At Arkansas’ interactive children’s museums, kids learn through hands-on play.
Photography by Sara Edwards Neal
TOP PHOTO: “Dinosaurs: Fossils Exposed” exhibit on display at the Scott Family Amazeum in Bentonville.
[dropcap]Arkansans[/dropcap] of a certain age may remember piling on to hot, dusty school buses toting paper bag lunches for the annual field trip to Mid-America Science Museum in Hot Springs. The seemingly interminable ride was always worth it though — all those exciting exhibits you were actually allowed, even encouraged, to put your hands on were simply delightful.
Today’s kids — and adults — have it even better. Arkansas is now home to several dedicated, hands-on children’s museums plus even more that cater to young folks either through special programs or simply through their exhibits’ focus. And there’s no better way to spend the last couple of humid weeks before school starts than by indulging in some air-conditioned play-learning.
The newest arrival on the Natural State’s interactive children’s museum scene is the Scott Family Amazeum in Bentonville, which opened in July 2015. The 50,000-square-foot museum’s exhibits focus on Arkansas’ land, industries and people. There’s a tinkering lab, a play lab, and the Nature Valley Water Amazements feature, which is interactive enough that the museum’s website advises visitors to bring a change of clothes. The indoor Canopy Climber gives visitors a safe way to experience the feeling of climbing through treetops, and an underground labyrinth recreates the sounds and sensations of exploring one of Arkansas’ many caves. A special exhibit called “How People Make Things” runs through Sept. 25. The Amazeum is located at the intersection of J Street and Museum Way. Admission is $9.50 for children 2 and older; museum hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. The museum is closed on Tuesdays.
Once you’ve worn out the Amazeum, you can hop on the Museum Trail and take a short walk over to the Crystal Bridges Museum of American Art. Crystal Bridges isn’t a children’s museum, but it does have special programs for families and kids, so don’t let the “art museum” tag scare you off. The museum offers special family tours at 1 p.m. Saturdays, and children can participate in art-making activities, puppet play, games and other art-related fun at the Experience Art Studio. Admission to Crystal Bridges is free, and summer hours are 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Wednesday through Friday, 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Saturday through Monday. The museum is closed on Tuesdays. For more information, visit crystalbridges.org.
Heading south, Little Rock’s Museum of Discovery, a River Market anchor that underwent a multimillion-dollar renovation in 2011, has a temporary “Imaginate” exhibit. Visitors use hands-on activities to explore the concept of innovation. The newest permanent exhibit is ExcitoTron, which allows visitors to create temporary works of art in a wall of more than 10,000 LED bulbs. In 2015, the Museum of Discovery debuted a “Guinness World Record musical bi-polar Tesla coil,” which puts on an electrical show to a musical soundtrack and is otherwise extremely impressive. Three times a week, the museum staff puts on an educational program called Wiggle Worms geared toward younger visitors. There are other regular programs as well, some featuring the museum’s director of visitor experience, Kevin Delaney, who has made several appearances on “The Tonight Show Starring Jimmy Fallon” doing awe-inspiring science experiments. There’s also a tinkering studio and other permanent exhibits exploring math and physics, the human body and nature. Admission to the museum is $10 for adults and $8 for teachers, seniors, military and children ages 12 and younger. Summer hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday through Saturday and 1 p.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday. For more information, log on to museumofdiscovery.org.
If you haven’t been to Mid-America Science Museum since that fourth-grade field trip, you don’t know what you’re missing. The museum underwent a complete overhaul a few years ago and is a simply spectacular place to spend the day — with or without children. This summer, the temporary “Dinosaurs Revealed” exhibit gives visitors a chance to see six replica dinosaur skeletons, dig for dinosaur bones, and watch animatronic dinosaurs in action. There’s a Tesla coil here, too, and an exhibit that lets visitors experience crawling through an underground mine. The museum’s most unusual feature might be the Bob Wheeler Skywalk, where visitors can challenge their fear of heights and play among the treetops. Admission is $10 for adults, $8 for seniors, children ages 2 to 12, teachers and military. Summer hours, through Labor Day, are 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. Monday through Saturday, 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. Sunday. Log on to midamericamuseum.org for details.
In the southwest corner of the state, visitors to the Discovery Place 2.0 Children’s Museum in Texarkana are treated to giant prehistoric animal murals, a living science lab and hands-on exhibits exploring a variety of scientific areas. Culture makes an appearance too, with a 1900s general store and a 1920s kitchen for children to play in. And — you guessed it — there’s a Tesla coil exhibit as well. The museum is located at 215 Pine St.; hours are 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday. Admission is $5 for ages 3 and older. Further information may be obtained on their website texarkanamuseums.org.
The Arts and Science Center for Southeast Arkansas at 701 S. Main St. in Pine Bluff combines art, science and the Delta’s cultural heritage into a single museum. The Mindbender Mansion exhibit consists of a series of challenging brainteaser puzzles for children to solve. The ASC puts on a special 2nd Saturday Family FunDay program each month with hands-on arts and science activities. Hours are 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Tuesday through Friday and 1 p.m. to 4 p.m. Saturday. Log on to asc701.org for more information.
In Jonesboro, the Arkansas State University Museum includes hands-on exhibits that guide visitors through what it was like to live in Arkansas during frontier times. There’s also a skeleton of a mastodon, which once inhabited the Crowley’s Ridge area of the state that’s now home to the university; a tinkering studio and the Family Reading Castle. Hours are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Monday and Wednesday through Saturday, and 9 a.m. to 7 p.m. Tuesday. Admission is free. Intrigued? You can find more information by logging on to asu.edu/museum.
[dropcap]Interactive[/dropcap] children’s museums are a ton of fun, and if you’re heading north or east this summer, you’ll find even more options just across the border. Springfield, Mo., is home to the Discovery Center, discoverycenter.org, and the Memphis Children’s Museum, cmom.com, offers a variety of exhibits inside as well as an outdoor playspace and splash park.
Arkansas is home to a lot of other museums as well, and while they might not all be hands-on, some do focus on areas that children might find particularly interesting:
- The Ruland Junction Toy Train Museum in Heber Springs, 501.362.6342 features toy trains and train-related memorabilia housed in a replica of an old train depot.
- The Arkansas Railroad Museum in Pine Bluff, arkansasrailroadmuseum.org, is housed in former railroad shops and features steam locomotives.
- The Hampson Archeological Museum State Park in Wilson features a collection of Native American artifacts.
- Historic Washington State Park in Washington gives visitors a live-action look at life in an 1800s town.
- The Mosaic Templars Cultural Center in Little Rock, mosaictemplarscenter.com, exhibits’ showcase Arkansas’ African-American community and culture from the 1870s to the present.
- The Museum of Automobiles on Petit Jean Mountain outside Morrilton, museumofautos.com, showcases antique and classic cars.
- The Ozark Folk Center State Park in Mountain View, ozarkfolkcenter.com, features a recreated small town with miniature “stores” showcasing traditional crafts and music.
- Give your kids a glimpse into their parents’ and grandparents’ childhood at the World’s Largest Toy Museum in Branson; you’ll find details at worldslargesttoymuseum.com.
Thanks to the Association of Science-Technology Centers’ Travel Passport program, if you become a member of the Museum of Discovery, the Scott Family Amazeum or the Mid-America Science Museum, you get free admission to other association museums around the country that are more than 90 miles from your home museum. My family has used our Museum of Discovery membership for free admission to the Amazeum and to children’s museums in Missouri, Florida, and Tennessee. Find a full list of participating museums at astc.org.