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7 Museums Where Play Is the Thing

Use a children’s museum to anchor a day of fun around the Sound

Published on: October 25, 2018

childrens museums play

Confession: I didn’t get children’s museums for a while. My 2-year-old would happily play with Tupperware at home, so why would I pay admission to a kids’ museum just so he could play with fancier toys?

It wasn’t until friends invited us to Imagine Children’s Museum in Everett that my light-bulb moment happened. As my son moved from tossing handkerchiefs up the air maze to quietly making beaded bracelets in the art studio, I became a convert to the variety of hands-on play experiences that children’s museums offer. Kids’ museums became an essential part of our play menu, especially during the sun-don’t-shine months.

Now that my kid is 8, we only visit them from time to time, but he still plays with almost every exhibit, and I get a bit misty-eyed watching him climb into the same semitruck cab that enthralled him when he was 3.

This isn’t accidental, of course. According to the Association of Children’s Museums, early children’s museums (the first opened in 1899 in Brooklyn) were part of a progressive education movement that promoted the then-revolutionary concept of child-centered environments and learning experiences. In our increasingly plugged-in world, kids’ museums offer a time-tested, real-world antidote to the attraction of screen time. 

Here’s your map to combining a museum mini adventure with other attractions in hot spots such as downtown Tacoma, Bainbridge Island, Seattle Center and Bellevue. 

KidsQuest Children’s Museum, Bellevue

KidsQuest Children’s Museum’s spacious home in downtown Bellevue stars huge windows, beautifully designed exhibits and an adventurous, two-story ropes-and-ladders climber in the atrium. Kids of all ages will love cranking boxes up and down conveyor belts in the On the Go gallery; building with real tools next door in the Recycle Rebuild room; or conducting physics experiments in the Water lab. Other highlights include lots of seating for grown-ups and an outdoor area with “loose parts” for kids to build with.

Good to know: Parking is tough (the museum has a small lot), so try to target your visit during a less crowded time, such as a weekday morning, or Friday evening, when it’s open until 8 p.m. Combine your trip with a visit to the Bellevue downtown library next door (but don’t park there!) or Bellevue Downtown Park.

Info: Open Tuesday–Sunday; open late on Friday. $11.50–$12.50, younger than 12 months free. 

Children’s Museum of Skagit County, Mount Vernon

If you’re heading to the Mount Vernon/Skagit County area, this recently expanded museum in Burlington’s Cascade Mall, just off Interstate 5, is a solid get-the-wiggles-out stop for families with younger kids. At 11,000 square feet, the colorful space packs in hands-on exhibits that tie into local culture and industry, such as a tugboat and tides exhibit, and a new 5,000-square-foot space where kids can rock climb, build with Imagination Playground blocks and “drive” a model train that whirs above.

Good to know: The Children’s Museum of Skagit County has regular movie nights; Kaleidoscope Play and Learn events; and “Make It and Take It!” on Thursdays at 4 p.m.

Info: Open daily. $6.25, 12 months and younger free;  every second Tuesday of the month is a Community Free Day. 

Imagine Children’s Museum, Everett

Snohomish County residents would love you to not know about their beloved, three-story museum in downtown Everett, which includes the 9,000-square-foot “Tall Timber” outdoor space on its rooftop. Kids can act on a stage, drive trains on the Monte Cristo mining railway, study X-rays in the vet clinic, build in the construction zone and even dig for dino bones outdoors.

Good to know: Every third Sunday, Imagine Children’s Museum offers a free-admission “Sensory Time” program from 9 to 11 a.m.

Info: Open daily except Monday. $12, younger than 12 months free; half-price every Thursday, 3–5 p.m.; free admission every third Friday, 5:30–9 p.m. 

Kids Discovery Museum, Bainbridge Island

Location, location. Just a short walk from the Winslow Ferry Terminal on Bainbridge Island, the small but awesome Kids Discovery Museum (KiDiMu) works well as part of a day trip to the island. Kids always love the pirate tree house, the huge light wall and the electric car. Older kids will be drawn to the second floor’s “Motion Madness” exhibit.

Nearby bonus: Bainbridge brims with nature and cultural fun, from the always-free Bainbridge Island Art Museum (next door to KiDiMu) to the lovely, wild Bloedel Reserve.

Info: Open Tuesday–Sunday. $7–$8, younger than 12 months free; free every first Thursday. 

Children’s Museum of Tacoma

The Children’s Museum of Tacoma is a small museum with a big draw: It offers pay-what-you-wish admission, which means that you can stop by for an hour without worrying about whether you’ve gotten your money’s worth. The museum is built around four playscapes (Woods, Water, Invention and Voyager), and favorite activities include the wood-cabin tunnel, water table, marine vessel with tower, air pipes, lit Lego table and art studio (called Becka’s Studio).

Nearby bonus: The Children’s Museum of Tacoma partners with Tacoma Art Museum (TAM) on a program in which families can create an art project and then visit TAM for free.

Info: Open daily, except Monday, when  only members are admitted. Admission is pay what you wish. 

Hands On Children’s Museum, Olympia

My son’s eyes still light up whenever I mention “that museum in Olympia.” At 28,000 square feet, it really does seem to have it all: an “emergency” area with fire truck, helicopter and cop car; a tugboat; a climber/slide to the third floor; a scream room, where kids can measure their decibels; and a maker space. Step outside and you’ll find another half-acre of creative fun, including a driftwood building area and a trike track.

Good to know: Hands On has a small but good café on site. The free-admission WET Science Center (designed for older kids) is across the street.

Info: Open daily. $11.95–$13.95, ages younger than 2 free (ticket still required); free every first Friday, 5–9 p.m. Hands On Children’s Museum, 414 Jefferson St. N.E., Olympia. 360-956-0818. 

Seattle Children’s Museum, Seattle Center

If you haven’t stopped by this venerable institution, located in the lower level of the Seattle Center Armory, recently, it’s time for another look. Seattle Children’s Museum has been busy updating exhibits and adding cultural programming, from a renovated theater to new building equipment for the Dunn Lumber exhibit. The Global Village exhibit is being revamped, and there are regular pop-up cultural events.

Nearby bonus: Upstairs in the Armory, find free Festál cultural festivals almost every weekend.

Info: Open daily. $10.50–$11.50, younger than 12 months free; the last hour of the day (4–5 p.m.) has discounted admission.  

Save on hands-on play

  • You can reserve passes to some museums through the museum pass programs at the King County Library System or Seattle Public Library.
  • Most museums offer free admission or very reduced admission for low-income families.
  • Most museums have a free or discounted day each month (or week).
  • Through the Association of Children’s Museums, membership to many of these museums allows you to enjoy reciprocal benefits with other children’s museums.
  • If you have a membership to a museum that’s part of the Northwest Association of Youth Museums (most museums on this list), you can use a buy-one, get-one-free coupon for admission to other member museums.
  • Many museums also offer sensory hours for families with special needs.

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