Toddlers' Guide to the Exploratorium - 510 Families
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Toddlers’ Guide to the Exploratorium

Wishing to take a toddler to the epic San Francisco Exploratorium but don’t know where to begin? Let us help. We know how to enjoy the Exploratorium with toddlers and three-year olds. Take a deep breath and let’s go!

The 3-year olds guide to the Exploratorium #preschoolers #toddlers #sanfrancisco

My three-year old loved the monochromatic room

I am very proud to present the first in our long series: The three-year olds guide to everything fun in the Bay Area! Do you  have an opinionated three-year old? If so, I’d love for you to add to the body of knowledge available to other parents.

So here we go!

Getting to Exploratorium with toddlers

San Francisco’s Exploratorium is a superfun hands-on science museum set on the picturesque waterfront right near the Bay Bridge butting up to Piers 15/17. Getting there is pretty rad. I think three-year old Sawyer called it “super epic” riding the BART, getting a mini scone from Starbucks and playing with the installations out front. We didn’t even stop at the very tempting playground on the other side of Market Street because I diverted his attention. If we had played at Sue Bierman Park for just a bit, I may have been willing to scrap the entire visit… because “super epic” all before the price of admission.

Even if you save yourself admission price and just go to the outside of the building, your preschooler will probably have a blast! You can chase birds, look for boats, and ride/slide this thing pictured below all for zero dollars.

The 3-year olds guide to the Exploratorium #preschoolers #toddlers #sanfrancisco
Sawyer is holding 3 fingers because we’re testing the museum for all three-year olds!

My husband and I took my nearly three-year-old to the Exploratorium with his two older brothers. No question, the big boys got a lot out of it. Nearly every exhibit is fun stuff you can touch, so unlike other museums where captions are everything, ability to read the accompanying words is icing on the cake. I loved it enough that I’d seriously consider a kid-free date night. But let’s talk about the little guy. After we’ve decided that we’re definitely going through the door, what are the must-do activities for preschoolers at the Exploratorium? (Read more about Exploratorium with big kids!)

Favorite Exploratorium exhibits & activities for a tot

Once we arrived, we headed straight and then hooked left toward the tinkering lab. We never actually made it to the tinkering lab — which I think is probably best for older kids anyway — because the various hands-on exhibits kept distracting us with their alluring features.

Sawyer’s favorite was the spinning blackboard with soft sand. You can scoop, touch, swirl, and even throw (before your parents scold you) for a really long time. I’d estimate we stood there for at least 30 solid minutes before pressing on. Is it snack time yet?

The 3-year olds guide to the Exploratorium #preschoolers #toddlers #sanfrancisco
The Exploratorium spinny art sand table is toddler approved!

There are so many exhibits with knobs and big eye-catching displays that you can’t go wrong with wandering. I will caution you that a small curious three-year-old can easily wander off in the darker middle part of the museum.

The 3-year olds guide to the Exploratorium #preschoolers #toddlers #sanfrancisco
The museum is littered with distractions to futz with.

Our friend and {510} Families contributor, Becky, says, “My daughters love running around and touching everything. The three year-old doesn’t really understand any of the exhibits, but still has fun playing. We packed lunch and haven’t eaten there. They really like the light exhibits because they almost “get it” and they are amused with themselves.” Read her full report on the Exploratorium on her blog.

The 3-year olds guide to the Exploratorium #preschoolers #toddlers #sanfrancisco
Maren, age 3, could dance for minutes at a time!
Check out the fog tunnel if you're at the Exploratorium with a 3YO
Maren is loving the fog tunnel at the Exploratorium

My friend Patrick reported, “Our daughter Lila loved the spinning sand wheels where you can make designs, the activity with the orange and white spinning contraption that kids could play inside (it was near the coffee both), the monochromatic room, and the optical illusion “touch the spring” (someone had placed a $5 bill in it).”

After lunch, we caught some more exhibits in the back half of the building. We watched a chicken embryo’s heartbeat (amazing!), played with sound and light, and (upstairs) stared at dry ice for 22 minutes straight.

Exploratorium sound experiments |
Exploratorium sound experiments | Photo: Melissa Moore

Melissa, mother to two young ones, reports that her kids find a new interest every time they visit. “The exhibits that involve sight, sound, microscopes or magnets are almost always our favorites, and we return to them every visit. In any given area, approximately 10-20% of the exhibits are easily accessible to preschoolers and possibly another 20-30% are accessible with adult assistance. I’d say that about half of the exhibits in the museum are conceptually too difficult and frustrating for a preschooler.”

The outdoor play structure looks appealing but has a height requirement that very few three-year olds will approach. Also, once if your daredevil preschooler talks you into trying it, you’ll likely have to fish them out of a rather high-up tube. Best to skip it if you can!

So, how’s the food?

In a word: EXPENSIVE. There are two places to buy food in the museum.

The cafe (up front) menu looked three-year-old approved with quesadillas, hot dogs, and even gogo Squeez applesauce pouches.  Dogs and ‘dillas were about $8 each. Gulp. Instead of eating there, we packed sandwiches and ate outside among the gorgeous Bay views and pigeons.

Melissa shares again, “We have eaten at the restaurant inside the Exploratorium. It is set up cafeteria-style and is very similar to the restaurant inside the California Academy of Sciences. Unfortunately, it lacks the variety of that restaurant, and there are few kid-friendly options. We always end-up with some yummy pork tacos and an over-priced cheese quesadilla.”

Food time, The 3-year olds guide to the Exploratorium #preschoolers #toddlers #sanfrancisco

After lunch, we played in the back half of the museum having reentered through the beautiful sea glass restaurant. Not surprisingly, the amenities are lovely but the food is also crazy expensive. My advice is to take the time to pack sandwiches and snacks. Treat yourselves to a giant overpriced cookie after a long day of learning and playing.

Sawyer loved the Exploratorium. Though he hoped we could stop by the playground on the way back to BART, he was passed out in his stroller from the minute we exited the museum.

Exhausted from the perfect day at the Exploratorium

Other details to plan a visit

  • RATES: Your 3-year old is FREE; Adults $29, Youth $24; Children $19 (Ask for Bay Area rates: $22/$19/$17 or check out the Discover & Go program for FREE tickets and special discount/free days!)
  • PARKING: You can purchase parking at a paid lot in advance, with help from online service, Spot Hero. Use code PARK510 to save $5 on your first pre-paid parking experience.
  • HOURS: Tuesday – Sunday 10am to 5pm with some holiday hours; Thursday evenings are adults-only for $15/ticket. I may get that date night yet.
  • WEB:
  • More about the Exploratorium on

[All photos by Heather Flett, Melissa Moore or Becky Matthews as noted. All rights reserved]

We visited the Exploratorium using a media pass. All opinions are my own (or those of my friends).

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2 thoughts on “Toddlers’ Guide to the Exploratorium”

  1. So glad we went on a free day. We did the museum backwards to avoid the crowd, and our 3-year-old liked the sound and light exhibits, but ended up spending probably an hour in the monochrome room. We took turns hanging out with him while he pushed the little car conveyor belt and worked the flashlight.

  2. Pingback: Free Museum Passes? Sign Me Up! - 510 Families

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