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Children's Museums in the West

Exhibits in these museums are hands-on and interactive so kids are both entertained and educated.

the exterior of the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose, picture
Photo credit
Photo: Courtesy of the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose
Photo caption
The Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose offers hands-on discoveries and fun for children.

"What makes my heart beat?"

"Where does electricity come from?"

"How come birds can fly?"

For parents and grandparents, providing all the answers may not be easy, but trying to find them can be fun for the whole family. Though children’s museums are nothing new, they seem to be cropping up all over, from San Jose to Salt Lake City. The budget conscious will find admission prices often less than amusement parks or other family destinations. From play areas for toddlers to computers for pre-teens, exhibits in these museums are often hands-on and interactive so kids are both entertained and educated. Art, science, natural history, and even how to be a smart consumer are some of the topics touched upon. The settings often encourage parents to participate, making it more of a family experience. Here are a few places that focus on young visitors. In addition to their regular exhibits, many of them offer special events, exhibitions, and educational programs. The information was correct at press time; however, it is always wise to phone ahead.

Children's Museums in California

Bay Area Discovery Museum, 557 East Fort Baker, Sausalito; (415) 487-4398. This museum occupies part of Fort Baker, one-time army base and now part of the Golden Gate National Recreation Area. Within the shadow of the Golden Gate Bridge, the complex of six historic buildings features a science lab, a media center, a theater, the Maze of Illusions, the Art Spot, the Tot Spot, exhibits on San Francisco Bay and architecture and design, and a cafe. Power House, a new exhibit on energy, opens in August. Discovery Hall presents changing exhibits. Outdoor picnic areas are available. Annual events include a soap box derby and kite festival. 

Carter House Natural Science Museum, Redding; (916) 243-5457. Located in Caldwell Park, the museum explores the regional environment through interactive displays, changing exhibits, the Nocturnal Room, and the Animal Discovery Room, which houses 37 species of live animals. Nature hikes, wildflower walks, and birding expeditions are also offered.

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, 180 Woz Way, San Jose; (408) 298-5437. This museum, one of the largest of its kind in the country, welcomes visitors with over 150 exhibits. They range from the unpredictable bubbles of Bubbalogna to the creative arts center of Art Works Too! to the pumps and valves of Waterworks. The largest exhibit, Around the World, Around the Corner, explores different cultures. Visit their Web site. 

Children’s Museum of Stockton, 402 W. Weber Ave., Stockton; (209) 465-4386. Enter KidsWorld, a mini-city where kids can get a better feel for the world of mom and dad. Shop for groceries, swing by the post office, stop at the bank, visit the optometrist—just as grownups do. Or check out the hospital, firehouse, TV station, and art center. 

Coyote Point Museum, 1651 Coyote Point Dr., San Mateo; (415) 342-9969. Explore the Bay Area’s six major ecosystems (redwood and broadleaf forests, grasslands, chaparral, baylands, and coast) at this nature museum. Located in Coyote Point Park, the museum contains four levels of displays, computer games, films, and changing exhibits. Live animals native to the Bay Area can be found in the natural settings of the Wildlife Habitat. Family Activity Days, focused on various themes, are held the second weekend of each month (Sept.-May). 

Discovery Center, 1944 N. Winery, Fresno; (209) 251-5533. Hands-on science is the theme here. The Center’s 6.5 acres include an indoor zoo, cactus gardens, a Gemini space capsule, a pond for exploring, an Indian artifact room, and a desert tortoise colony. A Saturday Science program, held once a month, explores different topics (Registration required). 

Discovery Center of Sonoma County, 1070 Santa Rosa Plaza Mall, Santa Rosa; (707) 575-1014. Visitors can surf the internet at the Information Highway On-Ramp or make a video movie in the On The Air Studio. Opened in 1995, the museum also features Amazing Science, with an insect zoo, aquariums, and video microscopes, and the Junkyard, an art studio where kids can create with recycled materials. 

Effie Yeaw Nature Center, 6700 Tarshes Drive, Carmichael; (916) 489-4918. Ancil Hoffman County Park, along the American River, is home to this nature center. The region’s natural and cultural history are examined through changing hands-on exhibits, native birds and animals, and a Maidu Indian Demonstration Area. A 77-acre Nature Area offers three trails to explore and view wildlife. Special events include Maidu Indian Day in October. 

Exploratorium, 3601 Lyon Street, San Francisco; (415) 561-0360. Shadows stuck to a wall, lights activated by sound, and bubbles that sink are among the wonders to experience here. This airplane hanger-size museum has over 600 hands-on exhibits to stimulate all the senses. The Tactile Dome, available by reservation, lets you feel your way through a world of total darkness. Special exhibitions are featured throughout the year.  Visit their Web site. 

Explorit Science Center, 3141 5th Street, Davis; (916) 756-0191. Eight different exhibition topics throughout the year help highlight this center’s approach to hands-on science. Puzzles, experiments, and specimens bring each topic into focus. Toddlers will find the Discovery Den’s activities more to their liking. The Meet the Scientist weekend programs allow visiting experts to give demonstrations and answer visitor questions.  Visit their Web site.

Hall of Health, 2230 Shattuck Avenue, Berkeley; (510) 549-1564. Learn about healthy diet habits and exercise, see how babies develop, and examine the effects of smoking all under one roof. Demonstrations and multi-media exhibits teach visitors how their bodies operate and how to take care of them. The "Kids on the Block" puppet shows (third Saturday of each month) help kids to understand disabilities. A free, Halloween safety-education fair, is held in October.

Intel Museum, 2200 Mission College Boulevard, Santa Clara; (408) 765-0503. What’s a microprocessor? A semiconductor? A megabyte? Discover the answers at the home of the world’s largest computer chip manufacturer. Get a look at how computers do what they do, see how chips are constructed, and learn how video and computer come together. New exhibits appear frequently. 

International Children’s Art Museum, World Trade Center (Ferry Building), Suite 103, San Francisco; (415) 772-9977. What started with the idea of children around the world communicating through art and writing has evolved into a collection of more than 4,000 works. The museum exhibits works from this permanent collection as well as showcasing special exhibits throughout the year. 

Junior Center of Art and Science, 558 bellevue Avenue, Oakland; (510) 839-5777. Founded in 1954 to encourage creative potential and understanding through artistic and scientific exploration, the center offers hands-on art and science programs, workshops, and changing exhibits. Visitors can visit with the animals, view the current exhibit, or enjoy views of neighboring Lake Merritt and the Bird Sanctuary.

Lawrence Hall of Science, Centennial Drive, Berkeley; (510) 642-5132. High on the hills of the UC Berkeley campus, visitors will find exhibits on lasers, the brain, and technology in the time of Columbus. The weekend Biology Discovery Lab affords a close up look at animals and the Holt Planetarium looks beyond our world. Several major changing exhibits are presented each year.  Visit their Web site.

Lindsay Museum, 1931 First Avenue, Walnut Creek; (510) 935-1978. Get close to nature at the oldest wildlife rehabilitation center in the country. The big draw here is the Exhibit Hall with over 50 species of live, non-releasable animals including a coyote, bald eagle, bobcat, and reptiles. Activities include bat presentations, animal feedings, storytelling, and nature videos. 

Museum of Children’s Art (MOCHA), 560 Second Street, Oakland; (510) 465-8770. MOCHA encourages young people to tap into their creative spirits. A variety of workshops and classes offers everything from drawing and printmaking to sculpture and filmmaking. Drop-in visits are welcome. The gallery presents different monthly exhibits created by children locally, nationally, and internationally. 

Palo Alto Junior Museum & Zoo, 1451 Middlefield, Palo Alto; (415) 329-2111. This museum offers a variety of activities dealing with nature, art, science, and history. One of the oldest children’s museums in the U.S., it also presents changing exhibitions and holiday activities. Animal demonstrations provide visits with snakes, ferrets, and denizens of the zoo. 

Randall Museum, 199 Museum Way, San Francisco; (415) 554-9600. Visitors here will find lots of places to get creative including the ceramics room, woodworking shop, and darkroom. The Animal Room, with plenty of living creatures, is another highlight. Art workshops and "Animal Talks," with live animals, are given on Saturdays. An operating model train layout is open to the public the second and fourth Saturdays of each month. Various performances are presented in the museum’s theater. H.

Sierra Nevada Children’s Museum, 11400 Donner Pass Road, Truckee; (916) 587-KIDS. High in the mountains, this museum presents changing exhibits on a variety of science and nature topics. Kids are encouraged to check out Sierra Kid’Chen, an imaginative restaurant, budget their "money" in the mini-grocery store, or create a work of art. The Creative Art Center features special activities on Wednesdays and Fridays. 

Tech Museum of Innovation, 145 West San Carlos St., San Jose; (408) 279-7150. Young technophiles should find this museum to their liking. In six areas of interactive exhibits, the Tech takes a look at how technology is advancing such fields as robotics, microelectronics, biology, and astronomy. Visitors can design their own bicycle, take a flight over the surface of Mars, or examine the inner workings of a microchip. Special exhibitions are presented as well. The annual Tech Challenge, a science and technology student competition, is held in April. 

Youth Science Institute has three locations. In addition to drop-in activities, special programs and hikes are offered: Alum Rock Nature Center, 16260 Alum Rock Avenue, San Jose; (408) 258-4322, features a live animal room, including birds of prey, and hands-on exhibits on local natural history. Sanborn Nature Center, 16055 Sanborn Road, Saratoga; (408) 867-6940, includes an organic garden, an insect zoo, and other natural history displays. Vasona Nature Center, 296 Garden Hill Drive, Los Gatos; (408) 356-4945, focuses on aquatic life and water ecology, as well as reptiles and amphibians. 

CHildren's Museums in Utah

Children’s Museum of Utah, 840 North 300 West, Salt Lake City; (801) 328-3383. With over 30 permanent exhibits, visitors can soar in a 727 cockpit, concoct in the Science Discovery Lab, shop in Kids’ Town, or test their physical fitness in the Fit Kids exhibit. Daily interactive programs explore the arts, humanities, sciences, and world cultures. The One World Gallery hosts changing exhibits on a quarterly basis. Annual events include the Children’s Spring Concert, in May, and Cookie Lover’s Festival in August. 

Treehouse Children’s Museum, 2255 B Ogden City Mall, Ogden; (801) 394-9663. In addition to the museum’s focus on literacy, monthly themes, such as nutrition, music, and culture, set the tone for activities. Permanent exhibits include the Learning Tree and Computer Garden, Storybook Village, the Utah Centennial Map, and the giant Grandma Sofie for toddlers. Cinderella’s Ball, a medieval-themed event, is held annually in May.

CHildren's Museums in Nevada

Children’s Museum of Northern Nevada, 813 N. Carson St., Carson City; (702) 884-2226. This museum makes its home in the historic Civic Auditorium. Exhibits here range from a "dig" with Egyptian artifacts to a mini-grocery store to a giant piano keyboard. The museum also hosts theater presentations. 

Lied Discovery Children’s Museum, 833 Las Vegas Blvd. N., Las Vegas; (702) 382-3445. Over 100 exhibits fill this museum, voted the Best Museum by the Las Vegas Review-Journal six years running. The eight-story Science Tower houses such unique exhibits as the Viscosity Tubes, two Echo Tubes, the Weather Station, and a Periscope. Pool and sun safety, tornadoes, and music are among other exhibit topics. Changing exhibitions are presented as are performances by cultural groups. 



This article was first published in July 1996. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.