Founded in 1913 by a well-meaning group of local science teachers, the Children's Museum in Boston was just another collection of things to look at until director Michael Spock arrived in 1961. The son of the late American paediatrician and childcare guru Benjamin Spock, he took out the glass cases of rocks and dusty taxidermy and turned the museum into a joyously interactive hands-on experience. In 1979, it moved from Jamaica Plain to new premises: a handsome 19th-century brick warehouse overlooking Boston Harbor's Fort Point Channel.
After nearly three decades of little feet trotting through its hallowed halls (it now attracts more than 400,000 visitors each year), the museum was outgrowing its building, and starting to show its age. But a $47 million restoration project, completed in spring 2007, including a glass-walled extension and a landscaped outdoor space, transformed the cramped, confusing layout into a series of light spacious open areas, with plenty of room for energetic kids. To children, it's like a vast indoor playground; little do they know how much they're learning in the process.
The centrepiece of the new-look museum is the New Balance Climb, a twisty, turning three-story climbing structure made of serpentine wires and curved plywood sails. (The third-floor exit is guarded by museum staff, who compel fast-footed children to wait for their puffing parents to catch up.) On the ground floor, the new Kid Power exhibit explores health and fitness, complete with climbing wall, bikes and an interactive light-up dance floor to stomp on. It's also home to the ever-popular Science Playground, where young researchers can sit under a glass-bottomed turtle tank, create walls of bubbles or make a maze for rolling golf balls down the wall.
If the kids ever get past ground level (and there's a good chance they won't), they can learn about currents by steering boats through a 28-foot reproduction of the Fort Point Channel in Boats Afloat. Young pilots may prefer climbing into the model cockpit in the Arthur's World exhibit, hosted by television's most charismatic aardvark, before a story in the reading corner. Creative kids can make a mess at the Art Studio, or visit the Recycle Shop to buy odd pieces of plastic, papers, and string for their sculptural masterpieces.
In the new 3,000-square-foot space called the Common, families can regroup and debate what to visit next—or try out the electronic musical chairs, play a giant game of chess and swat at virtual marbles projected on a wall. For under-threes, meanwhile, there's the smaller, gentler Playspace, which has toddler-friendly amusements such as toy trains and an aquarium, as well as a special room for nursing babies. Themes range from global to locally oriented; on the top floor, the Boston Black area explores the city's ethnic diversity—kids can play steel drums for an Afro-Caribbean parade or go shopping in a Dominican grocery store. Next to it is a 100-year old Japanese house from Kyoto, which they can explore as long as they respectfully remove their shoes first. Even the giant Hood Milk Bottle outside, which dispenses sandwiches and ice-cream in summer, has been given a refurb along with the grounds. The 73-year-old, 40-foot-high structure, which started life as a drive-in fast-food joint on Route 44, is a well-loved Boston landmark.