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Ready, Set, Play: A Top 10 'Playlist' From The Nation's Children's Museums

MAKESHOP at the <a href="https://pittsburghkids.org/exhibits/makeshop">Children's Museum of Pittsburgh</a>.
Larry Rippel
Courtesy of the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
MAKESHOP at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

It's summer, and whether you're 5 years old or 105 it's time to play.

To inspire you, the NPR Ed Team called up leaders and designers at 10 of the nation's best children's museums and asked them one simple question:

What's the one thing under your roof (or maybe out back) that kids and their grown-ups love to do/see/touch/play the most?

Here are their answers, our summer "playlist."

1. Adventure Expeditions — Port Discovery Children's Museum, Baltimore.

Adventure Expeditions at the <a href="http://www.portdiscovery.org/">Port Discovery Children's Museum</a> in Baltimore.
Ken Stanek / Port Discovery Children's Museum
Port Discovery Children's Museum
Adventure Expeditions at the Port Discovery Children's Museum in Baltimore.

This interactive exhibit doesn't just shake the dust off the traditional children's museum experience. It adds dust and creates an archaeology-infused mummy hunt for a new generation of kids who've never had the pleasure of watching Indiana Jones tumble through cobwebs and cobras.

The adventure begins with a bit of time travel, transporting kids back to 1920s Egypt, where they're charged with finding the lost tomb of a pharaoh. Along the way, they have to cross the roiling Nile, decipher hieroglyphs, choose wisely among the tomb's dead ends and come face-to-face with the greatest dead end of all: what's left of the mighty Nefrehotep.

Nora Thompson, Port Discovery's director of education and community enrichment, says the exhibit came out of conversations the museum had with an advisory council of kids. When asked what they'd like to see in a children's museum, Thompson says, "one of the things that came up was a full-body experience. They wanted to play, to move — an adventure!"

2. The Hodge Podge Mahal — Madison Children's Museum, Madison, Wis.

The Hodge Podge Mahal at the <a href="http://madisonchildrensmuseum.org/exhibits/possible-opolis/">Madison Children's Museum</a> in Madison, Wis.
/ Courtesy of the Madison Children's Museum
Courtesy of the Madison Children's Museum
The Hodge Podge Mahal at the Madison Children's Museum in Madison, Wis.

The Taj Mahal of play, this two-story structure allows children to climb through a maze of magically odd, reclaimed objects, including an old car, a wooden orb and a buoy from Lake Michigan.

One reason it's so popular with kids, says Brenda Baker, director of exhibits, is that it feels a bit dangerous.

"There's a huge element of risk because you're climbing, and you don't really know where you're going to come out. It feels like it could be unsafe, but it isn't," Baker says. "Feeling like you're testing yourself is what makes it fun for kids — because they want to push themselves."

3. Creativity Jam — Minnesota Children's Museum, St. Paul.

Creativity Jam at the <a href="http://www.mcm.org/">Minnesota Children's Museum</a> in St. Paul, Minn.
/ Courtesy of the Minnesota Children's Museum
Courtesy of the Minnesota Children's Museum
Creativity Jam at the Minnesota Children's Museum in St. Paul, Minn.

With a big renovation pending, museum leaders wanted to prototype a few new exhibit ideas last year, then use kids' feedback to make them even better.

"Creativity Jam" includes a maker space with paints and power tools and a series of cabinets that kids can explore, full of strange artifacts: pipe-cleaning brushes, sea glass, a typewriter, old cameras, etc.

But what caught our attention was how beautifully the museum's muralist, Jessica Sigafoos, brought to life a game we all played as kids: The Lava Jump.

As you can see, instead of leaping from one sofa cushion to the next while Mom or Dad calls you to dinner (now, or there'll be no dessert), here kids and parents work together, using a range of tools created by the museum's prop shop to keep their feet out of the vivid flow below.

"Our shop built things that look like rocks — though safer than rocks — that you can jump from, as well as bean bags, wood planks, sand bags, rope," says exhibit developer Michelle Blodgett. "It was fun to see grandmas and grandpas having fun, helping their grandkids across the lava."

4. Bubble Room — Boston Children's Museum.

The Bubbles Exhibit at Boston Children's Museum.
Tim Porter / Boston Children's Museum
Boston Children's Museum
The Bubbles Exhibit at Boston Children's Museum.

A classic exhibit that's been around since 1985, the Bubble Room has several tables with different tools and ways of making bubbles — wands, straws, even a frame on a pulley system for pulling up a giant bubble sheet. The tiniest tots don smocks and can while away an hour chasing, holding and bracing themselves for the inevitable pop!

Simple? Sure. But, "it's evolved through years of protoyping," says Alexander Goldowsky, the museum's senior vice president of exhibits and programs. In fact, the plans for the bubble exhibit have been sold and copied at museums all over the world. "A lot of our best exhibits take a phenomenon that's intrinsically interesting and present it in a way that leads to as many different investigations as possible,"Goldowsky says. "There's no single answer where you can say, 'Ok, now I've got bubbles.' You can always take it to another level."

5. MAKESHOP — Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

MAKESHOP at the <a href="https://pittsburghkids.org/exhibits/makeshop">Children's Museum of Pittsburgh</a>.
Christopher Sprowls / Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
Children's Museum of Pittsburgh
MAKESHOP at the Children's Museum of Pittsburgh.

In one corner of this sunny, multi-use interactive space, kids are goofing around in front of a green screen; the iPad display shows their heads floating in a distant galaxy. Others are learning how to operate a floor loom or sew their first stitches. And in the middle, at a big table, a group of 10 are messing around with "circuit blocks" — connecting alligator clips to batteries to light a light, turn on a fan or make a salvaged CD tray shoot open and closed. Walls are hung and shelves are lined with previous projects like a cardboard "flea circus" and scarves woven from eight-track tape.

MAKESHOP is a mashup of low-tech and high, where kids delight in seeing their ideas take form, sometimes in partnership with visiting artists who have specialties like fiber arts and sculpture. "We try not to influence decisions too much," says Molly Dickerson, the museum's learning resource coordinator. "We want familiar materials that are not so polished so kids feel free to take it apart and put it together." For many visitors, this is their first encounter with sandpaper, a screwdriver or a sewing machine, and maybe the beginning of a lifelong love of making.

6. S.E.C.R.E.T. — Children's Museum Of Houston.

Your mission, should you choose to accept it, is to defeat the evil Arcturus Vex and R.I.V.A.L. (the Ridiculously Intelligent Villainous Agent League). Vex is after a cluster of mysterious crystals that were discovered beneath the museum during its 2009 expansion.

Defeating Vex requires visitors to successfully complete six different missions, each taking between 60 and 90 minutes. Kids get a mission book with a map, clues and some vital gear, including a USB drive, spotting scope and lenses to read secret codes.

The exhibit requires both physical exertion and some serious problem-solving, says Keith Ostfeld, the museum's director of educational technology and exhibit development. Oh, and how could we forget this:

"You have to get through a laser maze — R.I.V.A.L.'s base of operations inside the museum," Ostfeld explains. "To get in, you have to hack their security code. And, once you're in, if you run into too many lasers, the whole thing will shut down, forcing you to start over."

7. Treasures of the Earth — Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

Treasures of the Earth at the <a href="https://www.childrensmuseum.org/exhibits/treasures-earth">Children's Museum of Indianapolis</a>.
/ Courtesy of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis
Courtesy of the Children's Museum of Indianapolis
Treasures of the Earth at the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.

This fantastically detailed archaeology exhibit gives families the opportunity to travel the world without leaving Middle America. They've re-created a tomb from Egypt's Valley of the Kings, the Caribbean shipwreck of Captain Kidd, and the burial site of China's Terracotta Warriors.

One feature that sets the Children's Museum of Indianapolis apart is a full-time cast of costumed interpreters. Local actors dressed like Indiana Jones are on hand to draw kids into the adventure of decoding cartouches or deciphering pirate maps.

But, this isn't Disney World. The exhibit includes real artifacts that are designed to get parents asking questions and talking with their kids. "Families who engage better stay longer," have more fun and learn more, says Jennifer Pace Robinson, the museum's vice president of experience development and family learning. "In the 25 years I've been in the field, we have adjusted how we measure success. Instead of focusing on content acquisition, research shows that starting conversations is more likely to help kids make connections and apply it to future knowledge."

8. Shop Rite Supermarket — Please Touch Museum, Philadelphia.

Shop Rite Supermarket at the <a href="http://www.pleasetouchmuseum.org/">Please Touch Museum</a> in Philadelphia.
/ Courtesy of the Please Touch Museum
Courtesy of the Please Touch Museum
Shop Rite Supermarket at the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia.

For kids who are too young to take on Arcturus Vex or scale the Hodge Podge Mahal, Philly's Please Touch Museum offers this faithful — albeit kid-sized — reproduction of that most magical of places: the grocery store.

Stacey Swigart, PTM's curator of collections, says it's easily one of their most popular exhibits. Why? One word: detail.

Kids can grab their own shopping cart, bag or basket and choose from hundreds of faux groceries, from bananas and brick-oven breads to toaster pastries and that Philly classic, Tastykakes. They've even added flowers and magazines for grown-ups stuck waiting in the check-out lines.

Swigart admits, the supermarket can be a heavy lift for staff — not just re-stocking the shelves night after night but also giving the hundreds of faux foods a regular deep cleaning. Still, she says, it's worth it.

"Kids love the real experience," Swigart says. "They want to be like their parents. They want to be in charge and decide if they're going to have celery or pineapple for dinner."

9. Colored Shadows — The Exploratorium, San Francisco.

Colored Shadows at the San Francisco Exploratorium.
Gayle Laird / San Francisco Exploratorium
San Francisco Exploratorium
Colored Shadows at the San Francisco Exploratorium.

Picking just one exhibit in this hands-on science center is "like picking between your children!" protests Julie Yu, the director of the museum's Teacher Institute. But this simple exhibit, which uses different colored light sources to allow people to explore casting shadows in different hues, is a longtime all-ages favorite.

"Right now, in our new space, it's along a corridor, and it's pretty rare that people just walk by it," Yu says. Her goal as a designer is to pull in what they call the "sweater-holders" from the sidelines and pique everyone's curiosity through the use of "treats" — like the opportunity to turn certain lights on and off. Colored Shadows is as likely to inspire a spur-of-the-moment dance party as a serious investigation of the physics of light.

10. Reading Adventureland — The Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, N.Y.

Reading Adventureland at the Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, N.Y.
John Myers / Strong National Museum of Play
Strong National Museum of Play
Reading Adventureland at the Strong National Museum of Play, Rochester, N.Y.

Any kid or former kid who's ever stayed up late reading with a flashlight under the covers is going to be captivated by Reading Adventureland. Designed to make you feel like entering a giant pop-up book, visitors can scale a beanstalk and play a giant's game of chess; cross a bridge (beware of trolls!); dress up and pretend to bake cookies in a gingerbread house; make a wand in the Wizard's Workshop; admire a pair of Dorothy's ruby slippers; brave the dark in Mystery Mansion, or stumble down the crooked, crooked halls of Nonsense House.

The exhibit is all about "imaginative play," says Debbie McCoy, The Strong's assistant vice president for education. Best of all, the Museum of Play is also a branch of the city's library, so each section has books to curl up and read or even take home. When you're done reading your favorite story? Act it out on the storybook stage, or go to the storyboarding workshop and sketch out a sequel.

Copyright 2021 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.

Cory Turner reports and edits for the NPR Ed team. He's helped lead several of the team's signature reporting projects, including "The Truth About America's Graduation Rate" (2015), the groundbreaking "School Money" series (2016), "Raising Kings: A Year Of Love And Struggle At Ron Brown College Prep" (2017), and the NPR Life Kit parenting podcast with Sesame Workshop (2019). His year-long investigation with NPR's Chris Arnold, "The Trouble With TEACH Grants" (2018), led the U.S. Department of Education to change the rules of a troubled federal grant program that had unfairly hurt thousands of teachers.
Anya Kamenetz is an education correspondent at NPR. She joined NPR in 2014, working as part of a new initiative to coordinate on-air and online coverage of learning. Since then the NPR Ed team has won a 2017 Edward R. Murrow Award for Innovation, and a 2015 National Award for Education Reporting for the multimedia national collaboration, the Grad Rates project.