Published Nov/Dec 2006

Left: At the Museum of Discovery in Little Rock, visitors can have a hair-raising experience. Museum of Discovery photo

Discover hands-on fun and educational experiences
this winter at these fascinating museums.
By Glenn Kaufmann

amilies traveling over the holidays is a tradition as hallowed as stuffed turkey on Thanksgiving or stuffed stockings on the mantel at Christmas.

But after a family visits around the dinner table at wintertime gatherings, the question arises: what do we do with the kids. Parents want to keep them entertained and grandparents want to save the living room furniture. The answer may lie in a museum.

In the South, well-planned and educational children’s museums can be found in major cities and small towns. There is real diversity in the kinds of programs and exhibits that they offer.

Generally you’ll find a healthy dose of mechanical, arts and science activities, followed up by fun construction games (blocks, clay, mud), finished off with something gooey, slimy and goofy. Most have elements of interest for children from toddlers to pre-teens.

The result is a series of astounding museums that offer not only great things for the youngsters but include enough interactive offerings to keep adults engaged as well.

Here is a sample of children’s museums that are ready to welcome your children and grandchildren. You can really interact with the children in an unusual setting, have fun and actively contribute something to their education. However, it’s a good idea to call ahead to make sure the museums are open when you want to visit, especially if it’s on a holiday.

Arkansas Museum

Little Rock’s downtown River Market District is the home of the Museum of Discovery, which sells itself as “Arkansas’s Museum of Science & History.” With exhibits such as Bug Zoo, Tech Zone, Imagination Station, Forest Products, Earth Lab and Arkansas Indians, the museum offers children and their parents a well-rounded opportunity to explore, experiment and play around. There also are summer camps, school field trips, seasonal events and an “Adopt-A-Critter” program.

A planned expansion for children younger than 8 years is scheduled to include: Reading Beach, Pirate’s Cove (a combination math, life science and physical agility exhibit), Construction Zone and Fitness Forest.

The Museum of Discovery is at 500 President Clinton Ave. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday: 1–5 p.m. Admission: children (1-12 years) and seniors, $6; adults, $7. Infants under 1 year admitted free. Call (501) 396-7050 or click on www.amod.org.

Louisiana museums

On June 23, after spending nearly 10 months repairing damage done by Hurricane Katrina, The Louisiana Children’s Museum in New Orleans reopened its big blue doors. Now families can once again enjoy the museum and its unique exhibits, including: Little Port of New Orleans, where children can pilot a tugboat or barge down the Mississippi; Cajun Cottage, a bayou playhouse complete with costumes; WWL-TV KidWatch, where youngsters can deliver the news; or Eye to Eye, a walk through an eyeball model.

The Louisiana Children’s Museum is at 420 Julia St. Hours are Wednesday through Saturday, 9:30 a.m.–4:30 p.m.; Sundays: noon–4:30 p.m.

Admission: adults and children older than 1 year, $7; infants (1 year or younger) admitted free. AAA members receive a discount on admission. Adults must accompany children younger than 16. Call (504) 523-1357 or click on www.lcm.org.

In Lake Charles, the Children’s Museum is a small but growing downtown destination where children can play in a rainforest, work in a TV studio or as a scientist or firefighter, and learn how to fish for crab off a pier. The Children’s Museum also offers a nature center, Baby Bayou, science exhibits and “Locks and Canals,” a water flow exhibit that allows children to race boats through passages they build.

The Children’s Museum is at 327 Broad St. Hours are Monday through Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission: adults and children 2 years and older, $5; seniors, $4; children younger than 2 years are admitted free. Call (337) 433-9420 or click on www.child-museum.org.

Mississippi Museum

Designated by AAA as a “GEM” (Great Experience for Members), the Lynn Meadows Discovery Center in Gulfport has recovered from last year’s Hurricane Katrina, which destroyed some buildings around the 1915 school and museum structure, and badly damaged the museum’s first floor. The museum reopened exhibits on the second floor in June and those on the first floor in August.

Visitors can tromp in treehouses, crank a crane, star in a television production and more. Dolan Avenue Depot is the newest exhibit and features a child-size 1920s locomotive, dining car, ticket window and water and coal refueling stations.

The Lynn Meadows Discovery Center is at 246 Dolan Ave. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Extended hours are offered on Friday from 5–8 p.m. with free admission. Otherwise, admission is $7; children 1 year or younger admitted free. Call (228) 897-6039 or click on www.lmdc.org.

Alabama museums

The history-oriented EarlyWorks Children’s History Museum in Huntsville sits in a complex with the Historic Huntsville Depot & Museum and Alabama Constitution Village. EarlyWorks’ exhibits include giant-sized musical instruments, a talking tree and several overnight programs. Visitors also can build a house in an interactive architecture exhibit or explore a 46-foot keelboat.

EarlyWorks is at 404 Madison St. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m.–4 p.m. Admission: ages 1-3, $4; 4-17, $8; 18 and older, $10. Call (256) 564-8100 or click on www.earlyworks.com.

In Florence, which is located in northwestern Alabama, the Children’s Museum of the Shoals offers regular exhibits about building and design, Native Americans and the natural environment, including a small-scale model of the Tennessee River complete with shoals, locks and canals.

The Children’s Museum of the Shoals is at 2810 Darby Dr. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Admission: ages 2 and older: $4; children younger than 2 are admitted free. AAA members receive a discount. Call (256) 765-0500 or click on www.shoalschildrensmuseum.org.

Tennessee museums

Set just a few blocks from the incomparable Tennessee Aquarium, Chattanooga’s Creative Discovery Museum was selected by Child Magazine as one of the top 20 children’s museums in the nation.

From the moment you see its funky, clunky façade, you know you’re in for something special. Inside, the surprises continue with a host of water games and activities in the River Play area, touch, sight and other sensory exhibits, and numerous musical exhibits. But one of this museum’s most interesting offerings is the Rooftop Fun Factory, which offers children and parents a spectacular view and the opportunity to blow bubbles, launch balls and use pulleys to lift themselves up off of the roof.

Creative Discovery Museum is at 321 Chestnut St. From September through February, hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily and noon to 5 p.m. on Sunday. It is closed on Wednesdays. From March through May, it’s open from 10 a.m.–5 p.m. Monday–Saturday and noon–5 p.m. Sunday. From Memorial Day to Labor Day, it is open 10 a.m.–6 p.m. daily. Admission: children (2-12), $6.95; adults, $7.95; children younger than 2 years admitted free. Call (423) 756-2738 or click on www.cdmfun.org.

Finally, the Children’s Museum of Memphis is a large, colorful center that offers a buffet of hands-on activities, including a vertical maze skyscraper, a kid-operated market, a heart-shaped climber and a real airplane cockpit. Children also can experiment with water in a 50-foot replica of the Mississippi River. The Art Smart exhibit gives children a chance to explore both the visual and performing arts using costumes, props and the painting, drawing and sculpture studio.

The Children’s Museum of Memphis is at 2525 Central Ave. Hours are Tuesday through Saturday, 9 a.m.–5 p.m.; Sunday, noon–5 p.m. Admission: ages 1-12, $6; infants (to 1 year) admitted free; seniors, $6; adults, $7. AAA members receive a discount. Call (901) 458-2678 or click on www.cmom.com.

These museums are a sure bet to keep your children and grandchildren smiling this winter long after Santa’s gone.

Glenn Kaufmann is a contributor from Bloomington, Ind.

Above: In the Going Places section of the Children’s Museum of Memphis, there is a flight simulator, real airplane cockpit, wind tunnel and more. Children’s Museum of Memphis photo

Below: Children having fun building in the Kid-Struction Zone of the EarlyWorks Children’s History Museum in Huntsville, Ala. EarlyWorks Children’s History Museum photo

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