Kids need museums, and museums need kids.
Forget the old dusty stereotype of exhibits under glass, “Do Not Touch” signs, and kids being shushed. Area museums are bending over backward to make themselves interesting and fun for family members of all ages.
“Museums are important for children because they’re about a world of imagination and opportunity, and they’re inspiring,” said Juliette Fritsch, chief of education and interpretation at the Peabody Essex Museum in Salem. “In my view, it’s never too early for a kid to start visiting.”
A good museum, she said, is social, sensory, stimulating, and, yes, educational in ways that can work for every member of the family, even very young children.
Instead of the solemn repositories of old, “museums are becoming much more audience-focused,” Fritsch said. More and more are focusing on designing special exhibits for children of various ages, including teens.
There are a few institutions specifically aimed at children and families, like the make-believe-centric Children’s Museum in Easton, which focuses on youngsters up to age 8. “Everything thing here is just totally hands-on for kids. There’s no right or wrong; there’s nothing they can do that is not developmentally appropriate,” said executive director Paula Peterson Hutcheson.
With playgrounds covered in snow, the Easton museum counts its busiest weeks at this time of year. And even adult-oriented museums are gearing up for an influx of children during February school vacations.
Museums are also driven by the idea that kids who have fun will come back as adult visitors, members, donors, and even parents themselves.
“There’s a difference between a collection that’s out on display and a museum,” said Fritsch. “A museum is the collection, it’s the display, and it’s the people in the space — the people enjoying it, people who go away and talk about it. That third part is just as important to the sustainability of a museum as the quality of the collection.”
Here is a sampling of child-oriented opportunities around the area:
This is one of the oldest and probably the largest museum in Massachusetts outside of Boston. With a significant expansion project underway, the Peabody Essex Museum focuses on children in a number of ways, including a new Arts and Nature Center “very specifically family-focused, with exhibitions that look at the intersections between art and the natural sciences,” said Fritsch. “We’ve also opened up two new Create Spaces, really beautiful studio spaces dedicated to really helping people tap into their own creativity.” A few months from now, the museum will also open a high-tech “maker lounge” aimed at teenagers.
Programming coming up includes the Lunar New Year Festival, a full day of activities on Feb. 1 marking the beginning of the Year of the Horse, highlighting the museum’s connection to China and its onetime trading ports for Salem sea captains. The festival includes drop-in art activities — children can paint their own lion-head masks after watching a traditional lion dance — as well as the Chinese Dulcimer Guzheng Youth Band, sword play and break-dancing, and a screening of “Freckled Rice,” a film about a boy coming of age in Boston’s Chinatown. It’s all free with regular museum admission.
161 Essex St., Salem, 866-745-1876; www.pem.org.
The unusual Fuller Craft Museum in Brockton doesn’t specifically designate any of its current exhibits as kids’ turf, but it does have hands-on spots kids will like.
“We have stations around the building where you can put on white gloves and touch the artwork, or sit on some of the artist-made furniture,” said Titi Ngwenya, communications director. But the museum — which focuses on crafts like weaving, pottery, fashion, and furniture — does have several upcoming programs that are aimed at kids. Feb. 20 is [Sense]ation Day, a free family admission day with craft demonstrations, new exhibitions, weaving, a hands-on pottery demo, wood turning, storytelling, and face painting.
455 Oak St., Brockton, 508-588-6000; fullercraft.org.
The Maritime Gloucester museum closes to the general public in the winter but continues to host school groups for its marine science exhibits. And during February vacation, the center on Gloucester Harbor will host a series of daily drop-ins for kids in prekindergarten through first grade (with an adult) in the mornings and drop-off sessions for grades 2 through 5 in the afternoon. “Each day we’ll be exploring different topics in marine science through hands-on programs,” says education director Mary Kay Taylor. That could mean making spaghetti fish skeletons for the younger kids or exploring the structure of snow and ice crystals in the microscope lab for the older kids. Everyone is also looking forward to Rube Goldberg Day, which will involve building contraptions with recycled marine debris.
23 Harbor Loop, Gloucester, 978-281-0470; maritimegloucester.org
Lowell National Historical Park, run by the National Park Service, is often a hive of youthful activity, whether it’s school or other groups at this time of year or tourists from all over the country in the warm-weather months.
It’s devoted to the history of the industrial revolution in America and specifically that of Lowell’s textile mills. The counting house at the Boott Mills complex, for instance, has lots of hands-on activities, including weaving workshops and hand looms to try out, said Phil Lupsiewicz, media and communications specialist.
The park also offers Your City Saturdays at 11 a.m. on the third Saturday of each month at the visitor center, with song workshops, puppetry, and other activities for youngsters ages 4 through 10.
“Even though we’re a national historical park,” Lupsiewicz said, “we’re still a local community resource,” and that means the park takes a big role in the citywide Lowell Kids Week during school vacation, Feb. 17 through 22.
304 Dutton St., 978-970-500; www.nps.gov/lowe/.
The Addison Gallery of American Art at Phillips Academy in Andover will offer a February Vacation Drop-In Family Day on Feb. 19, from 1:30 to 4:30 p.m., when families can explore the winter exhibitions and experiment with art materials to make their own art. And the Addison’s ship-model collection has long been a favorite of families. But the museum is working to make a visit fun for kids and grownups alike.
“We’re an art museum and we are free, so this is a welcoming place, a place for people from all communities, not just Phillips Academy. We’re really trying to understand parents want something to do with their children that isn’t organized and isn’t revolving around sports or television or the Internet,” said Rebecca Hayes, curator of education. “Just taking the time to really look at objects and works of art and find the mystery in them, find their own experiences with them. . . . And if they do it together, hopefully it’s something that they’ll want to do again.”
Visitors with children can pick up one of the museum’s Looking Together tote bags at visitors’ services and use the clipboards, paper, pencils, and activity card to enhance their museum time.
The activity card connects to the “Natural Selections” exhibit, on view through March 16, which uses works from the permanent collection to explore how artists relate to nature.
180 Main St., Andover, 978-749-4015; www.andover.edu/museums/addison/.
Blue Hill Observatory Science Center in Milton mixes real weather science with fun activities on certain days. Weather observation at the site dates to 1885 and continues today, as anyone who has watched a TV weather report on a windy day knows. Less well known is that in the 1890s, kites were used by observatory scientists to lift meteorological instruments into the atmosphere — hence today’s kite workshops.
The nonprofit science center was formed in 1999 to expand public understanding of atmosphere science. Every Saturday through the winter — and every Sunday, too, beginning Feb. 15 — guided tours of the observatory are offered, the highlight for many being the clear-day view all the way to Rhode Island andNew Hampshire.
The center also offers a variety of weather-centric educational programs that must be booked ahead for groups as small as a family of four.
Kite-making workshops can also be booked.
On Presidents Day, Feb. 17, a special kite program is slated; you can bring a kite to fly at the summit, make your own in a workshop, or buy one in the gift shop – where kite prices range from $3 to $3,000. Kites are flown in clearings around the observatory, and program director Don McCasland said wryly that people are pretty good about not flying them into the building — it only happens 20 or 30 times a year.
1904 Canton Ave., Milton, 617-696-0562; bluehill.org.
The Children’s Museum in Easton isn’t your paintings-on-the-wall kind of place. It offers three floors of exhibits and activities for youngster ages 1 to 8 in “a very warm and charming old fire station,” said Peterson Hutcheson, the executive director. “All of our stuff is real dramatic play opportunities for kids where they get to play-act and try on different roles. We have a big stages and performing center, with face-painting and costumes and dress-up, and a stage where they can perform for their parents.”
Highlights include the space rover, the golfball raceway, and the fossil exhibit. Tuesday through Friday mornings all winter, there are special programs that are free with admission, including painting, music, nature, books, and science. And February vacation week will be organized around a “whodunit” theme.
“It’s cold and rainy and snowy and there aren’t that many outdoor alternatives,” Peterson Hutcheson said. “We’re a place where kids can really run off that head of steam.”
9 Sullivan Ave., North Easton, 508-230-3789; www.childrensmuseumineaston.org.
Children have always been welcome at Concord’s Orchard House, where Louisa May Alcott wrote and set the classic “Little Women.” Alcott and her sisters almost had free rein while living in the house, according to Jan Turnquist, the museum’s executive director. Accordingly, the museum welcomes children today.
“They love the fact that the Alcotts encouraged their daughters in all the arts,” Turnquist said of the house’s youngest visitors. “The one that’s most visible and that they get most excited about is the youngest daughter, who was the model for Amy in ‘Little Women,’ and was allowed to do her art everywhere.”
Her paintings and drawings can still be seen in the house today. Children can enjoy them and more during Orchard House’s “Welcome to Our Home” tour at 4:45 p.m. on the fourth Saturday of every month. The tour is geared for children and their families and introduces visitors to members of the Alcott family and their neighbors. During February school vacation week, the museum will offer the tour at 1 p.m. every day, Tuesday through Friday.
399 Lexington Rd., Concord, 978-369-4118; www.louisamayalcott.org.
In addition, the science museum recently opened a new construction exhibit, consisting of 15,000 identical maple Keva planks that visitors can use to design whatever they want. The Discovery Museums are open for free from 4:30 to 8:30 p.m. on the first Friday of every month. They also offer museum hours geared to children with autism spectrum disorders.177 Main St., Acton, 978-264-4200; discoverymuseums.org.
Together, The Children’s Discovery Museum and The Science Discovery Museum run around 400 science, technology, engineering, arts, and math programs a year for children, according to Ann Sgarzi, director of marketing for the museums.
They have multiple special events coming up, including activities on Wednesday to celebrate National Puzzle Day and on Thursday to celebrate the Chinese New Year.
Also planned is a Winter Olympics Opening Ceremony parade at the children’s museum on Feb. 7, where children will be able to make their own flags; and Valentine’s Day activities at both museums.
During February school vacation week, the exhibit will celebrate National Engineering Week with a bridge-building workshop and other programs.
“They’re all the same size. You’re not searching for a connector or this or that. It’s just sort of building or stacking [or] creating whatever you can imagine,” said Ann Sgarzi, the museum’s marketing director. Children “can really build very, very tall things; enormous things; things they can get in.”
Globe correspondent Maggie Quick contributed to this report.