Gilbert House is in Salem, Oregon. It is an outstanding children’s museum, with 15 exhibit spaces spread throughout multiple buildings – all historical houses – plus 20,000 square feet of outdoor activities.
The museum is named after A.C. Gilbert, a scholar, Olympic gold medalist, entrepreneur, magician, and inventor of many things, including the Erector Set.
Here are the exhibits you’ll find at Gilbert House (click on any link to learn more, and click on any picture below for a larger image):
- Main Street for pretend play at the bakery, the farmer’s market and the hardware store
- Creative Space with a fun art project of the day
- Salem Station for the train and bus enthusiasts
- Recollections – dance around and see the colorful images projected on the wall
- AC Gilbert’s Legacy of Play – a historical exhibit about the museum’s founder
- Gilbert Engineering Studio – a tinkering studio for building cool stuff
- All About Me – explore the health sciences
- Farm to Table – pick pears and corn, dig potatoes, gather eggs, ride a tractor
- Up, Up and Away – go on a plane ride, and build flyers for a wind tube
- Lights! Camera! Action! – play in a green screen theater
- Tinker Tracks – build roller coaster ramps for balls
- Submarine – pretend to go under the sea
- Grandma’s Clubhouse – the blue block room
- Fortopia – fort building heaven
- Veterinarian Clinic – pretend to be a vet and care for the stuffed animals
- Forest Friends Toddler Room – for a quiet break
- Outdoor Play: A.C’s Backyard and Discovery Campground
The first exhibit you’ll encounter has lots of opportunities for hands-on pretend play: there’s a bakery with a cash register, products to sell and a table for your “customers”. The hardware store teaches about tools, and has a workbench to try out your skills. The farmer’s market has plenty of produce, a scale for weighing and a cash register. On the wall is an ATM where you can check your balance and “withdraw cash.”
[bakery, hardware, farmer’s market, ATM]
They have a “project of the day” set-up where they have out a sample, and all the materials you need to re-create it. On the day we were there, they had a camping tent with craft sticks, and this clever “flashlight finder.” Pro Tip: Although this room is right next to the front desk, save it for last so you don’t have to carry your project with you all day, like we did!
There is also a sensory bin full of colored rice in this room – it can be handy if you have a toddler to distract while an older child is working on an art project.
This exhibit centers around a big pretend bus, and has a small train table for building on, and Tegu magnetic blocks on a magnet wall. The model train was out of order on the day we were there.
Kids play in front of a screen, a video camera captures their silhouette and projects it in color. It time delays – keeping several images up at once, so you can see a history of the child’s movement. It is super cool for people of any age to play with and explore. There’s one similar to this at Imagine Children’s Museum in Everett, WA. I like that at this one they had a couple props – a hula hoop and a twirling baton so you could explore the interaction of these shapes with your silhouette. (I do wonder how many kids get conked in the head by another kid swinging the baton around…) Here are some images I captured, and a video to give you a clearer sense of this experience.
AC Gilbert’s Legacy of Play
Learn about AC Gilbert, his participation in the Olympics, his magic tricks and his inventions. Includes displays of period ads and packaging for the original Erector set. This exhibit is more appealing to grown-ups than kids. My partner and I took turns checking out this exhibit while the other one was keeping an eye on our son in the playground just outside the door.
Gilbert Engineering Studio
This is a space for building and tinkering. There’s a Build It room where guests can construct whatever they would like. There are drawers full of materials (like cardboard boxes, egg cartons, plastic lids). The tables are stocked with scissors and tape, and there’s a hot glue gun on the counter. There’s also a display shelf of some of the cool creations by previous visitors. Note: this room has no directions about what to do – I think it would benefit from having some kind of an “invitation to play” even if it was just a sign saying “Can you build a castle?” or “Try building a robot!” Kids can always ignore the prompt if they have their own ideas, but sometimes an idea gets them started.
In the other room, each month they have a different theme for what to build. They give prompts and offer materials to challenge the kids to build. This month, it was Mazes. There were Keva blocks and wooden cars, with the prompt “design a maze for the cars.” The next table had big cardboard squares, plastic bendy straws, tape, and marbles, plus the prompt “Design a marble maze to take home.” The third table had Hexbugs and Hexbug mazes and challenged you to “build a maze for the hexbugs”. That was lots of fun for me and my son. But we also had fun taking the Hexbugs over and running them through the straw marble mazes, and through the Keva block mazes. (I now want to buy Hexbugs as a supplement to the building toys in our classroom! They would enhance building play to have a “critter” to run around in what you build.)
All About Me
This was a health sciences exhibit. There was an interactive exhibit to show how the ear hears sound, some pretend play opportunities (lab coats, stethoscopes, reflex hammers, a scale, and baby doll patients), a couple of radiology exhibits where you could view several x-rays, and my favorite, a giant size Operation game. (The Operation game had life-like organs which is really cool, but it would have benefited a lot from having a key – a diagram which showed which organ was which so you knew which item to put in the “lungs” slot and which to put in the “stomach” slot. Lots of adults can’t tell realistic organs apart from each other.)
Farm to Table
Most children’s museums have farm exhibits. I thought this one had a really nice array of activities, and was quite well done. There were lovely murals on the wall, including a wheel to spin to see what the weather is. There was a list of tasks to try “milk the cow, gather eggs, harvest fruit.” Toy tractors to ride, a cow statue to pretend to milk. A sensory bin full of shredded rubber that you could bury plastic carrots and potatoes in to dig up. (Note: this sensory material was thick and chunky and hard to dig and bury things in – I think they’d benefit from a different material to help this great idea work a little better.) There was a corn field mural with pockets for plastic corn to harvest, a pear tree to gather pears from, and a chicken coop for gathering and counting eggs. Plus a table for serving a harvest meal to your family.
Up, Up and Away
There is a model plane with space for passengers (with ashtrays in the plane seat armrests – remember that???) Plus a cockpit area for the pilot and co-pilot. They had wind tubes to fly scarves in. There were cut-up pool noodle pieces that you could use to build flying structures which was a super cool idea, but they were pretty torn up and could use some new supplies.
Lights! Camera! Action!
This was a green screen theater. So, kids could go on stage and act things out and see their images projected onto various scenes on a screen. There were green fabric drapes they could cover themselves in to make themselves invisible, and some other props as well. My 8 year old LOVED this activity. We played there a lot on our first time around, then we got the green Kermit from our car to see how he worked with the green screen and we played some more.
This room had a ball wall, magnetic gears and a “pachinko machine”. Always fun for engineering play.
A fun exhibit in the hallway!
This was full of big blue blocks to build with. One family had been in there for a long time building this cool big bed and hanging out on it.
This was a room filled with props for building blanket forts – there were chairs, stands, hooks on the wall, clothespins, smaller blankets and big swaths of light weight fabric. There was also a fun loft to add to the building fun. (FYI, There’s a similar exhibit at the Children’s Museum of Phoenix.)
Comes equipped with a reception desk with computer and phone, scrubs for dress-up, stethoscopes, bandages and “cones of shame”, and plenty of stuffed animal patients.
Forest Friends Toddler Room
If toddlers need a break from the loudness and busy-ness of the big kids, this room is available for ages 2 and under. Note: there’s also a nursing room just off Tinker Tracks for breastfeeding parents who want privacy, though the website is clear that it is fine for parents to nurse anywhere at the museum.
The museum has a MASSIVE outdoor area with lots to to explore. Being able to return here again and again would be worth the price of a membership for locals. There’s the Erector Set Tower, a 52 foot tower with two slides (one is 2 stories tall!). A train shaped climber and a paddle boat shaped climber. A mammoth dig sandbox with a paleontology deck. A tiny village of homes modeled on global dwellings. A garden and an amphitheater. Tall poles to climb, marimbas to play, and nests to examine. The Discovery Campground, an adventure playground with logs to cross, stumps to hop, rocks to climb, and tunnels to explore
In August 2019, admission is $8 (under 1 year is free). Closed Mondays during the school year. Check the website for current info: https://acgilbert.org/admission-hours/
They have outdoor picnic areas where you can eat your own lunch, or there are some snacks available in the gift shop. There are no lockers, so don’t plan to bring much stuff in to the museum.
Accessibility: The buildings are historic houses – the ground floors are accessible, but the majority of the indoor exhibits are on the second floors and are NOT accessible to anyone who cannot climb stairs – they do offer half price admission to people who can not access the upstairs exhibits. (Don’t bring a stroller as it can’t go upstairs either.) The outdoor area is accessible. They offer noise-cancelling headphones at the front desk for people with sensory issues.
We were there on a Saturday in summer – there were plenty of people but it was not crowded, and parking was easy. (Apparently parking can be a challenge if there are events in the area.)
More STEM Destinations
We visited ScienceWorks as part of our “Road Trip of Science.” You can learn more about other science and engineering related museums we’ve visited in the Destinations section of this blog.
If you’re local to Salem and looking for more activities, or are planning a family trip to the area, the Gilbert House website has a list of ideas to help you Plan a Kid-Friendly Trip to Salem Oregon.
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