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Science & Technology

Chabot Space & Science Center

10000 Skyline Blvd., Oakland, CA 94619

Two words: Planetarium and Observatory. That should get all sorts of ideas flowing for space travel, star gazing, and going home to watch re-runs of Star Trek episodes. First, go to the Chabot Space and Science Center so you can get some good ideas. If you can make time to go on a Friday or a Saturday and stay through the evening, you'll be able to use the telescopes in the Observatory. Fortunately, there's coffee at the new Bean Sprouts Café, so you'll have enough caffeine to stay up. The Planetarium has a 70-foot screen and can seat over 230 people, so there will be plenty of room for watching shows that could rival any IMAX theatre. There are astronauts and alien searches, there is space travel and constellation investigation, there is time travel back to the Mayan days. For a small extra fee, there are even psychedelic laser light shows including music from the Beatles to Pink Floyd. The Exhibits are for those who want to explore with their eyes and their fingers. The Bill Nye Climate Lab has an invention station and a climate-themed video game, as well as displays on emissions and keeping the ocean from becoming the world's largest landfill. Stars, nebulae, and black holes can be found in Destination Universe, while moon rocks and the Mercury space vehicle ride will certainly inspire the kids to stay for telescope time. If everyone wants more information on the Mayans after seeing the Planetarium video, there's an educational display on their calendar, reading, and writing. This can be a great way to sneak in more social studies and history lessons. Also, if you've ever told your kids not to look at the sun, you'll have to eat your words at the Touch the Sun display – especially if the kids find out that there's an available mobile app.

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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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Exploratorium

698 The Embarcadero
San Francisco, CA 94111

Exploring is something that kids naturally do, and the Exploratorium is designed for questions and curious fingers. Ideally located only a mile away from the famous Fisherman's Wharf, there's always something fascinating to see on the Pier 1 waterfront near the Embarcadero business district – and the Exploratorium's Fisher Bay Observatory shows ships and tides and underwater creatures. Even if the foggy weather clears up near the Golden Gate Bridge, the Exploratorium's Fog Bridge can still wrap you in drifts of mystery every 30 minutes. With 150 new exhibits (formerly 'only' 450), there's plenty of room for art and science to coexist. If you're into algae and vibrant color, there's an air-pumping chandelier to play with. If you want to see your own reflection the way it looks from your eye's point of view (upside down) and hear your voice bounce off of a canyon wall, the Giant Mirror can help. The Tinkering Studio can help you put your invention ideas into practice. Kids who display unsual abilities in motion should check out the skateboard exibit and the sports science displays, which can range from baseball's popularity in Japan to the measurement of hockey collisions and your reaction time. More contemplative types might enjoy the gardening videos on carniverous plants and Antarctic greenhouses – or check out the effects of hybridization on seeds. (Older kids might want to know how coffee works and the process involved in making sparkling wine.) The microscopes at the Imaging Station show cells and fruit flies up close, and the activities and sculptures in the Geometry Playground can get kids interested in the science of shapes. Film and audio enthusiasts should find a home in the no-see-um Tactile Dome, Webcast Studio, or Kanbar Forum, with mix-and-match audio at Soundscapes (Tuesday and Friday) and “Off The Screen” showings of new film and live cinema performances (Wednesday and Saturday). Exploratorium, complete with a working Biology Lab, is the kind of place where both adults and kids can wander unrestrained, letting their curiosity guide them. (Nearly two acres of the new facility is dedicated to social and human behavior exhibits – outside and free to the public.) With programs for public and homeschooled kids alike, individual and group learning is encouraged without rules about what you can look at but not touch, with exhibits even at the eateries (including the Seaglass Restaurant's bay view and the made-to-order seismic joint café with sushi bar). Just remember to pack light sweaters in case of gusty weather, and strollers can be hard to get on weekends due to the first-come first-served basis.

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Junior Center Art and Science

558 Bellevue Ave.
Oakland, CA 94610

The Junior Center may be an under-appreciated Oakland gem. It's located just next to Lake Merrit's bird sanctuary, the still-popular Children's Fairyland, and the Oakland East Bay Garden Center, less than a mile away. It can be hard to find educational places that are open for free during the week, also offer science and art classes, and act as a drop-in center or camp during the summer. You and the kids can overlook the lake while looking at frogs and lizards, in the Animal Discovery sessions on Tuesdays and Fridays (free), or bring a picnic basket so that you can really explore the area around the lake. It's also fun to look around the room at the display of artwork and posters about the various animals, done by all of the kids who have explored their way through the Center. There are baskets of crayons and helpful staff who can show you how to draw, explain how the lizard can regrow its tail – and of course this will inspire your kids to add their artwork to the walls. Gary the tortoise is a real hands-on highlight. He's middle-aged, and a little slow, but his rescue story is inspiring – especially as he is now quite hale and healthy. It's also allowed to hold Tyler the bearded dragon, and the toads, but you might want to just admire the Madagascar hissing roaches from afar. On Tuesdays and Thursday mornings, parents of preschoolers can come and help their 'Little Leapers' get ready for a learning environment, doing art and science and music classes in groups. The after-school and summer courses can be taken for a very affordable fee, whether your kids want to build a bookcase and a chicken coop for the backyard (Carpentry for Kids) or become the next Calvin and Hobbes creator (Cartooning for Teens) with a side interest in charm bracelets (Jewelry/Metal Arts for Teens). The Rockets and Robots class is also very popular.

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Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose

180 Woz Way
San Jose, CA 95110

Crawl space for babies – check. Fire engine and ambulance if the San Francisco Fire Department Museum is too far away to visit – check. Interactive displays to keep kids' attention – definitely. Have the kids been asking questions about electricity and wind power, or do you want them to start asking questions? Get them to the Power Girl exhibit so they can generate enough power to convert into playhouse electricity and toy engine movement. More energy gets created if they use teamwork with their siblings, especially on the treadle. Since it takes some effort to get the electricity going, this display is also good for pointing out how much work is involved when kids leave the lights on and water running in the sink. Perhaps your kids are too old for the crawl space and are more interested in earth history. No problem, there are the excavated bones and a replica of a small mammoth that was discovered near the Guadalupe River in San Jose itself. If they're more interested in the gardening element of earth history, take them out to the garden, complete with a beehive. If you come in the first hour, the kids can learn while they help with the morning chores, or they can water the garden on the last open hour before they leave. However, if the touchscreens and videos are delivering too much information, the bubble room will let them stretch out bubbles larger, or investigate the colors, more than they can do with a small bubble blower at home. They can read about surface tension and iridescent colors if they want, move on to the music room to inspire their inner artist, or even create cornhusk dolls by hand. Also, the WaterWays area can inspire anyone to play and explore the properties of H2O as the colored plastic balls move down tunnels, wobble around the water wheel, and get pumped high in the air. The Wonder Cabinet is a good in-between spot for the toddler to five-year-old age range. The puppets go well with the books, the Sand Laboratory is good for kids discovering what their hands can make, and the kaleidescope can add some depth to color exploration from the bubble room. If they've had to scrub off their own artwork from the walls recently, they'll be delighted with the ongoing work of the Paint Wall, where they can splash on color with available pots and brushes. For Bob the Builder types, go out with them to the foam playground and see what they can create.

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Scientopia Discovery Center

1785 Tanen St.
Napa, CA 94559

Napa is known for its amazing views of winding countryside and vineyards, but before kids turn 21, where do they get to go? Napa also offers Scientopia, an educational indoor playground. It allows parents going on wine-tasting tours to get a designated kid-watcher and drop off the kids, so that the kids can play house and blocks to their hearts' content. And that's just the beginning. Once the shoes are in the cubby, watch out. If parents decide to stay, they can get in for free. However, they might get run over by little ones on their way to the art tables, the grocery store, the drama dress-up area, or the train table. The 5-year-olds can head to the Brainiacs Lab for the turntable and marble runs, see and touch insects, or make noise in the Wind Tunnel. For tomorrow's engineers, there are ramps to be assembled, and pulleys to show the power of cooperation in lifting heavy objects. The Shadow Wall and the smell center help along the imagination, while the magnet table and Bernoulli Blower can show how invisible forces have visible results. If the kids love the outdoors, and it's a clear day, the garden has plants, worms – and bubbles. This can entertain children of all ages, chasing the bubbles through the herbs, around the fountain, and over the gravel pit. After going outside, future chefs may get inspired to bring in dishes like Worm Pie to serve at the indoor 1950's diner area, supplemented by all of the sand and shovels and buckets in the sand pit, and garnished by herbs near the fountain – just remind them that worms are happier outside and uneaten. They can always make invisible Worm Pies and serve them in Castle Pretend. There's also an area of 'dirt' made out of recycled rubber, which is always good for talking about making good use of our resources. The bathrooms are kept clean, and so are the toys. If toys start to look grubby, they get thrown in the bin for cleaning. If the kids start to look dirty, they can 'accidentally' get sprayed by the soda geyser. Definitely bring an extra change of clothes, just in case the fountain gets to be too much of a temptation to resist. Scientopia is smaller than the San Jose Kids' Museum, but the prices are also smaller, and there are plenty of edu-fun opportunities.

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USS Hornet

707 W Hornet Ave.
Alameda, CA 94501

For a 900-foot aircraft carrier, the location of the USS Hornet is more hidden than might be expected. Once you arrive at the parking lot, the signs make it easy to get on board. The workings of the engine room should fascinate any kids who like to know how things work, while the flight deck and jets are just as fascinating visually as they are once you find out how they work. Bringing children under the age of five might be a small challenge, as the ship is large and might be a little spooky, especially the sick bay. History buffs will love seeing the sleeping bunks where men rested until it was time for them to be on duty, the elevators for the fighter planes, and the popular Apollo 11 exhibit. Essentially, this is a walkable, tourable World War II documentary, with live guides to explain the workings of aircraft and people from another era. The Officers' Lounge shows the history of other ships named 'Hornet', Ready Room 4 shows photos of fighter planes, Hangar Bay 3 shows some of the Nisei soldiers' contributions in combat and intelligence, and the second deck has a room dedicated to one of the everyday crewmembers and his team. Don't miss the forecastle tour if you can work it in, because it shows a miniature version of Titanic-like damage done by a typhoon. The hangar deck exhibit on Apollo 11 and 12 adds in a peacetime element of education, and information about how people traveled to the moon to explore. The hand stamp at admission makes it easy to tour a little and then take breaks outside, which is ideal if you want to do more food tours than history tours. The flight simulator is worth a little extra charge for kids who really need some multimedia thrills. Everyone does need to arrive in sturdy walking shoes and tote along a windbreaker, because going up and down the narrow stairs can really be difficult without comfortable footwear – and there are some chilly areas. Also, bring a camera to take some shots of panoramic San Francisco views from the flight deck.

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