Exercise Your Brain at Hands-On Learning Museums

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There are loads of kid-friendly museums in LA. They offer plenty of ways and places for kids to play and explore, but some are so kid friendly that they lose their luster for big people.  That’s why we love these specialized museums that offer loads of interesting exhibits for parents and tots, all of which offer a hands-on experience where budding historians, musicians, artists and adventurers can delve into a specific topic.  And you’ll be learning right alongside them!

Autry National Center Gold Panningphoto credit: The Autry Center

Autry National Center of the American West
Cowboys & girls, Native Americans, gunslingers and goldrushers are part of our local history, and the Autry is the only museum in town devoted to Western history and culture. Here you can spend a weekend afternoon panning for gold, just like the 49ers did during the California gold rush. Or experience movie magic as lil’ silent stars saddle up and ride through the West, check out the hands-on sound effects station, pose for photos on a pretend horse and explore the museum through six different themed scavenger hunts. And there’s plenty of family fun activities all summer long like western line dancing or historical parlor games.  As you walk through galleries to hit the nicely dispersed kid-friendly exhibits, you’ll encounter loads of local history you never knew.

Hours: Tues.-Fri. from 10 a.m.-4 p.m., Sat. & Sun. from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cost: $10/adults; $4 children; free for kids under 3; free for everyone second Tuesday of the month.

4700 Western Heritage Way
Griffith Park
Online: theautry.org

Silk Road PAMphoto credit: Ryan P via yelp

USC Pacific Asia Museum
USC Pacific Asia Museum is a beautiful place to take kids to for viewing exhibitions on the arts and culture of Asia and the Pacific Islands. The quiet galleries are best for short walk throughs with younger kids, punctuated with longer play periods in the lovely garden courtyard, where kiddos adore meeting the giant koi. Save your biggest chunk of time for the Silk Road family gallery where travelers can try on a camel handler’s coat (or other costumes), unravel a silkworm cocoon, sit on a lotus blossom or touch real gold and jade. Mini spice merchants can explore and experience what life was like along the Silk Road (the trade route that linked Europe and Asia) and investigate a map, relax in the travelers’ tent, try an ancient dance, or even sit on a camel. Gather in the travelers’ tent for fabulous tales from along the Silk Road and a fun hands-on craft at 10:30 a.m. & 11:30 a.m. held on the second Sunday of each month, which happens to be free admission day. (Score!)

Hours: Wed.-Sun. from 10 a.m.-6 p.m.
Cost: $10/adults; free for children under 12; free for everyone second Sunday of the month.

46 North Los Robles Ave.
Online: pacificasiamuseum.org

NHMphoto credit: Judy Park

Natural History Museum
Although the Natural History Museum is well-known for their Dinosaur Hall and the animal dioramas from all over the world, it’s also a spectacular place to explore and learn more about LA’s natural environment and wildlife. Wander the Nature Gardens and get grubby in the Dirty Zone. Explore compost bins to see how pillbugs create soil, check out the soil sifter and discover how roots grow. Look for the silver trumpets and listen to nutrients moving through the oak tree’s xylem tubes. Bring an extra change of clothes for your kiddos after they play in the urban water feature, an absolute favorite among toddlers. In the Nature Labs you can meet live animals such as a Southern Pacific rattlesnake, brown rats and tarantulas, explore backyard sounds, find out how certain animal species became so successful in Los Angeles and learn how scientists identify different types of bugs.

Hours: Daily from 9:30 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cost: $12/adults; $9/youth (13-17); $5/children (3-12); free for children under 2; free for everyone first Tuesday of the month. (Except in July and August, and they make up for that with extra free Tuesdays in September; check the schedule for details.)

900 Exposition Blvd.
Exposition Park
Online: nhm.org

Grammy Museumphoto credit: Judy Park

The GRAMMY Museum
The GRAMMY Museum is perfect for mini musicians who are ready to rock. Explore 160 different genres of music on the interactive Crossroads table with headphones on the fourth floor. Let your future recording artist try out the wide variety of electronic instruments on the third floor as they participate in the music-making process with actual drum sets and electric guitars. Spend time in the eight recording studio pods and experiment with mixing music and creating loops. Check the website for special and temporary exhibits, including current exhibits for Michael Jackson and Taylor Swift fans. If your toddler needs a moment from that last tantrum, a stop at the “Shake It Off” lit-up dance floor will definitely do the trick! (This exhibit is so popular it’s been extended to October 4—try and get here before it goes because even kids who aren’t familiar with Tay-Tay love this area.)

Hours: Mon.-Fri. from11:30 a.m.-7:30 p.m., Sat. & Sun. from 10 a.m.-7:30 p.m., check for closures due to private events.
Cost: $12.95/adults; $10.95/youth (6-17); free for kids under 5.

800 West Olympic Blvd.
Online: grammymuseum.org

ESMoAphoto credit: Gloria Plascencia

The El Segundo Museum of Art is an art laboratory, an nontraditional space created by Brian and Eva Sweeney (parents of three) who originally needed a storage unit for their incredible art collection. With each new program labeled as an “Experience,” the once-a-month family day focuses on the current “Experience” on exhibit and allows the mini Matisse to completely immerse into the artist’s work. Your petite Picasso can take part in a special scavenger hunt and make art inspired by the paintings of the current artist on exhibit. Because the Sweeneys really wanted to create a place that can inspire and provide an opportunity for art education outside of the classroom, they have art making materials for all ages and ability levels on the second floor in the art lounge for kids (and parents) to explore their creativity.

Hours: Fri.-Sun. from 10 a.m.-5 p.m.
Cost: Free

208 Main St.
El Segundo
Online: esmoa.org


photo credit: Meghan Rose

3 More Museums For Career Explorations
These three spots are not only great hands-on fun for kids who know they want to be police, firefighters or pilots when they grow up, but they also teach kids and parents the history of police and fire departments in Los Angeles and how people learned to fly.

Los Angeles Police Museum—Kids can play in police cars and helicopters and even get their mug shots taken and spending some reflective time in jail.

Los Angeles Fire Department Museum and Memorial—Go back in time as a firefighter and check out memorabilia and vintage equipment. Then try on some firefighter jackets and boots on the second floor and drop by the Hollywood Fire Station next door to meet some modern heroes.

Santa Monica Museum of Flying—Let your little pilots test their flying skills on the K-3 mini flight simulator, interactive T-33 cockpit trainer and a Convair 240 nose. There’s enough buttons to push and levers to pull to delight the most tireless of toddlers.  Then stop by the viewing deck of the Santa Monica Airport for real-life action.

What’s your little adventurer’s favorite spot for hands on fun, where you find yourself learning things, too?

— Judy Park