The best 25 children’s museums: Where’s the Thinkery? Not there

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into this Ben Villalpando, who is making things at The Thinkery.
Ben Villalpando does his own engineering at the Thinkery over winter break. Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman Staff

Ben Villalpando does his own engineering at the Thinkery over winter break. He gave up after not having the right parts to build his bridge. A simple L-shaped piece would do it. 
Nicole Villalpando/American-Statesman Staff

Today the folks at Early Childhood Education Zone released its list of 25 best children’s museums. The Thinkery is not on there. That’s not surprising to me. I’ve been to four of the best: Houston, the Exploritorium in San Francisco, Pittsburgh, and the Museum of Science and Industry in Chicago. I’ve also been to the one in San Jose, Calif., which is usually on these lists.

I’ve also been to some duds, where the kids get easily bored or there’s not a lot to do, or there’s stuff to do if you are 4 years old to 8 years old, but anything younger or older, not much.

The Thinkery is a huge improvement from what we had. It grew by leaps and bounds, and offers a lot more for kids of all ages, but it’s still too small for a city our size.

What I have seen with my own kids is that the first time they spent a lot of time at the Thinkery and were impressed. The next time less. The time after that less. Where we have spent a day at all the places we’ve been that made the list and have had to drag people out of there, we haven’t been able to spend more than two hours at the Thinkery before we’ve felt like we’ve done it. Perhaps, it’s that the Thinkery opened when they were 10 and 13 and we missed the train too much. Perhaps, there’s something more about it that didn’t click. Or maybe it’s just my kids.

There are many cool workshops at the Thinkery that they would love to do, but you have to pay extra and not a little extra… $29-$45 extra. The Thinkery feels like it’s catering to a population that already can afford enrichment activities for their children.

Ava Villalpando created this  Little Red Riding Hood at the Pittsburgh Children's Museum. They have an open play area where you can build things or sew things. You are given the materials and an adult helper. She spent two half days in this exhibit.

Ava Villalpando created this Little Red Riding Hood at the Pittsburgh Children’s Museum. They have an open play area where you can build things or sew things. You are given the materials and an adult helper. It doesn’t cost extra. She spent two half days in this exhibit.

If you could design your own children’s museum, what would it have in it? Here’s my list:

  1. Building activities with a variety of tools for all ages that didn’t cost extra.
  2. Exhibits that allow for more imaginative play in a variety of stations. My kids have spent hours at the Houston museum’s mini town, where they get a job, buy groceries, open a bank account.
  3. Exhibits that don’t have one answer or one activity. You get to decide how you manipulate the objects.
  4. A cafeteria option. A place inside the museum with good food where we could sit and regroup before heading back for more.
  5. More than a dedicated area for the infants and a dedicated area for the older kids. Exhibits should be multi-aged as well as offer those dedicated areas. And those areas need to have more than one basic function.
  6. Playscapes that include real-life objects as well as science activities. The best playground in the world isn’t teaching me as much as a play ground where I can crawl through a fire truck or have to use physics to make something work.
  7. More rotation of exhibits. I know we have favorites, but maybe it’s time for new and then our favorites return. It keeps us coming back.
  8. Water. We love to play with it, but it has to be in the right space, preferably near the outside to dry off and at the end of the museum to not be wet through a good chunk of the exhibits.
  9. More art and freeplay art. Kids love to create stuff and take it home. Give them the stuff and they will create. Tell them what to do, and they will be bored.
  10. Things I couldn’t do at home. I can play in the bath tub and manipulate water, and I can set up my own play kitchen or store. I want bigger and more elaborate when I come to a museum.

Here is their list of best children’s museums. Which ones would you add?

Boston Children’s Museum – Boston, MA

California Science Center – Los Angeles, CA

Center for Puppetry Arts – Atlanta, GA

Children’s Museum of Cleveland – Cleveland, OH

Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh- Pittsburgh, PA

Children’s Museum – Indianapolis, IN

Children’s Museum of Denver – Denver, CO

Children’s Museum of Houston – Houston, TX

Children’s Museum of Phoenix – Phoenix, AZ

Discovery Place, Charlotte, NC

EDVenture – Columbia, SC

Exploration Place – Wichita, KS

Exploratorium – San Francisco, CA

Garden State Discovery Museum – Cherry Hill, NJ

Glazer Children’s Museum – Tampa, FL

Kohl Children’s Museum – Chicago, IL

Madison Children’s Museum – Madison, WI

Minnesota Children’s Museum – St. Paul, MN

Museum of Science and Industry – Chicago, IL

Please Touch Museum – Philadelphia, PA

Port Discovery Children’s Museum – Baltimore, MD

Portland Children’s Museum – Portland, OR

The Strong – Rochester, New York

The Treehouse Museum – Ogden, UT

WOW Children’s Museum – Lafayette, CO


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