Does Rochester Have the Best Family Museum Ever?

by  Paul Eisenberg | Jan 9, 2013
The Strong National Museum of Play
The Strong National Museum of Play / Courtesy of The Strong, Rochester, New York.

Three years ago I called Rochester’s Strong National Museum of Play the best kids museum you never heard of and I’m betting that, until a few seconds ago, you still hadn’t heard of it.

And that's fine, because after recently reassessing the museum, I’ve revised my opinion. The Strong is not the best kids museum you never heard of; it is perhaps, the best kids museum ever.

Parents Play, Too
During my nearly 14 years of parenting, I have grown to dislike children’s museums. I had just assumed I was burned out, as most kids museums these days try to do the right thing. Most have engaging exhibits as well as play areas scaled for younger children. And in many cases, these museums have subdivided spaces so that toddlers, preschoolers, and tweens can enjoy age-appropriate activities.

While at the Strong with my family a couple weeks ago, I realized soon after arriving what my problem was with most children's museums: They don't encourage the parents to play, too, and the Strong takes a decidedly more inclusive and integrated approach to family play.

Exhibit “environments” at the Strong often have a mix of hands-on amusements that make it appealing and easy for kids of different ages to play together, which cuts down on having to separate your kids into age appropriate areas or having to chase down an impatient child. For instance, the Sesame Street area (which includes a family-pleasing replica of the stoop at 123 Sesame Street) has a wall with pulleys that my kids (aged 13, 10, and 6) were able to work together. A piano inspired by the one from “Elmo’s World” packed particular appeal for my teen, and the piano was conveniently next to some of Elmo's other furniture that my young son found suitable for climbing. And a nifty projector setup enabled all of us to take turns appearing in a video where different Muppets talked to us.

After I spent ten minutes pretending to have a conversation with The Count (I would sneak back to chat with him several more times), it was clear that not only does the Strong want you to play with and alongside your kids, they want to make it easy and comfortable for you, too. So, in Reading Adventureland, kids are allowed to scale a beanstalk that goes up to the Giant's lair (complete with enormous chess pieces and other oversized Giant belongings), but there are also stairs off to the side permitting parents to go up and join the fun. Within the relatively new eGame Revolution exhibit, there are four dozen retro arcade games including Galaga and Pole Position, and if you’re a parent of a certain age, it’s a thrill to not only to retrace your own childhood by moving from game to game, but to introduce your children to them.

It was in the arcade area where I discovered something interesting about my teen daughter: she had never played a pinball machine before. And the fact that she permitted me to show her how to play was a triumph, since teens, as you may be aware if you're involved with raising one, don’t particularly want their parents to show them how to do anything.

One of our favorite exhibit areas had all manner of visual effects, the highpoint being an alcove with slanted floors and carefully-crafted visual distortions so that as soon as you enter the alcove, you get quite dizzy and find yourself hurtling toward the opposite wall – where, fortunately, there’s a somewhat cushioned mat. The sight of kids and adults alike bouncing around that tight alcove, stumbling outside of it momentarily to get their bearings and then plunging back in for more underscores how the Strong manages to bring out the kid in everyone.

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