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The Best Children’s Museums in the World, for Kids and Adults

If you’re a parent who heaves a sigh at the thought of a children’s museum, we get you. You’re picturing white knee socks calamitously colliding with vinyl backpacks, snack boxes, and overpriced, oversugared snacks. You’re imagining bright, and loud, and designed without much thought to the physical learning environment beyond the placement of the gift shop.

Well, things have changed. In recent years, cities have begun approaching the design  of these buildings as ambitiously as they approach the educational content within. This new crop of children’s museums is designed with an eye toward creating an ideal learning environment for children. Research on spatial design and its impact on learning abounds, so architects have had a suite of established principles and tools to choose from when designing spaces that encourage exploration and curiosity, making use of activity corners, breakout nodes, sliding or convertible spaces, and multiple and easy ingress/egress points.

The result has been museums that not only excel at providing a safe and engaging physical learning environment for children, but also thrill architecture buffs the world over — ultimate proof that family holidays need not be divided into kids’ activities and parents’ activities. Here are our top picks of best children’s museums, according to design.

Best new children’s museums, by architecture

The Muzeiko (Sofia, Bulgaria)

The Muzeiko in Sofia is a stunning merger of design and learning. The design echoes its location: undulating waves of glass are meant to evoke the rugged terrain of Bulgaria’s countryside, and the colors have been chosen to represent various national handicrafts. And yet, this museum is global in its educational aspirations; the spaces are split into Past, Present, and Future exhibits, leading children through an exploration of time and space, with a combination of indoor and outdoor spaces.

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh (Pittsburgh, USA)

The Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh is a stunning example of architecture’s ability to merge and transform existing structures. Two historic buildings, a post office building and a planetarium, were joined to create a super structure with enormous glassed-in spaces. The new structure is a giant, dynamic wind sculpture, created by an environmental artist. The entire building lights up at night like a giant lantern. The museum is, of course, filled with interactive exhibits, including one called “Play with Real Stuff,” and there’s a garden where kids can plant seeds, and also learn about healthy eating habits.

The Incheon Children’s Science Museum (Incheon, South Korea)

The Incheon Children’s Science Museum looks like a giant rainbow sponge. We’re not being glib, there’s a reason for it; the metaphor of a child’s brain as a sponge was actually part of the design for this building. Because of its relatively remote location, the architects had to consider the interplay between outdoor and indoor space differently than with an urban museum, and the result is a series of huge windows, and a rooftop full of flattened steps that make up an outdoor theater.

Brooklyn Children’s Museum (New York, USA)

The recent revamp of a neighborhood favorite has officially put this building on the architecture lover’s map. The new design, which added a floor and a significant redesign of the facade, has incorporated a shell, composed of almost two million small yellow tiles, around the preexisting structure. The interior spaces were reimagined to provide easier access to spaces and wider avenues for exploration. It’s a clever and exciting update of an old neighborhood favorite.

Glazer Children’s Museum (Tampa, USA)

This new children’s museum in Tampa, Florida, is part of a community revitalization project at the start of a new riverfront walkway. As with all children’s museum architecture, this one focuses heavily on the interplay between indoor and outdoor space, and there are the usual interactive exhibits that encourage STEM learning. However, we’re most intrigued by this institution’s heavy reliance on its surroundings — the coolest exhibit by far is the replica of the Tampa port, allowing kids to engage with all the inner workings of the port city they live in, but kid-sized.

Papalote Verde (Monterrey, Mexico)

As far as we can tell, this ambitious project, undertaken in 2012 and slated for completion in 2015, is actually not yet complete, though the buzz around it has been substantial. This project is a reimagination of an existing structure (one of our favorite architectural undertakings); it’s an old foundry, reimagined as a celebration of mother earth. As such, more than half of the museum is actually underground, making the interaction with the planet literal.  This theme runs through the planned exhibits as well, and the central atrium, designed with curved glass, brings the outside world directly into the heart of the museum structure. We can’t comment on the exhibits and program yet, but from the plans, this one looks like it will top architecture-lovers’ lists.

FRida & freD (Graz, Austria)

A list of the best children’s museum architecture wouldn’t be complete without a reference to the city in Austria that UNESCO has dubbed a City of Design.  The FRida & freD museum in Graz is a stunning building, with a large steel-clad roof that seemingly floats on a horizontal strip of glass.  It is visually arresting in its top-heaviness, but also perfectly integrated into the low roofs of the older buildings surrounding it. We particularly love the museum’s mission to encourage children to be responsible citizens, and, through its theater, laboratory, and traveling exhibits, to inculcate values like inclusivity, tolerance, and appreciation for diversity.

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