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Good for Age 3 and Under

Bay Area Discovery Museum

557 McReynolds Rd
Sausalito, CA 94965

This Museum is more of a hands-on center for imagination and creative development, with a lot of Bay Area props, than a more classic outlay like the Asian Art Museum. It's like a huge playground for kids, but it would be hard to find a free playground with this mixture of inside amenities (puppets, full train station) and creative outside features (gravel pit with tow trucks, Golden Gate Bridge replica, toddler water zone with plastic fish). Children are offered objects outside to play with, from the natural elements of sand and water to larger versions of toys that already fascinates them (foam versions of Tinkertoys). The idea is that parents can ask their kids open-ended questions to get the kids involved in play, so that the kids are dreaming and creating things from their imagination rather than coming to a place to be entertained with digested information and ideas from multimedia. Inside at the Art Table, the kids are offered the ability to get more messy with paint and sand than at home – bring extra clothes or a smock. The simulated Bay Hall and Wave Workshop has representations of what they'd see at Fisherman's Wharf and in Oakland, along with trains and tunnels, so that they can start thinking about what they're seeing and how the ocean works. If kids get inspired and want to go outside again, no problem – take them to Lookout Cove where they can get on the Bonnie boat and pretend to be pirates on the sea. The shipwreck hull, the trail, and the sea cave can spark all sorts of survival questions, especially if you start reading Robinson Crusoe to them at night. Other reviewers have commented just as often on the stunning views of the actual Golden Gate Bridge, the number of activities and classes available, and the garden. Since the Discovery Museum is both indoors and outdoors, toddlers may love the streams of water, or they may want to go in and out of the reed maze, giant tree trunk, and climb all over the giant spider web. Themes and activities are geared toward the younger set, so you might not want to push the age limit of 8 years old.

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California Academy of Sciences

55 Music Concourse Dr., San Francisco, CA 94118

While kids may never get excited about the periodic table of the elements or fulcrum formulas, they will get excited about science at the California Academy of Sciences in San Francisco. At a certain age, kids need to explore important questions about life on Earth. The Academy of Sciences is a hands-on place for parents and kids to figure out how things work – and why. Spread out over 400,000 square feet, the Academy's three major attractions (aquarium, planetarium, and natural history museum) show great examples of the planet's natural resources, from the water reclamation system to the solar-powered 'Living Roof' with 2 acres of plant species. Animal-loving kids can see the past and the future, from the Tyrannosaurus Rex skeleton, to the tropical rain forest with a bat cave and an overhead freshwater fish tank (the Flooded Forest). Technology-loving kids may be glued to the digital planetarium and galaxy exploration tour. Penguin-loving kids should see the colony of waddling African penguins in the 25,000-gallon exhibit, complete with a rocky shore and naturalistic temperatures. Don't miss the feeding times and FAQ sessions (twice daily at 10:30 am and 3 pm), if your kids are the questioning type. Former visitors will hardly recognize the new facility; open between 9:30 am and 5:00 pm. Pirahnas at the Steinhart Aquarium are close (not too close), while fish and sharks weave through the Philippine Coral Reef. Small and great sea creatures at the California Coast Gallery range from the tiny tidepool anemone to the giant octopus. Each membership allows you to feed penguins, and gain access to the RSVP-only Holiday Nights show with live reindeer. There's as much all-ages activity at the Academy as in the on-site cafe. (Adults enjoy Thursday Nightlife shows, with earthquakes and alligators - and alcohol.) One Academy sleepover (Penguins + Pajamas) is the best mix of a safe outdoor family vacation. After planetarium shows and animal demos, park the family sleeping bags next to the aquarium (or swamp), wake up to a continental breakfast, and keep on exploring.

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Children's Creativity Museum

221 4th St., San Francisco, CA 94560

The Children's Creativity Museum is like a multimedia studio left open for the directors' kids to explore. From the Animation studio with clay critters, to the Music studio with a green screen, children and young adults can put their energy and talents to good use here. What you'll really have to worry about is that the children will get spoiled for any other museum. Since they're not only allowed, but encouraged, to touch all of the art....well, use your imagination. In fact, the Imagination Lab, the Movie Studio and the Do It Yourself studio are all very popular. The Mystery Box challenge changes frequently, and requires the kids to think their way around design problems. For a minor fee, you can even take a DVD home with you instead of worrying about capturing a video via iPhone, since the kids' activities, songs, and storytelling can be recorded. Also, the children are no longer restricted to an older age group (6-12). Since the facility got renovated, the younger children (3-5) can play on the train table and busy themselves with crafts, from painting to playing dress-up. (Warning - bring ear plugs for the music room because the drums are popular.) A few parents have said that the toddler toys are rather generic and a little grubby. However, the Early Birdies program is popular, especially with the members who get to go free. (It's $15 for non-members.) If the kids have any energy left, there's a great and free playground outside the museum with grass, a labyrinth, and a sandpit.

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Coyote Point Recreation Area

1701 Coyote Point Dr.
San Mateo, CA 94560

Slides and swings, green grass and picnic tables, you can get at almost any park area. Not every park has a castle playground with a dragon theme, unless it's an amusement park, which often charges much more than $6 per person. The five-year-olds and pre-teens have one area for their use, while the toddlers and preschoolers have their own area, so there's less reason to be worried about age conflicts. With over 20 swings and slides, a tire swing, a balance beam, monkey bars, and a 40-foot castle on a hill, there shouldn't be too many reasons to suppose that the kids won't have anything to do. Although there isn't a sandbox or a water zone, parents will be happy to know that there are showers available for a small fee, and that the kids will be cushioned on a recycled rubber coating that keeps bumps and scrapes to a minimum. If you bring a soccer ball and a Frisbee, there are a lot of ways to entertain yourself and the kids on one of the many fields, from freezetag to Flag Football. Beside the playground is a paved bike trail where you can exercise your bikes, or you can go watch the golfers chip at their shots for a while. Also bring sturdy closed-toed shoes, because the ducks and geese are very active and leave frequent signs. There are no food vendors, so it's a good idea to pack along a picnic with some water bottles, or even a board game if it's a sunny day. The airport is nearby, so you can watch the planes fly in and out for free at the lookout point. Most people know about the Marina with the Beer Can races and summer sailing programs. There's even a small gravel beach on the north side where you can bring drinks and sunbathe. What many people may not know is that there's a pistol and rifle range at the heart of the park. It's open on Mondays and Wednesdays and Fridays, between 7 to 10 pm, and the admission cost is $5 and under. This is a great place to go for target practice, and maybe meet some law enforcement officers in plain clothing.

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CuriOdyssey

1651 Coyote Point Dr.
San Mateo, CA 94401

If you've explored the great open grasslands, magical Marina, and the dragon and castle playground of Coyote Point, you definitely have to take a peek at CuriOdyssey. This is what used to be Coyote Point Museum, just with a facelift, though parents with fond childhood memories will be relieved to know that there are still personable otters here – ready to entertain through the glass. On Saturdays at noon, the otters are even more entertaining at feeding time, and stick around for some facts and fun with the bobcat at 1 pm. The Animal Connections shows rotate every weekend. You could get introduced to a skunk one week, a hissing cockroach the next, and get lucky with the falcon getting fed on the third weekend. With 100 animals here, from the warm-blooded bobcat to the cold-blooded boa, there should be enough to get the kids excited about going to a zoo in the future. That's if you can tear them away from the butterflies and hummingbirds in the gardens, or the aviary with the majestic golden eagle and ugly turkey vulture. The hands-on exhibits can show the forces of nature, like the Riverbed Experiment that shows water flow and erosion, or backyard science experiments that expand your vision and hearing. Anyone who hasn't yet seen the Exploratorium will want to, after being able to blow the fog to and fro, and playing with the spinning gears. While there aren't a huge number of exhibits here, besides the rain panel and the echo chamber, it'll be enough to whet the kids' appetites for more. There are the same choices here for snacks as at the Marina, mainly chips and string cheese and granola bars. You may want to take along a picnic basket and eat in the general park area before coming to see the animals, especially if the kids need some real food. Just watch out for the gulls and geese, who can get very bold when begging.

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Gilroy Gardens

3050 Hecker Pass Hwy.
Gilroy, CA 95020

When the Gilroy Garden Park reopens on March 30th, the child world and plant world will again collide for good. The Garden Park is a good mix of education and fun, and can help kids think through conservation issues – especially if they're looking at the living Circus Trees that look like sculptures. During the summer, you can even go down a water slide through one of the trees, and pretend you're on a Jungle Book adventure with Mowgli. The rock maze is also a cool retreat from the sun, and there are shady trees all around the complex. Bring your bathing suit for walking behind the waterfalls, and tipping buckets onto the kids' heads at the Splash Garden. This is one of the best features of the park, not just because of the huge treehouse and twisty slide, but also because the kids can either shoot water at each other with super soakers, or use a water pump as a see-saw. The spinning water wheel may be as close as a city kid can get to seeing wheels and water other than in a movie. However, if you and the kids prefer to observe the beauty of water rather than interact with it, watching ducks while imitating them on paddle boats can be a lot of fun. The second great feature is not the rides, which are definitely mild to moderate on the thrill scale. The teacups, flying mushrooms, and little fire engines will probably thrill the toddler to four-year-old crowd. It's the gardens that are truly amazing. One of the really worthwhile rides is when you get to meander down a backroads area on a motorized antique car, going past a barn and a small pond with a tiny dock. You can see the Rainbow Gardens on a boat ride that goes around a small lazy river, and chase butterflies through the Monarch Garden greenhouse. Claudia's Carousel is especially good for toddlers, because then you get to slowly look at the amazing trees in all their twisty shapes – this could be a horticulture session for the older kids.

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Gymboree Play & Music

1501 Sloat Blvd.
San Francisco, CA 94132

Foam tunnels. The 10 Little Bubbles Song. Slides and ladders. Building blocks. Puppets and parachutes. These are a few of Gymboree's kids' favorite things. Parents get to let their kids roam within grabbing distance, and talk to other adults. Kids aged 5 and under get to wear themselves out with all the toys and activities, and also learn some pre-school socialization skills along with the activities: song and dance, art and multimedia, sports and team-building. Age-appropriate classes greatly vary, since they're based on child development stages and include more as the kids grow. Most of the available classes are Play and Learn. Toddlers can build some early Sudoku solving abilities by going through patterns and sequences, or language development in a level 5 class. School skills add on some science and group cooperation concepts, which can be a real advantage when the kids are old enough to go to school. Art classes go beyond just finger painting and songs; there may be clay, there may be murals. Prepare to hang Gymboree art on the fridge, or display it on curio cabinets. There have been some negative reviews about parents not watching their children properly, which is outlined in the membership agreement under 'within a hug's reach'. There are available teachers, but parental involvement is necessary. At the same time, the kids will be intrigued by the mixture of consistency and variety, since classes and themes are changed every few weeks. Parents may be reassured that if they move across states or cities, there are many Gymborees to be accessed. This location is great, with a Lucky Supermarket and a Chipotle nearby. There shouldn't be any trouble with finding last-minute snacks or lunch if you've forgotten the goldfish crackers and dried apples. There's a current promotion on the Gymboree website for a first month's membership ($59) without a new members' fee, with a free class added on. Also, some parents have found Groupon deals that make the low cost even better. All in all, Gymboree is an affordable and clean place to go to get the young kids out of the rain, out of the house, and with other kids to work out their energy.

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Habitot Children's Museum

2065 Kittredge St.
Berkeley, CA 94704
United States

This is definitely a place to bring the young ones, whether they want to operate the spaceships and ambulances, don an apron and splash paint around, or splash around in the Waterworks zone. This water zone is even more important in this indoor facility than at others, because the facility is in a basement. One of the only repeated complaints from reviewers was that the museum is smaller than the party area, and occasionally gets hot and stuffy. Staying near the water zone can help alleviate this issue, while the indoor bathroom helps alleviate calls of nature. Other parents had high praise for the arts and crafts area, from the hands-on instructors to the quality of the materials available, though the kids may want to just hang out at the Train Tables all day. Also, if you've ever had a great time at a park or museum, only to have the kids fall apart when they realize they can't take home the toys, this won't happen here. Habitot members can access the lending library for books and toys, and you can get ideas for what will keep them entertained at home. While street and lot parking are relatively inexpensive and easy to access, the facility is very accessible by public transport in downtown Berkeley. Habitot can also be used as a drop-off center every fourth Friday for the monthly Parents' Night Out – the kids get pizza and play while parents get to remember life before diapers. It's a win for everyone.

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