Wooden educational toys are rarely kids’ favourite, pushed aside for video games and water guns. But that isn’t true about educational museums, especially those disguised as handson fun with bright colours, touchable textures and several floors of distractions.
When the weather outside is frightful, give everyone a break, head to any family-friendly museum that will entertain, and sneak a little learning into the mix. Whether you’re planning a day trip close to home, or visiting family out of town, here are just a few suggestions if you’re in and around these towns:
The Canadian Children’s Museum in the Museum of Civilization, Gatineau, Québec
The nearby Museum of Civilization in Gatineau, Québec (so close you won’t realize you left Ottawa) offers a day of indoor amusement, especially at its Canadian Children’s Museum, a museum within a museum so well stocked it takes the pressure off parents too.
This children’s museum stretches well beyond the boundaries of the Great White North.
Grab a “passport” and tour the world: Kids can pretend to serve tea at a Japanese teahouse, board a brightly decorated Moroccan bus, sit in an Asian motorcycle taxi and climb inside Egyptian pyramids while dressed in garb appropriate for desert crossing.
Most popular seems to be the cargo boat play area where kids can push and pull pulleys — and each other without much risk of injury — while pretending to unload cargo ships from around the world. (www.civilization.ca)
The Canadian Museum of Nature, Ottawa, Ontario
The Canadian Museum of Nature in Ottawa is a traditional museum of stuffed birds and mammals behind glass that’s gotten a 21st-century boost recently in the form of a six-year
renovation project that updated the facility inside and out — especially out.
The “lantern” front of this stone building is sheer glass, flooding light into the stairwell that links five floors of educational content that will have you remembering every school trip you ever endured a school bus ride to enjoy. Some exhibits are more traditional than others. But the highlights are the stuffed animals that roam the Canadian plains and the northern tundra: caribou, polar bear, wolves and even penguins — animals difficult to get up close and personal with any other way.
Speaking of which, 36 dinosaur skeletons are nearby in the recreated dino forest where plastic models of the great beasts loom over the tiny homosapiens that sheepishly walk beneath
them. But if you really want to feel small, stroll under the gallery-long blue whale skeleton hanging from the ceiling in the sea exhibit. It’s one of only two in Canada. (www.nature.ca)
Ontario Science Centre, Toronto, Ontario
One of the best hands-on learning facilities in the country, the Ontario Science Centre has remained relevant — and educational — for four decades. Anyone who’s grown up in Southern Ontario during the last 40 years probably has fond memories of school trips to the Science Centre, particularly the chance to watch someone’s hair stand on end at the static electricity demonstration (still a popular photo opportunity). And during this time, the centre has changed with the zeitgeist, adding new exhibitions, particularly about climate and the environment, attracting popular touring shows like Body Worlds and Harry Potter, and generally keeping the place updated.The IMAX dome (still the only dome in Ontario) opened in 1996. Shows change frequently throughout the year. Also, the Weston Family Innovation Centre (level 6) was added
in 2007 as part of a $47.5 million dollar transformation. Past the shiny white entrance lobby with fibre optic lighting constantly changing colour, participants are inspired by “outside-the-box” ideas like 3D wallpaper, hemp Astroturf, and robotic joints to hopefully acquire more scientific knowledge to solve some of the world’s problems, both big and small. (www.ontariosciencecentre.ca)
Science North, Sudbury, Ontario
There are few animal ambassadors more charming than Quillan the Porcupine and each day at about 3 p.m. he’s lifted out of his enclosure by a handler and fed treats like broccoli. Spectators are invited to step forward and carefully stroke Quillan’s back as he munches. This is one of the many hands-on experiences at Science North in Sudbury, one of two experiential museums, that makes a stop on a long northern drive worth it. Science North is the city’s main attraction since it opened in 1984 and it’s open all year-round. There are four floors of educational activities, exhibitions and woodland creatures such as Quillan and his nearby friend, Rosie the skunk, in the newly updated Northern Landscape section.
The objective, of course, is to learn about space, nature, science, the biosphere and the human body. (“Sounds of the Body” — complete with fart, burp and hiccup — is particularly amusing.) You can also walk among free flying butterflies at the small but captivating F. Jean MacLeod Butterfly Gallery or fly like the wind at “Wings Over the North: a 4D Bush Plane Adventure”. There’s also an IMAX theatre. (www.sciencenorth.ca)
London Regional Children’s Museum, London, Ontario
Is it possible to create a kid-friendly museum without dinosaurs? Not likely, so the London Regional Children’s Museum put them at the entrance. Kids (and others) crawl through a tunnel-like cave that exits into the dino den. Here, replica fossils loom along walls and no kid, big or small, can resist the sand pit with small shovels and brushes inviting visitors to get in touch with their inner palaeontologist. And that’s only the beginning.
On the top floor, things get out of this world. Aspiring astronauts can don silver vests and climb aboard a space shuttle replica. There’s a NASA video feed and a small planetarium show, along with a ride-able Mars Rover and a piece of an actual moon rock. The London Regional Children’s Museum is the first of its kind in Canada, opening about 30 years ago in a former public school old enough to have separate boys’ and girls’ entrances. A revolutionary concept in its time, now here the museum stands. It’s not as shiny or technologically riddled as some of its newer counterparts, but kids don’t seem to notice. (www.londonchildrensmuseum.ca)