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6 Great Children’s Museums for Outdoor Play

These museums combine learning with outdoor fun and plenty of room for kids of any age to play.

In San Jose, California, the Children's Discovery Museum's outdoor expansion, Bill's Backyard, encourages kids to climb, build, and dig.

Moses Kinnah

Among my favorite childhood memories are collecting spiders and beetles in a mesh bug “house,” marveling at the paper-thin bark of birch trees, and building forts of snow and sticks. That was in the 1980s. With the rise of digital entertainment and increased participation in organized sports—plus parental concerns about safety—kids today don’t spend as much time exploring their natural surroundings.

A growing number of kids’ museums are expanding outdoors to help children connect with nature and reap the benefits of unstructured play. (Benefits like creativity, problem solving, and risk-taking.) Here are several in the West that won't disappoint.

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose, California

In 2016, the iconic bright purple museum near downtown unveiled Bill’s Backyard, a half-acre outdoor expansion at the Children's Discovery Museum. Named for a longtime board member and benefactor, the space includes tree climbing and sky bridges, a junior ranger station with animal fossils, and a dig pit filled with gravel, rocks, sand, and dirt. Resources on site introduce families to nearby nature parks and open spaces, to inspire them to get out and do more.

Kidspace Children’s Museum, Pasadena, California

Located in Pasadena, this museum added the Arroyo Adventure garden in 2016, inspired by the city’s Arroyo Seco, with a gentle rock-filled stream, native plants, and a “raining” bridge. Plus, there’s a replica of a hawk’s nest accessed by rope bridge, a flood and erosion plain, and giant looms for weaving grass and other natural materials.

the Bay Area Discovery Museum in Sausalito, California, overlooking the Golden Gate Bridge, picture

In Sausalito, California, the Bay Area Discovery Museum's Lookout Cove is 2.5 acres of tactile experiences that take inspiration from the San Francisco Bay. 

Courtesy Bay Area Discovery Museum

Bay Area Discovery Museum, Sausalito, California

Lookout Cove, the Sausalito Bay Area Discovery Museum's 2.5-acre outdoor exhibit, takes inspiration from the sights and sounds of the San Francisco Bay. Kids can board a fishing boat, uncover treasures from a shipwreck in the sand, splash in a made-for-play tide pool, and explore sea caves. Bonus: An incredible view of the Golden Gate Bridge.

Portland Children’s Museum, Oregon

In 2014, the Portland Children’s Museum transformed 1.3 acres of adjacent land into its Outdoor Adventure exhibit. It includes a campsite with fort-making supplies, a creek with a working dam, and a whimsical installation of woven vine maple by artist Patrick Dougherty. At the Mud Kitchen, kids get to “pour, slice, squish, and play” with dirt, water, and kitchen tools.

the Puget Sounds Beach exhibit at the Hands on Children's Museum in Olympia, Washington, picture

The Hands On Children's Museum in Olympia, Washington, includes a half-acre Outdoor Discovery Center with a re-creation of Puget Sound Beach. 

Courtesy Hands On Children's Museum

Hands On Children’s Museum, Olympia, Washington

This museum on Olympia’s waterfront features a half-acre Outdoor Discovery Center, opened in 2012. Inspired by Washington’s maritime heritage, it includes a 30-foot-tall lighthouse lookout, Puget Sound beach replica, a driftwood fort construction area, a vegetable garden, and a hike-and-trike loop.

Children’s Museum of Denver, Colorado

At Joy Park, added in 2015, kids can get a taste of Colorado’s canyons, waterfalls, and sand dunes. There’s a zip line, a straw-bale maze, and 1948 Chevy farm truck for playing on, plus a grove of climbing hammocks, and a river that trickles over red rock. During summer months, families can visit the outdoor space for free every third Friday evening.

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