As someone who is always looking out for fun family day trips it may sound strange for me to say that I’m not always a fan of children’s museums. Although I laud the intention behind them, I find that they sometimes are overly crowded with exhibits and (as would logically follow) people. The hands-on activities may not be built to withstand the daily beating they receive and sometimes don’t work, leaving kids wildly running from one to the next without ever really stopping to focus on what they are doing. I call this phenomenon “stimulation without education”.
But when a children’s museum works well, it can be a magical place where adults and children alike are engaged in play and learning; the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia and the Madison Children’s Museum both fall into this category. I’m happy to report that the Delaware Children’s Museum, which opened in the spring of 2010, is also one of those places.
One thing that makes the Delaware museum stand out from the others is that it is intended to appeal not only to little kids but to children who are as old as 10 or 11. While I can’t vouch for whether a soon-to-be tween would enjoy the museum, I can tell you that Tommy is a fairly sophisticated 8-and-a-half-year-old and he recently spent well over three hours there without getting bored. I think the other reason I like it there is because it is spacious – although there are plenty of cozy corners and well-defined spaces that are comfortable, it doesn’t feel cramped and there is room for kids to actually focus on each individual activity, even in the busier spots.
The museum is divided into different thematic areas, most of which offer activities of interest to children in a wide age range. On our last visit we started out in the Structures section, where toddlers can dress up as construction workers and build with giant blocks, while bigger kids engage in a variety of different construction activities. Tommy played with K’nex and blocks, made buildings and then tested to see whether would hold up during earthquakes, and created a “stained-glass” (actually plastic) structure reminiscent of a Frank Lloyd Wright window.
All the while, Teddy busied himself with tracing bridges and buildings at the Architect’s Challenge.
Travel-with-kids tip: The best time to visit the Delaware Children’s Museum is on weekday afternoons. Mornings are when most of the field trip groups visit and weekends are busy throughout the day.
Then we moved into the Power of Me area, which focuses on how the human body works primarily by offering kids lots of chances to move (always a good thing of course). Children can dance on a stage while watching their own image projected onto a video screen. They can put together a giant puzzle of the internal organs that’s vaguely reminiscent of the game Operation. They can pump a pair lungs like bellows.
They can also play a variety of competitive games on a climbing wall,
Practice to join the crew team,
And test their endurance either right-side-up or upside-down.
Travel-with-kids tip: You’re with kids, so you’ll need to eat. The museum sits in a parking lot next to two restaurants but they aren’t the best for families, especially if you’ve got little kids. We ate at the Iron Hill Brewery on one visit. They do have a children’s menu, but the food is expensive and mediocre.
The museum itself doesn’t yet have a concession (they are planning on having one eventually). Until they do, I recommend packing snacks or lunch and eating there. An area just to the right of the entrance has tables and chairs where you can sit for a bite.As of the Fall of 2011, the museum now has a café that offers sandwiches, salads, and some hot items like chicken fingers and pizza. You are no longer permitted to bring outside food into the museum.
I’ve never been to a children’s museum that didn’t have some kind of water play, and the one here is particularly good with lots of boats and other toys to play with, but also the chance to explore the effect of locks and wind power.
In the playhouse little ones can engage in the typical imaginative play of pretending to cook or clean or garden. All of this in a sustainable structure with posted information and activities about renewable energy and composting. Teddy particularly enjoyed sorting and counting all of the vegetables, figuring out what kind of plant they grew on, and then putting them neatly in place.
And this area isn’t just for the younger ones – Tommy and his friend spent a long time figuring out how to connect the heating ducts in an imaginary house so that geothermal heat could flow throughout.
Other fun stuff in the museum includes a large climbing structures with multiple levels,
A fishing game that Teddy played for about an hour the first time we were there,
An art studio,
And a nature space with the chance to create leaf rubbings; color paper butterflies and set them aloft in an air-filled tube; listen to sounds; and explore insects, birds, and other critters.
Finally, I’d like to talk about the math area of the museum, which has a money theme. That’s because it was sponsored by Chase, which along with a number of other banks and credit card companies makes its home in Delaware thanks to our kind corporate tax laws (check the address where you mail your payment in if you don’t believe me). I will confess that I was dubious about this area the first time I went to the museum with only Teddy in tow. I was cynical about whether children would see any fun in learning about debit cards. But having now spent an afternoon there with Tommy along, I’m persuaded that there’s some real value and opportunities for engagement, especially for elementary-aged children. For example, Tommy was interested to see all of the hidden things that go into making our money counterfeit proof.
He also liked weighing and figuring out how much it would cost to buy some fruits and vegetables and peeking inside of different safety deposit boxes to see what kinds of things people value and want to keep safe.
The Money on the Move pinball game entertained everyone (although I’m not sure that much was learned about actually saving money). And who wouldn’t enjoy sending money through pneumatic tubes like those at bank drive-up windows? My boys did so for a good twenty minutes.
I will say that I still think the interactive Stock Market game seems silly to me and reminds me of those annoying babies who talk like grownups in the eTrade ads. Most adults don’t understand how to buy and sells stocks, and they expect kids to be interested? Mine looked at the screen for about two seconds before their eyes glazed over and then they walked away.
But Tommy did spend a long time playing another computer game that simulated real life – he had a job and fixed monthly expenses and then had to decided how to spend his money and time over the course of a year while working to achieve goals like helping his family or buying a pet.
A bit ironic that his favorite thing to do at the children’s museum was make play of the most mundane of grownup activities, but that just goes to show that I absolutely don’t know everything. Let’s just keep that a secret between me and you OK?
The Delaware Children’s Museum is worth a trip or a stop if you’re driving through Delaware on I-95 (just don’t take the 495 bypass around Wilmington and you’ll see it from the highway). The museum is open every day except Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s Day from 9 until 4:30.