Hands-On is in Olympia, Washington. This is really an excellent children’s museum, and well worth a day trip down from Seattle / Tacoma area or up from Portland.
- Good For You – Farm and Farmer’s Market theme plus a play-cafe
- Our Puget Sound – climb on a cargo ship, move cargo with a crane, or build a little boat to float
- Emergency! Pretend play activities related to police, firefighter’s, and health care providers
- Tides to Trees Climber – a fun 2 story climber plus aerie
- Arts & Parts Studio and Makespace – two workspaces full of all the supplies and tools you need to create beautiful art and fun contraptions
- Our Fabulous Forest – camping themed pretend play, story nook, and theater, plus an animal rescue clinic
- Build It – a rock quarry and playhouse building supplies
- Move It – a scarf wall and air rocket launchers
- Snug Harbor – a space for kids age 4 and under, which includes a climber, beach area, train table, dress-up, book nook, sensory table, play-dough and painting
- Sensory Room – a calm-down quiet play room for anyone, but especially for autistic children and other kids with sensory challenges
- Outdoor Discovery Center – a huge area including a chalk castle, trikes to ride, gravel to dig, water to pour, a mud cafe, driftwood forts, and lots more!
Their website is much more informative than many other museums, and includes copies of the museum map, and a virtual tour so you can see more of what you’ll experience. Here’s my tour:
Good For You
This exhibit is themed around healthy fresh food, and healthy eating. The farm includes: a vintage truck to play in, a house with a play kitchen and a dining table for serving your family, a goat statue and some chickens. Children can gather apples from the tree into their apple baskets, or pick carrots or potatoes from the garden.
In the farmer’s market / grocery area, there’s a flower stand with ribbons for tying your bouquets. There’s a cash register for ringing up purchases, plus plastic food to weigh and to sort into categories, with the dairy case, bakery case, produce area and fishmonger zone. Next door is the 14 carrot cafe, a play cafe, where children can pretend to make and serve meals to their “customers”. I only got a picture from above, but there are better pictures on their website.
Our Puget Sound
Climb on a cargo ship. Crawl into the hull of the cargo ship to see undersea life. Operate a crane, or play in the water table. I really liked the make-a-boat activity paired with the water table! The train table nearby had some pre-built tracks and then an area for you to build your own tracks. They had a digital microscope and specimens in petri dishes. Of all the microscope exhibits we’ve seen at children’s museums, this was the best in terms of producing a clear focused image it was easy for kids to observe.
We also loved the Ballcano! It combines lots of my son’s favorite activities. You put a plastic ball into a tube where a column of air pushes the ball from one tube to another, then you pull a rope, and it launches the ball way up high, then the ball lands in a water vortex and spins around then is spit out! So cool. (Note, you can click on any picture for a larger image.
This area allows kids to try dressing up as a police officer, a firefighter, an EMT, or a firehouse dalmatian! They can ride in a police car, fire truck, medic one van, or airlift helicopter. Or hide in the doghouse with your puppy friend.
They can take care of patients in the baby nursery or do a check up on a family member in the ER.
Also in this area, they can measure how many decibels of sound they can produce in the Scream Room. They can play I-Spy. They can explore a giant light bright (not sure why it’s in this area, but it’s fun.) There was a room with some magnetic blocks in it that seemed strangely underutilized, but I notice that on the map it mentions travelling exhibits go in this space, and I think it may be where they do activities for dental health month.
Tides to Trees Climber
This is a beautiful and fun climber for kids maybe 3 and up? 4 and up?
A cautionary note: If you have young children or children with autism or other issues, two story climbers can be tricky. Your child can climb up the climber faster than you can get up the stairs, and can slide down faster than you can walk down. Then they could run off from the slide area before you caught up with them and might be hard to locate. You may want to stop them before they go on the climber to have a conversation about the importance of waiting for you at the top or bottom and not running off.
Arts and Parts Studio
This is a free form art studio, where they had tables stocked with basic art supplies (tape, glue, markers, scissors), bins full of assorted materials to choose from, drying racks for storing completed works, and several sample projects from past visitors for inspiration. As a one-time visitor, we didn’t spend any time here, but I imagine for members with kids age 4 and up, this room alone could make it worth coming to the museum again and again.
The Makespace is open for part of the day on Friday, Saturday and Sunday. They have craft projects, and have the tools to build with, such as hot glue guns, sewing machines, and more. Here are some sample projects they had on display.
When we visited, they were doing shrinky dinks inspired by the glass art of Dale Chihuly. They had clear containers made from #6 plastic that the kids colored on with Sharpies, then put in a toaster oven so they curled up, then glued them to a CD as a display stand. This was a super fun project, and would be a great way of reclaiming items from the recycling bin or trash. (Clean takeout containers, and obsolete CD-Roms.) But they were using all fresh consumer goods, which isn’t ideal. (I’m a huge fan of hands-on kids’ projects, but also try to figure out ways to minimize the environmental impact of kids’ crafts.)
Our Fabulous Forest
This area is decorated like you’re out in the woods. It has a camping themed pretend play area, and a reading nook.
It contains the wind tubes, which had a fun parachute build project with them, and a musical bench. There is a theater space for pretend play, with a box office, stage, and dress-up clothes backstage. On the day we visited, it also had a “sock skating” activity where kids could take their shoes off and slide around on a plastic “rink”.
Just off the forest area, there’s a room for veterinarian themed pretend play that is based on the idea of wildlife rescue.
The construction play area had a rock quarry with a bulldozer to pretend to drive, foam rocks and wheelbarrows to transport them in. There was a tool display area which has labels to explain what the tools were for, and a building area with these cool interlocking blocks. (Note, I did some searching to learn what these blocks are… I think they’re Builder Blocks from Earth Play, which are super cool but pricey. At almost $1000 for a mini set, they may be in the price range for a children’s museum, but not most individuals. Here’s a post on DIY blocks, or for a cheap lower quality fort builder option, look at Fantasy Fort or Build-Abouts.)
They had a giant size pin art board, where you press on one side to push the pins through to the other side. They had a “scarf poof” – a wall full of tubes and doors, where you can push in a scarf and it flies through all the tubes and shoots out somewhere and floats down. (You can build a mini version of this with a shop fan and a dryer tube.) They had something we hadn’t seen elsewhere: big pompom like balls to send through along with the scarves. This was a fun variant.
They also had an air rockets station, where you wrap paper around a tube and fold it over to make a rocket. (Optional: add a nosecone or wings.) Then you mount it on the launch tube, turn the crank to build the pressure and press the button to launch it. It was a fun activity for the kids, and we were entertained by how many rockets have embedded themselves in the ceiling above this activity!
Here’s a video of the air rockets in action:
For children age 4 and under. Since we were traveling with an 8 year old, I only took a quick peek through this area. There was a climber with a slide, a train table, a beach shack with dress-up clothes, a book nook, these cool displays set down into the floor (perfect for crawling babies to discover!), a “beach” to play in, a sensory bin of lentils, play-dough, and a light table. When my son was 2 and 3, we had a membership to a local museum with a similar collection of activities, and we went every week through the rainy Northwest winter!
Snug Classroom – Sensory Room
This was a space especially for autistic kids, or kids with sensory issues, to take a quiet break. Our son is autistic, and he wasn’t on overload yet, but spending a little while in this room helped us avoid that meltdown. They had things to spin in, plastic stepping stones, kids books about autistic children or other quirky kids, a play-dough station and a weaving activity.
In addition to the activities for kids, the room offered: signs explaining SPD and ASD, explaining stimming, and how spinning helps kids on the autism spectrum.
There were books for parents, and educational / support resources as well.
This room was special! This space made me feel embraced, welcomed and cared for. It told us that our family belonged there! The sensory room is usually open, though they occasionally have a class or special event in this room.
The museum also has a sensory friendly guide, they have sensory friendly events every Sunday morning from 9 – 11 which include special activities. (We arrived at 9:40 on a Sunday morning, and had about 20 minutes in the museum before they opened to the public, then the museum gradually got busier and busier. Our son did OK, but in the future, we’d work harder to get there right at 9 am to have more of that quiet time.) They also always have noise canceling headphones available to borrow.
Outdoor Discovery Center
This is a half acre of fun activities to explore!
You can draw a masterpiece in the chalk castle, borrow a bike from the trike depot, play with hula hoops, paint with water, or perhaps spot Bigfoot from the nursing gazebo.
There are lots of beach themed exhibits, including driftwood to climb on, driftwood to build a fort with, a mud cabin, a beach cabana, a lighthouse to climb up and get a view of Olympia’s East Bay. And, in August 2019, they opened a new exhibit (it was in its final stages of construction when we visited) called the Megan D – a vintage schooner to explore.
The Naturalist Cabin has outdoor education activities. When we visited, it was learning about tide pools.
There is also a Garden area, which includes lots of water play opportunities, and a Gravel Dig (when we first arrived, there were no toys in the dig area, but don’t worry, they’re coming!)
We spent 2.5 hours there. We could have probably stayed and played longer, but this was the last day of a ten day road trip, and we decided to head home and do laundry. On a Sunday in August, it was busy and loud, but not super crowded. If I were local to this museum, and had a kid anywhere between 1 and 9, I would definitely get a membership to this museum! There’s almost more than you can absorb in a day, and lots of things with high replay value that could be done again and again. As I said at the top, I think it’s also well worth a day trip down from Seattle or Tacoma area.
There is a Cafe at the museum, and it’s better than most! There’s real food (pizza, quesadillas, paninis, deli sandwiches, fruit, veggies, plus kid snacks) at not unreasonable prices. We had a quesadilla, caprese sandwich with salad, two sodas, milk, grapes, chips, and a cookie for $25.
There’s a coat closet where you can park strollers. You can rent a locker for $2. We found on-street parking for free, but there is also a paid parking lot for $1.50 per hour.
Other Nearby Destinations
East Bay Water Play
OK, we totally missed this when we visited. But right next door to the museum (and partially operated by the museum) is East Bay Public Plaza. Open April to October is a 250 stream for wading and playing in. (Learn more.)
Wet Science Center
A short walk from the museum is the Wet Science Center, which focuses on water, wastewater and water conservation. Watch a video to learn what to expect. Admission is free. They’re open Monday through Saturday. (We were at Hands-On on a Sunday so weren’t able to check it out.)
Road Trips in the Region
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 Washington and Oregon in the Destinations section of this blog.