I walked through a gigantic mouth into a chamber where, besides seeing a life-size skeleton and identifying things by touch and smell, I learned fun facts through hands-on exhibits about burping, peeing and flatulence.
If it seems juvenile, well it is. Jacksonville’s Museum of Science & History uses just that kind of strategy to get kids’ attention and slip right by them the fact that they’re learning.
Its The Body Within exhibit is one of many changes and innovations for families I recently found in Jacksonville after having gone eight years without a visit.
The museum resides in a neighborhood of big-city Jacksonville known as the Southbank, along the Riverwalk with its fountains and historic plaques in a park setting overlooking the St. Johns River.
The museum devotes its first floor to all facets of science, from The Body Within element to a cool Atlantic Tails section that explores whales and manatees. Special daily programs take place in its science theater and new second-floor planetarium.
The second floor is otherwise focused on Northeast Florida history in a nostalgic way with vignettes and street and home scenes from prehistoric to modern times.
The nearby historic Riverside Avondale neighborhood holds more in the way of museum enrichment for families. I noticed roughly a 50-50 split between kids and adults on my latest visit to The Cummer Art Museum and Gardens. That’s right — kids and an art museum! Kids who looked happy and excited to be there, no less.
It made me remember my first visit to The Cummer with my son Aaron at preschool age. I firmly believe that as his first art museum foray, the visit helped him view the experience as a treat. Because he could “play” with art, it shaped his views on art and museums in a positive way.
Art Connections, The Cummer’s children’s wing, had a lot to do with molding those mindsets. It is devoted entirely to hands-on children’s art activities. But after that, he enjoyed even traditional art viewings because The Cummer helped him to see art from a child’s perspective. Lose the snootiness. Gain the simple appreciation.
The colorful and fun kids’ room is filled with hands-on activities and games, but it too had matured in intervening years with a timeline that covers the walls and floors, fusing art in the museum’s permanent collections with what was happening at the time in the cultural, science and tech worlds.
At the Picture Perfect exhibit, kids can create a masterpiece virtually by waving a paintbrush in front of a big screen. Toddlers can explore Gallery Under Five, a shrunken version of the museum with touchable art.
Hand-out family guides help kids explore the “grown-up” aspects of the museum in a playful manner. In the gorgeous riverfront gardens, they can use their smart devices to view podcast guides about the sculptures and vegetation.
A calendar of short Drop-In Art and Art Adventures sessions for ages 5 through 12 appears on the museum’s website, along with other special programs.
Across the river from Southbank, Jacksonville Landing has long been a family destination for shopping, dining and just strolling along the river. Live music, Friday markets and other events happen there almost daily. Its restaurants are family-affordable, especially in the food court, and have grown in number through the past decade.