Whether you’re looking for a way get the kids out of the house for a few hours or a weekend trip for the whole family, Southern California has opportunities to learn and play around every corner. Grab your future astronaut and explore a planetarium, or bring your budding marine biologist to a museum where they can hold a sea anemone and feel it sticking to their palms.
Check out this list of 25 can’t-miss attractions and museums for kids that combine learning with fun to foster a love of STEAM.
Zimmer Children’s Museum
The Zimmer Children’s Museum in Los Angeles works to teach kids lessons about community responsibility, global citizenship, and cultural sensitivity. By promoting better values that make kids care about others, this museum prepares the next generation to make the world a better place. Visitors will learn about music from around the world, explore different cultures, and practice philanthropy just by playing games. This museum also offers teen club meetings for kids 11-18.
California Science Center
Visitors to the California Science Center in Los Angeles can explore interactive science exhibits ranging from space exploration, the human body, and nature. Recently voted the best free museum by Los Angeles Magazine, it draws families from all over Southern California. The California Science Center has an IMAX theatre and traveling exhibits, with its most recent exhibit being the wonders of the human body.
Travel Town Museum
Operated by the City of Los Angeles Parks and Recreation Department, the Travel Town Museum is open daily (except on Christmas) with free admission. Guided tours are offered and kids can take miniature train rides to experience the feel of a locomotive. This is a great educational museum for kids who love trains and parents who enjoy history.
Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum
Los Angeles Live Steamers Railroad Museum is another option for kids who can’t get enough of the railroad. The museum was founded in 1956 with the goal of educating visitors on railroad history. Guests can ride made-to-scale miniature trains and visit exhibits outlining the history of the railroad. A nominal donation is appreciated to ride the trains and keep them operational.
Cabrillo Marine Aquarium
The Cabrillo Marine Aquarium promotes education and conservation of marine life for local visitors and guests. Welcoming guests since 1935, the aquarium showcases local marine life, promoting curiosity about the oceans and everything in them. Hands-on programs, interactive displays, and lectures given by scientists cover topics from extreme waves and bioluminescence to animal behavior and conservation.
Avid space fans will love an opportunity to visit the UCLA Planetarium. Built in 1957, the planetarium features a 24-foot diameter dome and limited seating for 49 people. There are free public shows every Wednesday evening in addition to events throughout the year. The shows change weekly, so you’ll want to return multiple times to learn about the endless magnitude of space.
La Brea Tar Pits and Museum
Los Angeles looked pretty different 11,000 years ago, and guests can step back in time to see what the city was like when sabre-toothed cats walked the Earth. Visitors to the La Brea Tar Pits and Museum can watch bones being cleaned and repaired for documentation and then visit the excavation sites that are still active today. Arguably, these tar pits are the oldest attraction in Los Angeles, with exhibits that started 50,000 years ago.
Kidspace Children’s Museum
Designed for kids 10 and under, Kidspace Children’s Museum is spread across 3.5 acres in Brookside Park, Pasadena. It currently boasts more than 40 exhibits and outdoor spaces for their camps and activities. As the outdoor exhibits have mud and water, visitors are advised to bring an extra change of clothes, including socks and shoes which must be worn in the museum.
Southern California Children’s Museum
Located in Pasadena, the Southern California Children’s Museum was founded by a group of parents who wanted to create a fun and educational place for kids. This museum is brand new and some of the exhibits are still a work in progress. Before you go, check their events calendar to see what upcoming programs and classes they have to inspire kids and kids at heart.
Discovery Cube Orange County
The Discovery Cube Orange County recently celebrated its 35th year of bringing educational activities and exhibits to the kids of Southern California. In its main exhibit, visitors can become green superheros in the Eco Challenge or feel the power of a simulated rocket launch. The Cube is also home to a variety of changing traveling exhibits, including Impossible Science, the Doc McStuffins interactive exhibit, and space exhibitions.
Santa Barbara Zoo
If you’re looking to escape the sheer size of the San Diego Zoo, consider visiting the Santa Barbara Zoo. This location boasts more than 500 animals making up 146 different species. The museum specializes in open, naturalistic habitats, so guests can see animals acting as they would in the wild. It also offers a variety of camps, tours, and events for those who want to get closer to the animals.
Santa Ana Zoo
The Santa Ana Zoo is another option for guests who want to enjoy a local neighborhood zoo. Founded in 1952, it now encompasses 20 acres and includes a rainforest exhibit, a walk-through aviary, and an amphitheatre. The zoo’s founder, Joseph Prentice, insisted that at least 50 monkeys be kept at the zoo, making this a great place to monkey around.
Children’s Museum at La Habra
The Children’s Museum at La Habra has been connecting the worlds of learning and play since 1977. It has indoor and outdoor activities, including a dinosaur garden and a historic 1942 caboose. Kids can take a nature walk, play at the science station, or visit Nannie’s Room to hear stories about the local cultures.
Pretend City Children’s Museum
Located in Orange County, the Pretend City Children’s Museum was created with the goal to build better brains. It currently has 17 different exhibits, each one led by a trained staff member. Kids are able to embrace their creative side and imaginations while learning about math, science, and reading. A few of the exhibits include an art studio, farm, and doctor’s office.
The New Children’s Museum
Located in San Diego, The New Children’s Museum gives kids opportunities to embrace their creative sides. Through art and music, children can express themselves and learn a little along the way. The curators believe that art inspires innovation, and that all children should have access to art as a way to develop their creativity, emotions, and intelligence.
Palomar College Planetarium
Located in San Diego, the Palomar College Planetarium is a state-of-the-art venue that boasts a 50-foot domed theater and seats 142 people. Public shows at this planetarium, the fifth largest in California, are every Friday night. Using digital technology, astronomical bodies in the night sky are recreated to great effect.
San Diego Botanic Garden
Botanical gardens are so much more than plants and flowers, especially if you’re visiting the San Diego Botanic Garden. Kids can meet Sam the Tortoise, see some native creepy-crawlies among the plants, and listen to curators who use plants to discuss Southern California wildfires and fire safety. The Garden regularly has events and kids can celebrate their birthdays there with painting and plant potting.
Pennypickle’s Workshop is located in Temecula and is home to wacky inventor Professor Phineas T. Pennypickle. Visitors can explore the workshop and learn about the travels of this famous scientist while creating inventions and trying experiments of their own. There are also special events and clubs for students who want to join Pennypickle’s team of scientists.
San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum
In 2011, the San Diego Children’s Discovery Museum moved from its old location (where it averaged 15,000 visitors per year) to its new home on North Broadway in Escondido, where it averages 140,000 visitors annually. The goal of the curators is to grow young minds through collaborative learning, with children under 10 the target audience. There are four main areas of the exhibit: discover, experiment, imagine, and explore. Kids can spend time in one or move around, seeing something new every single time.
Chino Youth Museum
The Chino Youth Museum was founded in 1999 and offers a variety of seasonal events, including First Friday activities, Oooey-Gooey Tuesdays and Kids Night Out. Each gives children a chance to learn through playing, exploring, and sometimes getting a little messy. Visitors can also stop by the museum throughout the year to see their main exhibits.
Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert
Located in Rancho Mirage, the Children’s Discovery Museum of the Desert has activities that the whole family can enjoy. A few of their permanent exhibits include: the Brain Buster Road with brain teasers; Let’s Get Physical with rock climbing; and Imagine This with new prompts every day. The exhibits regularly change, though the themes stay the same, so guests can return multiple times throughout the year to enjoy the museum.
The Living Desert
The Living Desert Zoo and Gardens spans 1200 acres and features plants and animals typically found in the world’s deserts. There are more than 1500 plant species in the botanical gardens, while visitors can see animals like cheetahs, oryx, and golden eagles. The zoo is located 15 miles outside of Palm Springs and features a state-of-the-art wildlife hospital where guests can learn the challenges of practicing veterinary medicine on wild animals.
The Shambala Preserve
The Shambala Preserve, supported by The Roar Foundation, works to rehabilitate big cats and other wild animals that have suffered mistreatment in captivity. Its curators work to educate visitors on the preservation of these animals and discuss the dangers of poaching, keeping big cats as pets, and hunting animals for fur. Not only will guests get to see these amazing animals up close, they will also support efforts to protect others like them in the future.
In La Jolla, the Birch Aquarium is perched on a bluff overlooking the Pacific Ocean. Guests can explore more than 60 habitats of fish and invertebrates found throughout the Pacific. Features include exhibits assembled by Scripps Oceanography scientists who work in the nearby labs. This is one of those places where parents will learn as much as their kids.
Santa Monica Pier Aquarium
When you need another fix of marine life, head to the Santa Monica Pier Aquarium. Part of a Heal the Bay effort, it works to protect the local animals that call the area home through the creation of a sustainable and clean ecosystem. Residents work with the aquarium year round and participate in beach clean ups, storm response teams, and wildlife fundraising events.