Among my favorite childhood memories are collecting spiders and beetles in a mesh bug “house,” marveling at the paper-thin bark of birch trees, and building forts of snow and sticks. That was in the 1980s. With the rise of digital entertainment and increased participation in organized sports—plus parental concerns about safety—kids today don’t spend as much time exploring their natural surroundings.
A growing number of kids’ museums are expanding outdoors to help children connect with nature and reap the benefits of unstructured play. (Benefits like creativity, problem solving, and risk-taking.) Here are several in the West that won't disappoint.
Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, California
Last fall, the iconic bright purple museum near downtown unveiled Bill’s Backyard, a half-acre outdoor expansion. Named for a longtime board member and benefactor, the space includes tree climbing and sky bridges, a junior ranger station with animal fossils, and a dig pit filled with gravel, rocks, sand, and dirt. Resources on site introduce families to nearby nature parks and open spaces, to inspire them to get out and do more. cdm.org.
Kidspace Children’s Museum, Pasadena, California
Located in Pasadena, this museum added the Arroyo Adventure garden in 2016, inspired by the city’s Arroyo Seco, with a gentle rock-filled stream, native plants, and a “raining” bridge. Plus, there’s a replica of a hawk’s nest accessed by rope bridge, a flood and erosion plain, and giant looms for weaving grass and other natural materials. kidspacemuseum.org.
Bay Area Discovery Museum, Sausalito, California
Lookout Cove, the Sausalito museum’s 2.5-acre outdoor exhibit, takes inspiration from the sights and sounds of the San Francisco Bay. Kids can board a fishing boat, uncover treasures from a shipwreck in the sand, splash in a made-for-play tide pool, and explore sea caves. Bonus: An incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge. bayareadiscoverymuseum.org.
Portland Children’s Museum, Oregon
In 2014, this museum transformed 1.3 acres of adjacent land into its Outdoor Adventure exhibit. It includes a campsite with fort-making supplies, a creek with a working dam, and a whimsical installation of woven vine maple by artist Patrick Dougherty. At the Mud Kitchen, kids get to “pour, slice, squish, and play” with dirt, water, and kitchen tools. portlandcm.org.
Hands On Children’s Museum, Olympia, Washington
This museum on Olympia’s waterfront features a half-acre Outdoor Discovery Center, opened in 2012. Inspired by Washington’s maritime heritage, it includes a 30-foot-tall lighthouse lookout, Puget Sound beach replica, a driftwood fort construction area, a vegetable garden, and a hike-and-trike loop. hocm.org.
Children’s Museum of Denver, Colorado
At Joy Park, added in 2015, kids can get a taste of Colorado’s canyons, waterfalls, and sand dunes. There’s a zip line, a straw-bale maze, and 1948 Chevy farm truck for playing on, plus a grove of climbing hammocks, and a river that trickles over red rock. During summer months, families can visit the outdoor space for free every third Friday evening. mychildsmuseum.org.
AAA Travel counselors can help plan your getaway to any of these destinations.