YOUR CHILDREN have lazed away the summer, but now it's time to start thinking of educational-enrichment activities. Most summer camps will close in mid-August, leaving parents wondering how to stimulate learning and fill the two-week gap until school begins after Labor Day.
A visit to the Children's Museum of Indianapolis really opened my eyes about how museums have evolved into fun destinations enjoyable for the entire family. Indianapolis, Ind., about an 11-hour drive from Philadelphia, is frequently cited as one of the best places to raise children, so it's no wonder this institution is considered the gold standard of museums for children.
The museum is located on 20 acres and has 11 major galleries sprawled across 472,900 square feet of colorful, interactive displays on five levels. The fun starts even before you go inside: The building's front facade is designed to look as though a dinosaur has just burst though the walls.
The Fireworks of Glass, a phenomenal, 43-foot-tall structure by famed glass artist Dale Chihuly consisting of 3,200 handblown pieces of colored glass, welcomes visitors. The intricate sculpture hangs down the center of the museum and is a stunning and unexpected piece of fine art.
"We are one of a small number of children's museums that is a collecting museum," said Jeffrey Patchen, president and CEO of the museum. "We have thousands of artifacts from all over the world, which enables us to attract a million visitors" every year.
Rather than simply focusing on preschool children, the museum works to attract high school students and adults through its SpaceQuest Planetarium and major exhibits, such as "King Tut and the Golden Pharaohs," "National Geographic Maps: Tools for Adventure" and the current "Rock Stars, Cars and Guitars."
"Rather than creating a theme-park-type environment with brand-spanking-new dinosaurs that move, we chose to create an exhibit with real fossils and a paleontology lab where kids can talk with a real paleontologist," Patchen said. "We like to say we are the only children's museum where kids can touch a real T. Rex bone."
Philadelphia's own Please Touch Museum is another marvelous example of how museums have evolved. Since relocating in 2008 from Center City to Memorial Hall in Fairmount Park, previous attendance records have been shattered.
"The trend in the last few years has all museums - history, science - catering more to families," Frank Luzi, director of media relations at Please Touch, said.
In an environment where so many music and art programs have been eliminated from schools, exhibits such as "Rainforest Rhythm" and those planned for August and September - declared the museum's "dancing months" - allow parents and children to sing, dance and play while learning about the earth and the environment.
"Adults can share some of the icons of their childhoods," Luzi said, "such as the monorail from the old John Wanamaker department store, 'Star Wars' action figures or Philadelphia's own 'Captain Noah' television program."
They will particularly enjoy tours on the history and architecture of Memorial Hall - built for the 1876 World's Fair - that include discussion of other structures and inventions that were a part of the centennial. The tour is held at 2 p.m. on Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday.
Well-designed and programmed museums, such as the Please Touch and the Children's Museum of Indianapolis provide a good mix of stimulated learning for a range of ages.
It's important to allow the kids to set the agenda, not the adults, Luzi said. "The youngest person in the group tends to be the leader when visiting a children's museum. Whatever captures their interest is the direction you will find yourself heading."
Adults can facilitate discussion, according to the Association of Children's Museums, by asking open-ended questions, such as, "What do you think will happen next?"
Before you go, visit the museum's Web site to familiarize yourself with the layout and the exhibits.
Don't be afraid to say you don't know when the kids ask a question. Seek out museum staff for answers.
Kids' museums vary in content and quality, but a good facility will provide an interactive experience, often delivered through a world of make believe.
A good museum should offer educational fun in an environment crafted so beautifully that children never feel as if they're learning. There should be opportunities for their imaginations to run wild even as they get hands-on lessons in history, math, science, geography and social studies.
"Children don't learn in a vacuum," said Patchen. "They learn from parents, teachers and from each other."
Once you're back home, read books together and watch videos about the exhibit you've seen (that's a good idea before you go, too). Maybe there's more research you could do as a family.
Many museums will provide cheat sheets, helpful when you find yourself scrambling for answers to the inevitable question: "Why?"
P.J. Thomas is editor and copublisher of Pathfinders Travel Magazine for People of Color, a nationally distributed publication founded in 1997. Contact her at
The Children's Museum Indianapolis, 3000 N. Meridian St., Indianapolis, IN 46208. 800-820-6214 or 317-334-3322. www.ChildrensMuseum.org.