Fun Florida Education for Kids

    Let your kids get their hands dirty for once. Don't worry - they'll be learning something at these educational, family-friendly spots.

    By Katherine O'Neal

    My son was four years old and already excited by the prospect of visiting a museum. I marveled at how wonderful it was for him to grow up in an enlightened age where "museum" does not equate with "boring." To the contrary, after his travels around Florida, it meant new and exciting ways to play. (And - sshh - learn!)

    From grand all-day affairs with IMAX theaters and space simulators to small, neighborhood places lined with aquariums and seashells, Florida's hands-on places take the education of wee ones seriously, but in a spirit of giggles and gasps. Explore science, art, history and nature where the emphasis is "please DO touch." Here are some of our favorites and what we like best about them.

    If your kids' favorite part of science class is the experiments, they're going to love these places. They run on the premise that the best way to understand abstract principles of science is to set them in motion.

    The majority of Florida's hands-on attractions concentrate on science and the state claims some major leaguers, such as Tampa's Museum of Science & Industry (MOSI), the largest science center in the Southeastern U.S. Little ones love the Diplodocus Dinosaurs. Museum of Discovery and Science in Fort Lauderdale is another high-tech mammoth in the genre. Their newest experience is an exhibit called "Powerful You."

    We like the small, local museums, especially for smaller children who tend to get overwhelmed easily. Some of our favorites include Fort Myers' IMAG History & Science Center (broadcast the weather and walk through a thunderstorm), South Florida Science Museum in West Palm Beach and Sarasota's appropriately named G. WIZ (temporarily closed for renovations).

    With its stellar reputation for space travel, Florida has launched several interactive attractions dealing with rockets and constellations, most notably Kennedy Space Center Visitor Complex. Gotta love those Robot Scouts and, at its U.S. Astronaut Hall of Fame, the training simulator rides. Miami Science Museum expands beyond its planetarium orientation to encompass its outdoor wildlife center.

    Flight of a different nature sparks intrigue at National Naval Aviation Museum in Pensacola, where kids can take the controls in a cockpit trainer or do battle in a flight simulator ride. (Note: Admission to the museum is currently limited to Department of Defense ID cardholders and their guests, and veterans with a Veterans Health Identification Card.)

    Touching in an art museum? What about that three-foot rule? In these museums, kids have a special place where they can get as close as they want to art, and that includes touching range.

    Cummer Museum of Art & Gardens in Jacksonville was one of the first to debut its excellent interactive kids' center, Art Connections, with an interactive timeline with videos, music and sculptures to touch, electronic painting and interactive self-portrait.

    High-brow goes small-fry at Museum of Contemporary Art Jacksonville, where ArtExplorium Loft introduces young artists to inspiration and interaction with contemporary art. Orlando Museum of Art stocks its special Discovery Center with rubber stamps, colored pencils, books and games. At the John and Mable Ringling Museum of Art in Sarasota, the Circus Museum's Tibbals Learning Center has an interactive gallery about circus life.

    Florida is a wondrous place full of caves, farms, swamps, beaches, jungles, sinkholes and the rare plants and animals that inhabit them and the sea that surrounds us on three sides. Children are naturally fascinated, so feed their fascination at places where they can get a "feel" for life and its value.

    The best place to start your exploration, the Florida Museum of Natural History in Gainesville, allows visitors to walk through models of different geological features, including a limestone cave. Several smaller centers scattered around the state explore our rich marine life with touch tanks and more, such as the Florida Oceanographic Coastal Center in Stuart (rays tank and interactive puzzles) and Ponce Inlet's Marine Science Center, where you can handle specimens in a touch tank to learn about sea turtles and more.

    In addition to its touchable exhibits, Clearwater Marine Aquarium conducts hands-on sea life safari boat cruises. At Rookery Bay Environmental Learning Center in Naples, little ones can experience sea life via an immersion bubble. On Sanibel Island, Bailey-Matthews Shell Museum explores the wonderful world of seashells and kids can explore tactilely in the Children's Learning Lab. Jacksonville's Museum of Science & History (MOSH) explores natural science with its super-cool marine mammals exhibit.

    The ultimate hands-on sea experiences take place where special programs allow you to swim with dolphins and other marine creatures as you learn about their behaviors and habits. Miami Seaquarium has a dolphin interaction program and Discovery Cove in Orlando goes one better to make it an all-day affair where you swim in a lagoon with rays, float down a lazy river and, while snorkeling, come face-to-face (through barriers) with sharks. You can also snorkel the grand reef. In Islamorada, Theater of the Sea also lets you frolic (with care and understanding) among dolphin and rays, plus those adorable sea lions.

    Other attractions are more in-tune with the flora and fauna on land. On Sanibel Island, the Education Center at J.N. "Ding" Darling National Wildlife Refuge briefs visitors with hands-on displays before they head out to the trails. You can do creature crayon rubbings and watch birds on a live-feed TV screen. The Education Center is free and open daily. Gumbo Limbo Nature Center in Boca Raton, named after one of our funniest-sounding trees, and Calusa Nature Center & Planetarium in Fort Myers also present natural encounters of the touchy-feely kind.

    The state has its share of petting farms where kids can get hands-on with domesticated animals. At Green Meadows Farm in Kissimmee, you go beyond petting to milking cows and riding ponies. In Lady Lake, Uncle Donald's Farm offers similar encounters with barnyard favorites.

    THEN & NOW
    Some museums bring history lessons to life and put kids in the midst of historical and modern-day life situations.

    Re-enactors populate the world of Colonial Spanish Quarter Museum in St. Augustine (closed until spring 2013), where they demonstrate the skills it took to survive in this brave new world. Tallahassee's Museum of Florida History takes you back even further to Florida's prehistoric beasts at the beginning of a virtual timeline that showcases an excellent collection of artifacts, from fun to funky.

    At Orange County Regional History Center in Orlando, kids can climb into a saddle or try out a mattress stuffed with Spanish moss. At Schoolhouse Children's Museum & Learning Center in Boynton Beach, they step right into history, complete with costumes.

    Some hands-on places can't be pigeon-holed into the categories above. Take for instance the Tallahassee Museum of History and Natural Science: Here you can see a live Florida panther in its natural habitat, visit a 19th century farm with live animals and characters, and sit at the desk of an old one-room schoolhouse.

    All-around fun goes all around the world at Walt Disney World's Epcot, where 11 Kidcot Funstops provide a passport-full of hands-on activities relative to the different nations represented.

    Well-rounded museums such as the Miami Children's Museum dip into a bit of everything that engages young imaginations. This one reflects its location with a cruise-ship model and sandcastle kids can climb. We like best the outdoor part of the Science and Discovery Center of Northwest Florida, where a pioneer homestead awaits exploration. Children's Museum in Boca Raton and Explorations V Children's Museum in Lakeland are other small community projects that appeal to visitors as well as local youngsters. 

    In Florida, "museum" means gadgets, gizmos and games to kids. And fun they can get their hands around.

    Places to Remember