up in Orlando; Plano, Texas; and Bloomington, Minnesota (at the Mall of America), the Crayola Experience in Easton
, Pennsylvania (Lehigh Valley
), is where it all began. Visit this children's museum to see how crayons are made and even create your own crayon colors! Other fun for kids at this 26-exhibit museum includes Melt & Mold, where you can create various crayon shapes, and Drip Art, where you load crayons into a machine and watch them create a masterpiece before your eyes! Color Playground, Water Works and Toddler Town are among the other highlights for toddlers.