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The Call of the Wild

Find the best kid-friendly natural history museums

My older son Jacob was late to talk but early to oink. He also showed a precocious ability to gobble, cluck, and neigh. We might have worried more about his delay in human speech had he not been so good at identifying animals in his wildlife encyclopedia. "Where's the red-footed booby?" we would ask, feeling relieved when he pointed to the bird.

It came as no surprise, then, that Jacob loved natural history museums. Even at age 2 he could spend hours gazing at dioramas of African mammals, long after I wore out. For certain kids, natural history museums become beloved places where fact and fantasy mingle, working a potent kind of enchantment.

But in order to hear the thunder of tyrannosaurs running, it helps to have adult inspiration: A museum comes alive when parents play wilderness guide, says Steve Sauter, education coordinator at Amherst College's Museum of Natural History in Amherst, Massachusetts. Rather than walk in cold, he suggests, try doing a little Internet research together first, or skim the late paleontologist Stephen Jay Gould's The Book of Life, an illustrated history of evolution. If you can't brush up beforehand, just quickly read the museum labels as you go and give your kids the dramatic highlights.

And I do mean dramatic. Playing the role of mammoth, I'd clunk my feet on the floor, imitating its massively heavy footsteps. I'd dig down through the snow with my tusks, grab the grasses with my long trunk, and start to munch. But wait, what's that? The mammoth's most dangerous predator — a man! Jacob and Milo, his younger brother, loved playing hunter, but they always let the mammoth escape in the end. When you're playing teacher, a few dates can go far. It's helpful to remember that life began 3.5 billion years ago, with one-celled organisms. Dinosaurs died out 65 million years ago, long before humans appeared. Mammoths and other large Ice Age mammals came much later, becoming extinct only about 10,000 years ago.

It helps, too, to hit a kid where he lives. Milo goes through sequential obsessions. At 6, he left Star Wars behind and suddenly wanted to learn everything about gems and minerals. For this, the Harvard Museum of Natural History in Cambridge, Massachusetts, was El Dorado. The mineral hall's specimens from around the world include 4-foot-tall Mexican gypsum crystals and an amethyst geode so big Milo could practically fit inside. At the gift shop, I let him pick out lots of inexpensive minerals, which he spent hours arranging back home.

Harvard also has a sizable collection of "stuffed" animals from all over the world. Jacob has long been fascinated by egg-laying mammals, such as the platypus and the echidna, and we found both in the Great Mammal Hall.

Chances are you have some kind of local or college museum where you live. Typically smaller and unintimidating, they're great places to learn about local flora and fauna, and it doesn't hurt that admission often is free. We are lucky to live near the Amherst College museum and my kids visit their favorite specimens over and over: Jacob, 12, runs first to the Dunkleosteus, a huge ancient fish with armored eyeballs. Milo, 8, bounces from the dinosaur diorama to the coprolites — that's fossilized dino poop to you.

For Jacob and Milo, natural history museums offer up some mighty fine specimens.

Ye olde curiosity shoppe

The American Museum of Natural History in New York City is the ne plus ultra of natural history museums. Go there. Now. Head straight to the habitat dioramas. Jacob would stand mesmerized before the huge Alaska brown bears in their snowy wilderness.

Milo was happiest in the Hall of African Mammals, among the mandrills, gorillas, and chimps. And who can forget the blue whale hanging in the Hall of Ocean Life, impossibly gigantic, with weirdly tiny eyes?

Consider splurging on a sleepover. Children must be at least 8 to attend "A Night at the Museum." But plan far in advance; it fills up fast.

Wild Kingdoms

Some natural history museums are so extraordinary, they're worth a special trip (even if it's only virtual). The Field Museum in Chicago is home to "Sue," the world's largest skeleton of a Tyrannosaurus rex.

The Page Museum of La Brea Tar Pits in Los Angeles has a fantastic collection of Ice Age fossils, and archaeological digs are held on the grounds.

The Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History in Washington, D.C., has 126 million specimens, from lichens to whales.

About the Author
Nancy Pick is author of The Rarest of the Rare: Stories Behind the Treasures at the Harvard Museum of Natural History.

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