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.