From Hands-Off to Hands-On

The Magic Of  Central Coast Kids’ Museums
By Tiobe Barron

If you have small humans in your life, you know they can be seemingly bottomless fonts of energy and curiosity. Playgrounds and parks can be wonderful habitats for kids to burn off steam and develop social and motor skills, but another option to encourage play and a sense of wonder is to visit a children’s museum.

Science, technology, reading, engineering, art and math all converge at kidSTREAM.  Photo by Deborah Kolb

Of all the trips my family went on back when I was a youngster, I still vividly remember visiting San Francisco’s Exploratorium, where I stood inside a halved rubber tire and hoisted a kid-sized bubble over myself with the help of a hula hoop and winch, dropped pennies into a giant funnel, learned about momentum from a hands-on machine, ran around, and had no idea at the time how much science I was actually absorbing all the while. Indeed, these museums often aim to enrich children’s minds and lives through exploration.

The first children’s museum in the United States was the Brooklyn Children’s Museum, founded by the Brooklyn Institute of Arts and Sciences in 1899. Museums at the time were not geared toward young people at all; visitors were discouraged from touching exhibits, displays were often set at an adult viewing height, and rapidly increasing urbanization led many educators and parents to worry that kids would fall out of touch with nature and natural studies such as botany and geology. The Brooklyn Children’s Museum sought to bridge that gap, to supplement public school classes, and increase accessibility to the sciences, and so was open to the public with free admission. Massachusetts Institute of Technology graduate Anna Billings Gallup became Curator-in-Chief of the museum in 1904.

“Although the original exhibits consisted of little more than a few insects, shells and stuffed birds, the eagerness with which children sought them proved the necessity for enlarging the scope of work,” said Gallup in a 1908 Popular Science Monthly article. “They are attractive in appearance, simple in arrangement and labeled with descriptions adapted to the needs of children, printed in clear readable type.”

Now there are roughly 250 of these kid-friendly museums across the country, with approximately 100 more in various stages of planning. Luckily for us, there is one of these facilities in each of Santa Barbara, San Luis Obispo, and Ventura Counties. So whether you and your family are passing through this stretch of California, or you have long called this area home, perhaps you and your loved ones can make memories of your own that will be cherished through the years at one of these unique and diverting establishments.

San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum

Photo by Becky Clair/Clair Images Science comes alive for little ones at SLOCM.

Founded in 1990 when an old transmission shop was donated to the City of San Luis Obispo, the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum is now housed in a more modern, multistory facility geared towards kids ages 1 to 10 years old. SLOCM allows kids hands-on experiences to explore fossils, participate in a “Mission to Mars,” play with a giant light board, discover new ways to mix science and art, and lots more.

A volunteer board of directors steer the non-profit organization, with an aim to make the museum “accessible to as many children as possible, and a resource for other community organizations.” To that end, before COVID-19, the museum hosted “Moonlight Hours,” when admission was free for the last few hours of the day. This museum still does hold “Sensory Night,” a safe space for kids on the autism spectrum to experience the exhibits. To help local families during the pandemic, the San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum distributed Busy Box Outdoor Adventure boxes for free. These activity kits are geared towards engaging kids 5 to 10 years old with nature, and contain ideas for projects children can try at home, suggested local hikes and wildlife information specific to San Luis Obispo, and kid-friendly crafts.

Reservations are strongly suggested, and masks are required for all visitors ages 2 and up. Two sessions are available each day: 10 am to noon, and 2 to 4 pm (closed noon to 2 pm for cleaning).

San Luis Obispo Children’s Museum is at 1010 Nipomo St., San Luis Obispo. For reservations and more (805) 544-KIDS (5437) or


Photo Courtesy of MOXI Kids and grown-ups alike can’t resist the vibrant colors of the Lois and Richard Gunther Color Mixing Machine.

At MOXI, the Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation in Santa Barbara, visitors can make sound effects for film clips, launch an air rocket, play with a color mixing machine, create their own miniature race cars and race them on a giant track, play in a “Sky Garden” with rooftop views of the “Riviera” of the West Coast, and even walk on air via a glass “Sky Deck.” Three floors of exhibits are grouped in themes that can be delved into, like sound, technology, and light. A rotating gallery and interactive media theater highlight works from local educators and artists. School classes can even book virtual field trips to learn modules based around engineering design.

On the first Saturday of each month, MOXI holds “Mellow Mornings,” bespoke events for anyone with sensory processing disorders or autism and their families. Ticket sales are limited to 50 guests. Lights and sound levels are dimmed, hand towels provided in place of traditional (noisy) air dryers, designated comfort spaces are provided, and “sensory backpack kits” are available to check out which include items like fidget spinners and noise-reducing headphones. There is even a specially designed app, “Access MOXI,” available to download for free.

On Dec. 31, join MOXI for “Noon Year’s Eve,” a family-friendly, daytime event complete with confetti and a live DJ.

Geared towards kids of all ages and with a serious bent to promoting the sciences, MOXI is a museum that truly has something for everyone. Reservations are suggested, and masks are required for in-person visits.

MOXI, The Wolf Museum of Exploration + Innovation, is at 125 State St., Santa Barbara. For more: (805) 770-5000 or


Photo by Deborah Kolb kidSTREAM offers hands-on learning to kids in small groups.

A facility that is currently available only for private playdates and birthday parties, kidSTREAM, Ventura County’s Children’s Museum promotes hands-on “learning through play.” Located in Camarillo, it’s the area’s newest children’s museum, and it’s only just getting started. kidSTREAM takes the idea of S.T.E.A.M. projects and adds literacy to the mix — making it a place for kids to explore science, technology, reading, engineering, art, and math (hence, S.T.R.E.A.M.).

kidSTREAM is home to a Lego league for two different age groups (4 to 6 years old, and 6 to 10), culminating in an expo of the kids’ creations next spring. Exhibits and new play spaces coming down the pipeline are numerous, so keep an eye on their social media feeds for the latest additions.

kidSTREAM offers “STREAMing at Home” via its website, a bevy of video tutorials teaching kids a host of fun experiments — including videos taught by other kids! They also offer a lending library for educators looking to add elements of the museum into their lessons.

kidSTREAM, Ventura County’s Children’s Museum, is located at 3100 E. Ponderosa Dr., Camarillo. To make reservations and learn more: (805) 419-3545 or