You might not think about visiting a science center until your kids are out of kindergarten. After all, what’s there really to do with children who are still testing the principles of gravity by dropping their sippy cup? According to Parents‘ poll, about a third of the nation’s 150-plus science centers have galleries designed specifically for children 6 and under. We sent the staff at these centers a detailed survey about what they offer for young kids. The result: this list of innovative places that are bound to inspire more than a few pint-size Einsteins.
All the 300-plus exhibits at COSI (short for the Center of Science and Industry) are meant to be touched. But if your children are in first grade or younger, plan on spending most of your time exploring the barn, tree house, and farmers’ market in Little Kidscape. A staff member checks families in and out of the gallery and enforces the age limit so young kids can play freely. Plus, there are shows daily (be sure to catch the one where rats shoot hoops) and a Planetarium, and exhibits where kids can climb into a submarine, maneuver a rover through a Martian landscape, and create electricity. Family restrooms, free use of wagons and strollers, and a cafe that serves nutritious food at a decent price make the outing even better. $20 for adults, $15 for kids 2 to 12.
Re-opened a few years ago on Pier 15 on Fisherman’s Wharf, the Exploratorium packs about 600 interactive exhibits in six main galleries. Many of which are built at the in-house machine shop, is unmatched: Among other things, kids can make bubbles big enough to hold their parents, look into an “antigravity” mirror that makes them appear to fly, and watch dry ice drop into water to mimic the action of a comet. For an extra fee, kids 7 and over can find their way through the Tactile Dome in total darkness, “seeing” only with their hands to guide them. $30 for adults, $20 for kids 4 to 12.
No matter what kind of science interests your kid, the 700-plus exhibit themes at this museum have it covered. Our favorites include the butterfly garden, dinosaur dig, planetarium show, and Hall of Human Life where you can watch baby chicks hatch. Kids 8 and under also get to explore the Discovery Center, which features a geology field station, boxes chock-full of tot-size science tools, and regularly scheduled experiments. Don’t leave without seeing the lightning show — it’s so good that even staff from other science centers rave about it. $25 for adults, $20 for children 3-11, extra for the planetarium and butterfly garden.
At Liberty Science Center, bodies in motion stay in motion. Kids and adults scramble through the Infinity Climber, suspended 35 feet above the atrium floor in a dramatic feat of engineering. The bold take on the Touch Tunnel, a pitch-black maze navigated by sensory feedback alone. The recently revamped I Explore gallery for kids 5 and under boasts a Lite Brite-style art wall and a maze of transparent vacuum tubes to send bright scarves and plush balls zipping through. Coming soon: exciting new species will join the beloved cotton-top tamarins and vibrant colonies of leaf-cutter ants and honey bees in the animal collection. $21.75 for adults, $17.75 for ages 2 to 12.
A Children’s Gallery Guide lists more than 50 super-fun things to do, but get your tickets for the Discovery Room before heading anywhere else. Kids ages 1 to 8 can try out magnets and gears, grind corn, and listen to their own heartbeat. Other exhibits include Makerspace, where kids can create an object and see if it flies or floats, and the Life Science Lab, which has daily dissections and a way your child can examine his fingerprints for DNA. Admission to most of the exhibits is free; $4 per person for the Discovery Room and $6 for adults and $5 for kids for the planetarium.
There’s plenty of neat stuff for little kids to do inside the New York Hall of Science — like making giant bubbles or seeing their shadow frozen on the wall — but the real fun begins outdoors. An enormous science playground, open from April through November, lets children explore concepts like vantage points, sound, and reflection through obstacle climbs, mirror paths, and whisper dishes. Even traditional playground equipment takes on a whole new meaning: Swings power a windmill and an oversize seesaw helps kids learn about levers. On the way out, be sure to stop by the Design Lab where kids can use everyday materials to experiment and create. $15 for adults, $12 for kids 2 to 17, free every Friday from 2 to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 10 to 11 a.m.
While the main galleries have a lot of stuff to touch — like a lever that pumps blood into a giraffe’s brain — adjacent “discovery rooms” just for children under 8 are totally hands-on. The Creative World has a construction zone, hardware store, and TV studio with a camera. Be sure to check out the daily ScienceLive! Programming—kids can talk to a scuba diver in the 188,000-gallon Kelp Forest exhibit, visit a sea star and other marine creatures at the touch tank, or make goopy ooze at the Slime Bar. But the most mind-blowing thing about the California Science Center is the price. Admission is always free.
Located with the Sci-Port Discovery Center, this facility offers so many shows and demos that it creates a new visitor’s guide daily. Regulars include chocolate science (kids use balloons to make a candy bowl), alligator antics (there’s a chance to touch a baby alligator), and a cotton gin (families can operate a small version). An interactive kiosk in the planetarium lets you see how the stars appeared in the sky on the night you were born. And, of course, there are the actual exhibits, including a Bed of Nails that you can lie on, optical illusions where you can trick your mind, and the Flight Cluster where you can design and launch paper airplanes. Make a day of it and visit the adjacent 10,000 square foot Power of Play Children’s Museum. Science center admission: $13 for adults, $10 for kids 3 to 12.
It’s known worldwide for its giant walk-through heart. But your children will likely be more impressed with some of the newer exhibits, especially the Your Brain, a two-story neural network climbing structure and dozens of hands-on activities. The Live Science shows, on weather, fireworks, and liquid air are particularly engaging. $20 for adults, $16 for kids 3 to 11.
In the Kids’ Room, wanna-be scientists 8 and under get to explore a cave, test buoyancy at the water table, and see whether they can construct a building that would withstand an earthquake. There’s a planetarium show for young children — The Sky Above Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood — and a half dozen mammoth dinosaur skeletons at the entrance. Great photo op: your kid sitting in a nest of dinosaur eggs. Special events, like the CSI-inspired Whodunnit Day on September 20 and Midnight Noon on December 31, add to the fun. $24 for adults, $18 for kids 3 to 12.
These runners-up are also tailored to young kids.
Michigan Science Center, Detroit
The Kids Town Gallery is especially for children ages 2 to 5.
Carnegie Science Center, Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania
The Exploration Station gives kids a chance to feel an earthquake and make a laser design.
Gulf Coast Exploreum Science Center, Mobile, Alabama
Kids can put on a white coat and goggles while working on rotating experiments.
Museum of Science and Industry, Chicago, Illinois
The Water Spectacle exhibit — where kids can set off a geyser — is a family fave.
Discovery Place Charlotte, North Carolina
Preschoolers get their own room with water blocks that stick to the wall and a role-playing area.
The Children’s Museum of Science and Technology, Troy, New York
At the weather station, kids can make up their own forecasts and broadcast them on a big TV.
SciWorks, Winston-Salem, North Carolina
Children can play a giant game of Operation with kitchen tongs.
Union Station, Kansas City, Missouri
A five-story 3-D theater is a great place to watch a science-y flick.
Lawrence Hall of Science, Berkeley, California
Kids make art projects (such as a paper ladybug) to illustrate science concepts (like symmetry).
Montshire Museum of Science, Norwich, Vermont
The inside of the facility is cozy, but it has miles of nature trails.
The Discovery Science Place, Tyler, Texas
An auto-repair center, a triage area, and a vet clinic are the backdrops for learning about science.