Artful Play: Florida’s Kid-Friendly Museums and Creative Spaces
Finding a creative place where children can play is a joy – for kids, who get to explore, and for parents, who know that hands-on artistic experiences deliver valuable learning opportunities.
By Jodi Mailander Farrell
“I think it’s essential to expose your children to the arts in order to educate the whole person,” says South Florida mom Michelle Olson-Rogers, who hunts for screen-free theater and dance moments for her 2-year-old daughter, Avery, and shares her favorite finds with other parents at Modern Boca Mom.
“My experiences taking dance and music when I was a child helped shape the creative person I’d like to think I am today.”
From Jacksonville to Naples, there are plenty of places with cool stuff to touch, invigorating educational exhibits and special events designed to stimulate learning through the arts. Some of the spots favored by Florida parents aren’t always children’s museums. Adult-oriented museums like the Tampa Museum of Art and Museum of Contemporary Art in Jacksonville win points from moms like Marisa Langford for getting in on the act with child-centric play areas and family days.
“Start them young because they have a better chance of being able to grasp any kind of art form they put their mind to learning,” agrees Pensacola parenting blogger Toni Patton, mom to three children, ages 7 to 13. “Music, drawing and writing really help kids express themselves, and that’s an important lesson.”
Creative minds think alike. With help from in-the-know Florida parents, we’ve collected some favorite artful stops for families traveling in Florida.
With art interaction integrated into academic subjects such as math and reading, the YAA in the Fort Lauderdale suburb of Davie is beloved among South Florida moms because it was designed specifically for kids and uses art as a springboard for learning. The museum’s architecture and spaces were designed with input from famous artists with South Florida ties, such as Kenny Scharf and Edouard Duval Carrie. There are Mommy and Me workshops, weekly play dates and one-day camps, along with four galleries devoted to literacy, culture and history. There’s even a public library branch incorporated into the campus and an outdoor playground for pre-schoolers. A teen center caters to high school-age students, with a professional recording studio, creative writing classes and a poetry slam. You can sign up for age-appropriate classes in painting, drawing, mixed media, printmaking, photography, cartooning and pottery.
Located on the fifth floor of downtown Jacksonville’s contemporary art museum, the Art Explorium Loft encourages children of all ages to explore their creative side. The gallery is packed with interactive art stations. At one, kids create their own funny scarecrows using recycled household objects. Other stations promote exploration of textures, shapes, abstraction, body movement and more. There’s also a reading tent and a small library of art books. “You’ll leave inspired to go home and make art after you walk through the Florida Blue Education Gallery and view works of art made by kids in the Jacksonville area,” says Langford, who posts tips from traveling with her four kids, ages 2 to 10, on her website, AdventuresofTampaMama.com. “Kids can really relate to the art in this exhibit because they can see themselves making it.”
For your little techie, electronic stations in Art Connections, an internationally recognized interactive gallery, encourage children to explore the world of art and creation through child-sized, touch-friendly computer technology. There’s a dancing wall where your child’s image is blended with computer-generated effects and paintings via video screen. Artists share personal stories about their work, the steps they took to create it and what the piece means to them in videos connected to several pieces of art. Work off some steam afterward in the gorgeous gardens, where paths lead to beautiful views of the St. John’s River.
Located in scenic Depot Park in Gainesville, the Cade Museum for Creativity and Invention celebrates invention and wonder, immersing visitors in the creative process of inventors through exhibits and experiences. Build an invention at Edison’s Pile of Junk, get a little messy with an art project, and be sure to check out the Age of Electricity theme, guaranteed to deliver a charge with stories highlighting the lives and breakthroughs of Nikola Tesla, Thomas Edison and Lewis Latimer, an overlooked pioneer who perfected the filaments that keep your family’s lights on.
8001 S. Orange Blossom Trail
Inside the Florida Mall, this new family attraction has 25 hands-on activities. Kids can star on their own coloring pages, animate creations on a big digital projection or see how crayons are made in a live theater show. Personalize your own crayon and label as a take-home souvenir.
Hands-on stations for weaving and sculpting with magnets and clay are part of this 28-year-old museum’s Express Yourself Art Studio. In the Imagination Playground, children use giant blocks to build their own creations while live music and dance shows are on view in the Explorations Theater. Designed for children 10 and under, it’s filled with activities to stimulate learning through creativity, play and exploration.
Every Saturday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., the region’s largest museum devoted to art in our time features Art Spot, a free, drop-in art classroom where children explore their creativity by creating projects designed by art instructors. No registration required. Projects vary week to week to tie into exhibitions on view in the museum. On one recent Saturday, children made a Smudgy Silhouette, an oil pastel with negative space silhouettes. The museum also holds several Family Days each year, with drop-in docent-led tours, pay-as-you-go admission to the galleries and themed art projects for kids.
This toddler-friendly museum has 170 hands-on activities in 17 themed areas. There’s an Art Smart section where children can make their own kaleidoscope or noodle sculpture. They can redesign downtown Tampa in the museum's Design + Build area. Other popular areas include My House, Your House, which introduces children to other cultures. Langford and her four children recommend the Make It Monday program, which works with children to make an art project tied to weekly themes, such as Wizard of Oz-inspired Tin Man hats and Cowardly Lion faces or a make-your-own-maracas workshop tied to dance.
The David L. Mason Children’s Art Museum is an interpretive gallery space inside the center for children and their families. It provides hands-on activities that help develop an understanding and appreciation of the work of artists exhibited in the larger museum’s galleries.
The “V” represents the five senses, which this fun-filled museum seeks to stimulate with three floors of hands-on art and science exhibits. Mini-art enthusiasts will love the art gallery, with amazing instructional programs offered daily.
Patton calls this fine arts museum a hometown favorite. It incorporates family-friendly activities into some of its visiting exhibits. A recent exhibit of marine art work by Florida’s own Guy Harvey, for instance, included opportunities to make a fish-rub print and a take-home marine life postcard. Once a month, the museum opens for free from 5 p.m. to 9 p.m. for Gallery Night, which often features artists at work and welcomes visitors of all ages.
Kids will love the hands-on activities, magnetic art, multicultural dress-up room with musical instruments, doll collection and house, play bank and grocery store, and mineral dig.
Better known as C’mon, this museum includes an art studio and gallery stocked with bins of art materials, drying racks and shelves, easels, and child-height work tables and stools. Artists visit regularly to work with kids.
Children practice with different genres of art and media as they play with clay, paint and crafts in the All About Art Studio. In the Sketch Aquarium exhibit, children’s physical artwork becomes an animated and digitized part of the rich undersea environment. In the World Music Studio, children explore different instruments and musical styles, from bebop to Dixieland. There’s also a recording studio, karaoke and city sounds.