Portland Children's Museum

Photo courtesy of Patrick JohnsonImagination comes alive at the Portland Children's Museum

By Patrick Johnson
For Oregon.com

Suddenly, without warning, lights and sirens went off inside the Portland Children's Museum near downtown Portland.

Instead of a stampede of parents and children rushing out of the building near the Oregon Zoo, there was laughter and the screams of a little girl saying, "How did you do that?!"

The Metro-West model ambulance is just a part of the Providence Health System's Kids Care area where children and adults alike can play E.R. with everything from X-rays to examine to the lights and siren of the ambulance (my personal favorite).

The 55-year-old museum, which started when visionaries of Portland decided that the city needed place for children to gather, plan and learn, boasts more than 200,000 people every year. The museum moved to its Washington Park location in 2001 from a historic home on Lair Hill. Since it has moved there have been more than 1 million visitors.

Each day you can see a stream of kids, parents, teachers and adults filing into the museum to learn, explore and just have fun.

The museum is designed for children from ages 6-months to 10 years old, with more than six different areas to explore. Each area has a different focus, from the Baby Garden with littler children in mind, to the Kid City Market where kids can shop (with a working scanner) and pretend to make meals for people who come to the drive in or to a kid-sized restaurant. Here are just a few of the highlighted areas:

The Dig Pit: The Dig Pit is where kids can dig in rubber pieces that look like dirt - without needing a half-a-gallon of Spray N Wash after playing in the "mud." Surrounded by a three-walled mural of a construction site, this area also features a conveyor belt, shovels and buckets for children to dig and play with.

The Water Works: Visitors who walk into the museum for the first time are amazed at the first area they see - Water Works. It features valves, fountains, funnels, and floats that show kids how water is moved and used. Yes, there are slickers for kids before they enter the area - and a bank of warm blowers for when they are done splish-splashing.

Building Bridgetown: Do you have a little contractor in your family? They will love this exhibit which shows children how houses are built. From plumbing and open walls, children can panel a wall, connect plumbing fixtures, take measurements and lay sod in this 17-foot-high, 2 story exhibit.

The Studios: If you have a little artist in the family, plan to spend most of your time in The Studios, an area where they can paint, sculpt, design and explore. From a small puppet theater, to an area where kids can paint their own faces, be ready for creativity to go wild. Children can play and create with clay and paints in The Studio and it's lined with the work of those who visit. You can take your child's "Venus de Milo" home for an additional fee.

The museum also can accommodate field trips, classes, birthday parties, camps and you can even rent out the museum. The museum operates by using volunteers and members sponsor the operations.

About the Portland Children's Museum: The museum was founded in 1949 and was originally called "The Junior Museum." It featured exhibits on natural history, crafts, a clay studio, and even a pet lending library. The museum's location has changed over the years, from an historic mansion to it's current home in the beautiful forests of Washington Park in a building formally occupied by the Oregon Museum of Science and Industry. The Children's Museum is dedicated to inspiring imagination, creativity, and the wonder of learning in children and adults by inviting moments of shared discovery.

Tips: First and foremost, bring your camera to capture your child discovering and exploring. Make sure you have a flash, as it's indoors and lighting can be challenging in some areas. Give yourself plenty of time - a full day at least, as children can spend hours playing with clay or pretending to build a new house. Creativity can't be rushed - just ask my editor.

What to bring: Bring some extra money if you want to walk away with your child's creation in The Studio. What isn't recycled costs the museum extra money and they do charge if you want to keep or fire clay sculptures.

A change of clothes for your child isn't a bad idea, especially if you are going to be visiting other attractions in the area. While the smocks and slickers do their best to keep kids clean, playing in the water and with clay can make for some grungy little ones.

March 1 through August 31, open Monday - Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m.
September 1 through February 28, open Tuesday - Saturday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday, 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. Closed Mondays.

Getting there: The musuem is located five minutes west of downtown Portland on Highway 26. Watch for the signs for the zoo.

For more information about the Portland Children's Museum, visit their web site or contact them at 503-223-6500.

Story by Patrick Johnson, a free-lance writer based in Canby, OR.