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Asian Art Museum

200 Larkin St.
San Francisco, CA 94102

Unlike some museums, Asian Art incorporates both visual and interactive experiences. Not only will the kids be fascinated by the intricate Buddha statues, they can also take photographs without anyone pointing to printed-out rules of policy. Even the cafe is an interactive experience, and has more choices than just egg rolls and chicken salad. There's miso soup, there's Tokyo Ramen with tree ear mushrooms, there's Korean spicy beef....and Sake Sliders. Two of the only items you could get anywhere else would be the hot dog and french fries option, but it pays to have something that everyone recognizes. Of course, there are teas, and the kids may want to try them just for the names: Three Flower Celebration, Dragon Eyes, Plum Blossom. If you forget your water bottles, there are free cups and water abounding. Really, the cafe choices could describe the rest of the museum experiences, which range from pottery and painted postures to pork belly food samples. There are some standard calligraphy and painting exhibits, scrolls and sculptures, and Ming vases. However, since Asian territory covers many countries, you can view the similarities and differences between displays on Korea, China, Japan, and India – to name a few. Also, the yoga and Mandala cosmic center exhibits also have interactive classes for a reasonable fee. You and the kids can go through the gallery at a leisurely pace, learn postures and stretching, hear storytelling, and make some take-home modern art. Between the three floors, it would be almost impossible to be bored in this place of cultural learning. Most people recommend starting at the top third floor, with many of the standard exhibits, and then going down to the interactive first floor. This is especially important when taking a family tour, because the kids will probably be even more keen on doing their own art after seeing so many great examples.

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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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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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Children's Fairyland

699 Bellevue Ave., Oakland, CA 94610

Ever wish for an old-time magical kingdom to go with younger kids, that didn't cost as much as Disneyland? Welcome to Children's Fairyland, the place where the Bubble Man dwells and puppet masters rule. Anyone who remembers the story of the Three Little Pigs will want to go inside their house, and of course the short train ride is too short, so you'll have to go again. Some of the older fairytales aren't known to the kids, or even some of the younger parents, so it can be a good reason to break out a copy of Grimms' Fairy Stories on the next trip to the library. The rides are low-key, from the Ferris Wheel to the Jolly Trolley, which is perfect for kids under the age of seven. There's even a merry-go-round for the younger and older kids, because of height restrictions. The puppet show can bring to life Goldilocks and the Three Bears, or the City Mouse and the Country Mouse. The crooked house is just the place for pretending, especially after the Alice in Wonderland tunnel and maze, and kids have a blast sliding down Jack and Jill Hill. If the kids want to see and touch something more warm and personal, well, fairy tales always have animals in them. There are soft bunnies and guinea pigs, three little cackling hens, baby doll sheep, donkeys and goats, an alpaca – and a pony. Visitors during summer get to see something really unique: Children's Community Theatre. Kids get to dress up and put on shows for other kids, so it could be a Western about a cowgirl out to conquer the bull-riding circuit, it could be a fantasy about an orphan who meets a dragon princess disguised as a fish. Watch the calendar to see what the kids and directors thought up this year. Of course, fairy wonderlands can sometimes show warts. Some parents have commented on how the paint needs to be re-done in spots, and that some of the kids get disappointed when they don't meet the height or weight requirements. It's true that Fairyland has more gardens than new equipment, but that's what gives it an old-time feel – and the kids enjoy themselves anyway.

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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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Jewish Community Center

3200 California St.
San Francisco, CA 94118

Most people know that the Jewish Community Center has a great gym, but there are more things to do there than just work out. Sure, the facility is clean and there are locker rooms, but the kids also have a place here. However, you may want to check the website before taking a trip there, because there are many days and times when some things are open and some are closed. The fitness center is often open when the front desk is closed, but on many holidays (i.e. Passover and Rosh Hashanah) when everything shuts down at sunset (6 pm). For another example, the second-floor kids' playground is open seasonally on the weekends, between the start of April and the end of August. The library is open at certain hours on Wednesday and Thursday, but there's also a pushcart that can be accessed on Monday, Tuesday, and Friday. However, the Community Center also offers a vast range of programs. The fitness center hosts Pilates and yoga and swim classes. You can even get a spa treatment or massage if the muscles cramp up. The Arts & Ideas theatre hosts concerts and lectures, so you might hear Grease showtunes and the Maccabeats one week, and see cooking shows on hummus and falafel the next week. If the Monday clay and wine classes don't grab you, maybe a photography or driver safety class will. That's just a list of what's geared toward the adults. Your kids can fill in off days by signing up for camps during school breaks, attending an award-winning swimming school, molding clay or sculpting ceramics in art class, dancing through gym class, or combining all of those things by joining the afterschool program. If your older kids really want to stretch themselves, there's always chess club or language arts or cooking classes. The mixture of sports and arts should be enough to keep any family occupied, and if there are any gaps – there's always the Urban Gardening classes.

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Lemos Farm

12320 San Mateo Rd.
Half Moon Bay, CA 94019

If you're inspired by a local farmers market, or your kids wonder what it would be like to ride a pony, choo-choo train and a tractor, Lemos Farm is the weekend place to go. The goats can't be ridden, but for $1 per cup they can be fed, and so can the ducks and the wishing well – you have to cross its lip with silver. The train has gotten decorated with festive scenes over the years, so you may see Christmas decorations mixed with Western scenes. Christmas trees and pumpkins can also be chosen here instead of at a local lot. You can come on a weekend, park the kids on ponies and wear them out in laser tag, and then wander around finding the perfect fir that will house all of the kids' art projects and glittery ornaments all through December, or the perfect scary jack-o-lantern. While Lemos Farm is agriculturally themed, there are some unique offerings besides the Pumpkin Patch and the hay ride. From September through the end of October, kids can be entertained in the haunted house. No reservations are needed for zapping each other in laser tag, though it does cost $10 for 20 minutes. That may be one of the few drawbacks, that there are a few items not covered in the price of admission – laser tag is one, and operating a tractor in the Dig Zone is another. Otherwise, you do have the choice of just paying single tickets for items like Playtown and the hay ride – or you can get unlimited rides on the train and ponies and everything else by getting a day pass. Playtown is not to be missed for its mix of bouncy houses and rocking horses. This strange blend of activities goes back to the history of Lemos Farm, in which the current owner's city-dwelling grandfather was offered a cow as a debt payment. Since the cow was in the family way, a few more cows were bought and put on a farm to create a working dairy, but all that work required a tractor that still chugs around the grounds today. The pony rides and haunted house came in after the owners started thinking about expanding their Christmas tree side business with pumpkins. Lemos Farm is the place where anything can happen.

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