Indy leads list of best children’s museums

Glassworks have the pull of a magnet at The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis.

We’re not talking about kitchen stemware. This showpiece is a tower that is 43 feet tall and has 4,800 pieces of glass bulbs, squiggles and platters, all designed by artist Dale Chihuly. One of the fun views of the sculpture is from the bottom, which is possible when sitting on a reclining sofa that slowly rotates under the multi-colored masterpiece.

This 2006 artistic addition, which cost $4.5 million, is a part of what makes the Indy children’s museum the best in the nation, as ranked by Child magazine. It also is the largest children’s museum in the world.

The building is about play and work, art and artifacts, a mix of sophistication and fun. Kids can climb onto a 55-ton steam engine, or an Indy 500 racecar. For viewing is the elephant-like skeleton of a mastodon – and the galaxy, through a planetarium.

“Spymaker: My Family to Spy Family,” in place until Sept. 3, teaches how spies do their work. Visitors help complete missions that involve high-tech strategy, see the inside of a surveillance van, stand at imaging stations that turn facial scans into three-dimensional views.

Also new is Health House, for families to learn about healthy lifestyle choices. That means choosing healthy snacks, fighting germs by hand washing and learning why it’s wise to get a good night’s sleep.

The museum is a place to celebrate Indiana treasures, too. That includes Clifford the Big Red Dog, a children’s book and PBS series, whose character was created by author Norman Bridwell of Indiana in 1962.

For more about this destination: www.childrensmuseum.org, 800-820-6214. The Children’s Museum of Indianapolis is at 3000 N. Meridan St.

Is a children’s museum in your summer vacation plans? Three other Midwest locations make Child magazine’s list of 10 Best Children’s Museums.

At No. 4 is the Discovery Center Museum, downtown Rockford, Ill. Indoors are more than 200 exhibits; outdoors is a science park (with a cave, locks and dams, “friction slides,” an “earthquake walk” and numerous other features).

Kids can dig for dinosaur bones, pretend they are astronauts, witness a TV broadcast by peers. Exhibits explain – through interaction – roller coasters, flight, wind tunnels. Visitors also can explore a loft, find their way through a maze or make waves in the water works area. 

For more: www.discoverycentermuseum.org, 815-963-6769. Discovery Center is at 711 N. Main St. and adjacent to the Burpee Museum of Natural History, whose exhibits include the skeleton of Jane, a T. rex dinosaur.

No. 8 nationwide is the Minnesota Children’s Museum, St. Paul, which also teaches through role-playing. That means putting on ant costumes to crawl through make-believe anthills and streams, becoming royalty in a castle or pretending to operate an ethnic restaurant.

For more: www.mcm.org, 651-225-6001. The museum is at 10 W. Seventh St., at the intersection with Wabasha Street.

In the No. 10 slot is the Madison Children’s Museum, near the State Capitol in Wisconsin. It is a place for kids to dig for fossils, milk a pretend cow, freeze their shadow onto a wall.

Building Boom, the newest exhibit, encourages children to plan and build a dream city. For more: www.madisonchildrensmuseum.org, 608-256-6445. The address is 100 N. State St.

The other top museums for children, according to Child magazine, are in Houston, Boston, Baltimore, Brooklyn and Rochester, N.Y., and San Jose, Calif. For more: www.child.com (search for “best museums”).

For easy access to the 500-plus members of the Association of Children’s Museums, consult www.childrensmuseums.org or 202-898-1080.

Not in the Top 10 – yet – but also worthy of attention is The Building for Kids in downtown Appleton. The recently expanded and revamped destination has treehouses, a firetruck and an airplane fuselage to explore.

A child-sized retail area makes it easy for visitors to pretend they are working in a restaurant, doll hospital, car wash or convenience store. Tiny raincoats fill coat racks in a room for water play, and giant vegetables – a celery slide to cucumber stairway – fill the pretty Happy Baby Garden.

For more: www.kidmuseum.org, 920-734-3226. The museum is at 100 W. College Ave.

Last, many thanks to the MOPS (Mothers of Preschoolers) chapter in Waunakee, which asked me to talk about great places to take kids. It was a fun topic and excellent timing that coincided with a trip to Indianapolis for the Midwest Travel Writers Association spring conference.

Planning a successful family trip is about the journey as well as the destination. The MOPS moms were generous in sharing advice about traveling with children. Among their tips:

– Find a time that works best for your family to travel. It may be early morning, naptime or right after dinner.

– For a snack, create a special trail mix that includes a surprise, like chocolate chips.

– While driving, have all family members work to create a story, one sentence at a time.

– Bring a potty chair and place a diaper in the bottom for easy cleanup. That makes it easier to take potty breaks at almost any time.

– Get the kids to sleep by darkening the room. Then Mom and Dad can play a romantic game of cards in the closet with a flashlight.

– Bring a baby monitor, so you can leave the room to visit others in another room, or hang out in the hall.