While waterparks and amusement parks have their places in a fun summer vacation, there’s not a whole lot of educational value to roller coasters and tube slides (unless, of course, you’re explaining the laws of physics to your kids as they ride!) So how do you plan a vacation that combines the same kind of excitement and sense of play with a little out of school learning? Pay a visit to one or more of these educational attractions for kids.
First, some general advice. Museums are almost always a good option, as they are practically inexhaustible resources of artifacts, works of art, and educational exhibits for kids to see. However, not all museums are equally kid-friendly. Before you go, check into the offered exhibits. Does the museum include kid-specific areas or programming? Do they cater to different age groups and interests? Depending on how old your kids are, certain museums may not have the kind of material they can really learn from. Some museums, like the Miami Children’s Museum, even cater specifically to children.
Zoos and wildlife parks are also good choices. It’s a very hands-on learning experience, as children get the chance to get up close and personal with a wide variety of creatures and plant life. Most zoos even have a smaller petting zoo area with farm animals and other gentle wildlife. The best zoos, like the San Diego Zoo, will include kid-specific tours and programming like overnight stays, scavenger hunts, and featured exhibits.
Tours and cruises can be good options, too, but you choose wisely. Tours that are too long can be tiring for small children, and may be boring for disinterested teenagers. For the little ones, take shorter tours, or hop-on/hop-off buses like the Boston trolley tours that allow you to gauge your involvement based on how they’re feeling. Walking tours are usually only a good idea for older children, as they can be up to an hour long and cover a good deal of ground. Read reviews about tours before you take them, so you get real feedback on how informative the tour is and what topics are actually covered.
With all of that in mind, here are our suggestions for the top educational attractions for kids on summer vacation.
The Boston Children’s Museum: famous for the giant milk bottle and smiling cartoon characters that guard its entrance, this is an educational museum designed just for kids. It has a special emphasis on “hands-on” learning and covers all kinds of interest areas, from art and architecture and science and culture.
The Franklin Park Zoo: A local favorite, this zoo may not be as large as some of the big city partners but it has just as much fun and educational value to offer. Stop by to say hi to the new baby hippo, Cleo, and learn all about her habitat and development.
Adler Planetarium: It’s hard to choose just one of the Museum Campus options (the other two being the Field Museum and Shedd Aquarium), but this is probably my favorite. It’s a unique planetarium with a special focus on the NASA space program. “Planet Explorers” is a new permanent exhibition for small children.
Chicago Children’s Museum: Another nationally renowned children’s museum, this place uses local history and culture to teach kids about everything from ship making to dinosaur fossils. Whether your kids are interested in botany, biology, or balloon flight, there will be something here to expand their knowledge.
Aquarium of the Pacific: Don’t be fooled by popular tourist publications about LA, there’s way more to explore than Hollywood sights and movie studios. This Aquarium focuses on the preservation of sea life and oceanic birds of the Pacific. Visit the Molina Animal Care Center for a look at their conservation and assistance efforts, or explore the “Our Watersheds” exhibit for information on how the changing water tables and coastlines affect life in the ocean.
California Science Center: Known as “the West Coast’s largest hands-on science center,” this venue has the added benefit of being free to the public. This massive science center includes exhibits on nearly anything you can think of, like earth ecosystems, human biology, and aerospace industry and development. There’s even a special “Art and Science Studio,” which showcases the intersection of the creative process and technology.
Jungle Island: Jungle Island is known for their emphasis on hands-on interaction with animals, so it’s a great out of the ordinary place to visit to learn all about tropical creatures. A non-traditional take on the zoo experience, and a favorite with small children and animal lovers.
Miami Seaquarium: This 38-acre paradise sits right on the edge of Biscayne Bay. Visit all sorts of marine animals and learn about the Seaquarium’s commitment to wildlife conservation and rescue – especially their work with manatees. Kids with an interest in working with animals or the environment will get a lot out of a visit here.
Polynesian Cultural Center: Combine education with outdoor fun at this unique place. With hands-on activities, live demonstrations, and even a real luau, kids can be fully immersed in the diverse lands and peoples that influence the culture of modern Hawaii.
Pearl Harbor Tour: A must-visit for children and adults alike, this historical tour tells the story of one of the most important moments in American history with a visit to Pearl Harbor. The tour also proceeds to Honolulu, where it continues to point out historical landmarks and tell stories about the many periods in Hawaiian history.
The American Museum of Natural History: A perennial favorite with visitors of all ages, this museum has a little bit of everything. From colossal dinosaurs and giant whales, all the way down to tiny flowers and gemstones, you’ll find the whole range of the natural world on display here.
The Cloisters Museum: The sister museum of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, this institution showcases the art, architecture, and culture of medieval Europe. Kids will learn all about the mythology and history of the famous unicorn tapestries, the culture of knighthood and chivalry, and even the way castles and cloisters were built in the middle ages.
Kennedy Space Center: This is one of the premier institutions in the country where visitors can learn all about the science and history of space flight in America and around the world. With interactive presentations, tons of real space artifacts (including moon rocks), and even an entire Space Shuttle Complex, you’ll learn practically everything there is to know about space.
Wonderworks Orlando: This place is a fantastic way to trick your kids into thinking they’re just playing around. They’ll learn about the laws of physics, how weather patterns form, how sound waves function, and more in the many diverse and fascinating exhibits that populate Wonderworks.
San Diego Zoo: One of only four places in the United States where you can meet the world-famous Giant Pandas, this zoo is one of the best in the country. It’s also situated in Balboa Park, making it a great jumping off point for a visit to any of the park’s award-winning museums.
San Diego Children’s Museum: This place has a special emphasis on hands-on art making. Creative opportunities for kids include sculpture with sustainable materials, painting, sketching, and more. In addition to classes taught by trained artists, there are also plenty of other workshops and interactive exhibits. The perfect place for aspiring artists.
California Academy of Sciences: One of the “new wonders of the world,” this place is literally four in one: planetarium, aquarium, four-story rainforest, and a natural history museum. The California Academy is also a prestigious research facility devoted to conservation and rehabilitation of animals and environments. Be sure to visit the famous green roof!
Children’s Creativity Museum: Since the California Academy incorporates everything science and nature related, a visit to this museum will nurture your children’s creative sides. With its fusion of art and technology, this museum allows children to explore the creative process across all types of modern design, from music and film to visual effects and clay animation.