This review is part of my “destinations” series.
The Children’s Museum of Phoenix is in downtown Phoenix, housed in a historic school building. Activities include:
- big motor play: the Climber, riding trikes in Pedal Power, catching scarves at Whoosh, playing outdoors at Move It, playing Hide and Seek in the Noodle Forest
- imaginative play in The Market and Texture Cafe
- building in Block Mania, and constructing forts in Building Big
- exploring physics in the Grand Ballroom and the Pit Stop
- creating personal expressions in the Art Studio and Face Painting, and expressing creativity in the theatre and puppet theatre, and
- quiet time in the Book Loft
The museum participates in a program called PAL – Partners to Assist in Learning, which supports visitors with autism, anxiety, and other learning differences. Check out their PAL video which provides a nice overview of what to expect when attending, and also offers tips about what parts of the museum might cause sensory overload for some kids and where they can take breaks. My son is autistic, and having this information in advance was very reassuring for him and I think it’s just helpful for all parents! (Here’s hoping the PAL program spreads far and wide… right now it seems to be primarily a Phoenix area thing.)
*On the museum’s website, they also have “360 degree videos” of some of their exhibits. I have starred those below. (Note: if you haven’t used this style of video before… while watching, put your cursor on top of the video – you’ll see a hand… drag it around to the right to turn where the camera is pointing.)
Exhibits / Activities
The first thing you notice when you arrive! A three story climber, built from found objects and standard building materials. My son is a very physically active boy who has tried many climbers in his time, and thought this one was a lot of fun to explore.
What I appreciate: At many children’s museums and other kids’ activities, the climber is only designed for child-sized bodies. If you have a very young child or an anxious child who needs companionship, you have to contort your grown-up size body to move through the space with them, or extract them if they become upset. In this climber, adults can climb with the kids while standing up tall in most spaces. I am handicapped – I have one leg and use crutches, and I could do most of the climber on my crutches (though it should be noted that the floor tips at odd angles in many places, and wouldn’t work for a novice on crutches). There were a few places adults have to get down and clamber a bit.
Rules for the climber: Some people complain about these rules in Yelp reviews, so it’s important to be aware of them in advance: You cannot carry kids / babies in your arms or carriers and cannot carry purses or backpacks. (So, don’t bring a lot of valuables into the museum with you.) Shoes are required in the climber, but no high heels.
A wall full of tubes and pipes, where kids insert scarves and they’re blown/sucked up, down, and around, until they come flying out from 20 feet high, then float to the ground. (Check out my tutorial for a DIY “scarf cannon”.) When my son was three or four, he could play with these for hours. (Upstairs, there’s a smaller version of this, with fabric pompom-like balls to send through it.)
They also had this smaller activity, where you could float a ping-pong ball on a current of air. This was fun, but most of the parts were permanently attached together, so I wished there had been more build-ability and that it was down a little lower so it was easier for kids to reach to build.
There were diverse building materials here – from small Keva-style wooden blocks to larger foam blocks, and magnet gears on a metal wall. They encouraged group building projects or independent play.
A station with mirrors and face painting crayons.
I call this a Turing Tumble, though it’s a little different than that actual product. You insert wooden tokens at the top, and they tumble down to the bottom. You can “flip the switches” to re-direct their paths.
This is a fort building room, where there are several structures to inspire a fort and provide the foundation for it.
There are also blankets that kids can lay over those structures, and attach to hooks so support the “wall” or “roof” that the blanket creates. There’s an area just for baby and toddler play too, with “hidey holes” to climb in and out of.
A trike riding area, where kids can ride through a tunnel and through a “car wash.”
Place for Threes and Younger
Since we were there with an 8 year old, we didn’t explore this space, but the photos should give you some idea of all the cool activities you will find there. One end of the space is gated off so it’s harder for toddlers to escape unseen, and when we were there, there was a staff member monitoring the entrance at the other end.
Art Studio: Creative Expressions
There were shelves filled with miscellaneous materials, and tables with miscellaneous art supplies: tape, glue, scissors, paper, markers. Kids were encouraged to gather a basket of materials and create with them. There was one table where kids were encouraged to paint the parts of a plant. And a giant robot sculpture for cooperative large motor painting.
There was also a special robot building activity you could pay extra for. (Was it $5? $15? I can’t remember – we didn’t do it.) The robot bodies were plastic tubs and bottles spray-painted silver. They had a variety of specialty materials to decorate the robots with. And my favorite part: eyes made with coin batteries and LED Lights.
There was another studio / kitchen with a free “sink or float” activity the day that we were there. There was a museum employee with a tub of water and lots of items. She’d ask kids to pick an item, predict whether it would sink or float, and let them test it.
We’ve been to a lot of children’s museums and seen a lot of pretend grocery stores, and this was one of the best! There was a conveyor belt, grocery carts, well stocked shelves, fabric “baked goods” and a checkout line with a moving belt. There was a “sensory bin” of rice, with scoops and scales. The cans had labels on them so you could sort them between the ones that said “this is a fruit” and “this is a vegetable” and more.
In the hallway, there were silk flowers to “plant”, and this aroma tower, where you opened drawers and smelled the aroma. (Contents included: cinnamon, cloves, star anise, lavender, fennel, and more.) There was an “ice cream stand” and a “hot dog cart” with plenty of pretend food to prepare and share.
We skimmed through this area – it looked great though!
The pizza oven came with a big wooden peel so kids could lift a “pizza” out of the oven. The website says this space uses fabrics for pretend play: “green velvet for salad, scraps of silk for spaghetti.”
There were a few ball tracks that are all set up, and you drop the ball in and watch it roll down. One was mounted high on the wall, circling the room, and kids could climb up on a high platform to start the ball rolling down and around. This wood track was beautiful, and the metal dishes mounted on it made really nice sounds when the wooden balls hit. There was also a metal wall and magnetic pipes and components so kids could build their own ball mazes. (This type of activity is one of my very favorite tinkering activities. You can also build your own ball wall.)
This had cars built from pipes and roller skate wheels. (They may have been heavy metal pipes, or maybe they were plastic with some weights inside….) There were 3 levels of racetracks – kids climb up onto the platform and launch the cars. Each course was a pair of racetracks so you could race a buddy. Check out this video (more videos here and here)
This area also had some toy cars to sit in, including this cool sculpture, and a “wheels on the bus” display where they could make the wheels go round, the doors go open and shut, the wipers go swish…
There were over a thousand foam pool noodles hanging from the ceiling. You push your way through them. There are a couple “clearings” in the middle if you need a break from the forest. There are signs saying to “walk” in many languages. When we were there, most kids were walking and if they started getting a little wild, parents reminded them to. But Yelp reviewers say that sometimes kids run wild in there and they worry about crashes.
Theater and puppet theater
I’m glad I took pictures of these, since I don’t think they even appear on their website. There was a dress-up area for choosing a costume, a stage with a curtain and lights for a performance (and stools for the audience), plus a rack of puppets and a puppet theatre.
This area was comfy and cozy, with lots of books to choose from. They do story time there every day. There were also theme-related story books at various exhibits throughout the museum.
Move It! Sand Play and Garden
Outdoors, there was a large tube to climb through, platforms to climb on, a bell to ring, a couple of trikes / ride-upons, lots of sand play areas (including a wheelchair accessible “sand table”), and a slide.
Throughout the museum, they have “baby zones” full of soft toys and non-chokeable objects so that if a family is visiting with an older child and a crawling baby/wobbly toddler the parents can “contain” the young one in one of these safe spaces while they play nearby with the older child. (In the Place for Threes and Younger they have a “Big Kid Zone” where kids can read, play with toys and do puzzles while parent is with younger sibling.) The baby zone in the book area had a rocking chair and a breastfeeding pillow for breaks for little ones who need a quiet space for nursing.
Educational Content / Philosophy
There are no signs directing how to interact with the exhibits. They say “this is because children inherently know how to play and learn in a way that is appropriate for them at their current level.”
I agree that kids tend to just jump in and play. But I think that PARENTS sometimes benefit from signs… not signs with “important facts to teach your children today whether or not they are in the mood for learning them” but “here are some suggestions for ways to help you as a parent be more engaged in your child’s play” and “here are some questions you could ask your child about their learning process.”
They DO have tip sheets on their website for several activities, so you could check those out in advance. For example, the noodle forest tip sheet says “You can help your child develop descriptive language skills when you ask him/her to describe the experience. As you walk through the noodles, what does it sound like? Does the sound remind you of something else? How do the noodles feel against your skin?” Art Studio Tips include “ask your child about his/her artwork. Be careful not to assume you know what s/he is creating. You could start by saying, ‘Tell me the story of your painting,’ or, ‘Share with me what you are making with the playdough.’ Praise is not necessary as genuine interest says so much more. ”
The tip sheets also tell the parents more about what their child is learning in each experience, like the book loft tip of “In the developmental process of learning to read, listening comprehension comes before reading comprehension. Starting at birth, it is important to talk to and read aloud with your child to build a strong foundation for language and literacy.” On their website, they have a statement about their educational principles and beliefs that guide exhibit design.
The Practical Details
They have a cafe called Spoonz Express. They had a nice variety of kid foods – PBJ, cheese pizza, goldfish crackers, and so on. For adults, they had a nice range of sandwiches and salads and drinks.
You are also welcome to bring in your own food and drink to eat in designated areas.
Time to Visit
After 2 hours, we’d had a good first look at all the activities there. We stayed for three hours total, including lunch time. If we’d wanted to stay longer, we could have easily spent more time building or doing art or reading books.
We were visiting from another part of the country, so it was a one-time visit for us. But, ideally all children’s museums have replay value – they’re fun to go to over and over again, and worth getting an annual membership to. I’ve seen a few children’s museums fail at this – when they focus on “educational displays” but don’t think about how a child would play there. I think this museum excels at this replayability – I feel like ALL of their activities would be fun to revisit many times and encourage free open-ended play. The annual membership fee is equal to just a bit more than 4 visits, and I can absolutely see bringing a child back more than 4 times! (When my son was younger, I loved having the membership to our local children’s museum so we could go anytime we were getting cabin fever at home.
Hours & Fee (current as of April 2019)
Tuesday – Sunday, 9 – 4.
$14.95 per person (age 1 – 61), seniors 62+ are $13.95. Infants under age 1 are free. Note: in Yelp reviews of every children’s museum, someone complains that parents have to pay admission – the reviewers think they should only have to pay for the child. But that’s not the way movies work, or planes work, or Disneyland works, so I don’t think it’s fair to expect that here. And your entrance fee goes to support having this resource available to a community, so I personally believe it to be money well spent.
Location: 215 N. 7th St in downtown Phoenix. Free on-site parking.
This was a very nice children’s museum, bigger than most, all well designed, all well maintained and clean. We had a very positive experience there and would recommend it to anyone visiting the Phoenix area.
Find More Destinations
Learn about other children’s museums, science museums, and hands-on STEM experiences for kids at https://inventorsoftomorrow.com/2019/04/15/destinations/.
For hands-on activities you can do at home, just check out any of my “themes” – they all include recommended songs, books, crafts, building projects, imaginary play themes, and science experiments.