How to have a great day at a museum? Step into your kid’s (lunar-powered) shoes.

This post was written by Abigail Kutlas, who studies Learning Sciences at Northwestern University. This summer, Abigail is a museum intern and researcher in Washington, DC. Her research focuses on family engagement and accessibility for children with intellectual disabilities.

What would you invent to help someone see differently? Ask an eight-year-old and a thirty-eight-year-old and you’ll get very different answers.

When we posed this question to our visitors at the hands-on, maker-space-esque exhibit I work in, the youngest patrons were fountains of innovative ideas. They drew elaborate lunar-powered shirts, shorts, and shoes so soccer players could practice at night. They wanted to make a virtual reality headset so you could see information about your favorite constellations just by looking at them. One jokester even sketched carrots.

The answer I got nearly every time from grown-ups? Glasses. Nothing special or new, just glasses, like the ones perched on my own nose.  

Something similar happens when I watch kids sit down at a table with an open-ended prompt, like “How can you project an image onto a screen?” They start by sifting through every available material, and they work until they’ve found two or four or ten solutions, often using every Lego in sight. And most of the answers they come up with make sense, because they intuitively understand that lenses and light, in some combination, will help them reach their target.

Meanwhile, their parents often turn to me within seconds of sitting down and ask, “What’s the right answer?”

I don’t fault grown-ups for thinking like this. It’s a combination of what our traditional education system has taught us to value and the many hats we wear when we take our kiddos out into the world: timekeeper, taskmaster, bathroom-runner, and above all, expert. Each of those roles is important at times, but for a museum experience that lasts in the minds of all family members, I wish parents could check most of their hats at the door when they walk in.

The best advice I can give to adults visiting any museum with children is to be 25 percent grown-up and 75 percent kid while you’re there.

Go ahead and use your advanced fluency skills and big vocabulary to make sense of the information given on plaques and signs, but then assume your role as a kid and just enjoy it.

On your day at the museum:

  • Ask questions with the assumption that there are no right or wrong answers.
  • Talk about connections between what you’re seeing and anything (literally, anything) it reminds you of.
  • Don’t feel obligated to see every single thing in every exhibit. Let your and your kids’ natural interests tell you where to linger, which exhibits to race through, and which to avoid.
  • When you discover something new or are confused, stop and pay attention to those feelings. Discuss them with your kids. In other words, model the fact that learning is a lifelong process.

I see our youngest visitors do most of these things naturally, and it enhances their learning and overall experience when they see their grown-ups behaving this way too.

As museum professionals, we have theories upon theories about how to engage your children, but in the end, you spend every day with them and have so much more influence over their experiences than we ever can. We do our best to facilitate experiences that will be meaningful to kids and stick with them. But when parents let go and learn to walk through the museum like their kids do—with boundless imagination, curiosity, and amazement—that’s when the truly lasting impressions happen.

That’s also when parents and kids have the most fun!

Abigail Kutlas


Getting a summer education

Annette Lucksinger is an instructor at St. Edward’s University, a mom of two, and author of the guidebook and mobile app Exploring Austin with Kids. She stopped by Alt Ed Austin to share some of her best ideas for fun places around Austin to learn with kids this summer. You can find even more ideas for summer adventures in Annette’s guide, or read about her favorite places, events, and people on the Exploring Austin with Kids blog.

Summertime learning is my favorite kind. It’s looser, less structured. There are no alarm clocks. No tardy bells. We can stay at an activity for as long as our focus will hold, and lessons tend to be more hands-on and experiential. Learning comes as fun.

It’s a sensory season too. Blasts of heat greet us as we walk outdoors, balanced by snow cones, ice cream, and sweet plunges into springs and swimming pools. Squeals of joy, splashes, and the whistles of lifeguards fill the air, hushed by the quiet glow of lightning bugs as things wind down after long, full days.

As we jump into summer, here are some ideas for keeping kids’ minds and bodies active while making for a memorable, fun-filled summer. Even better, most of them are free!

Summer Events

View the Congress Avenue Bridge Bats by Boat
While the bats are impressive to watch by land (and free with an informational kiosk nearby), viewing them by boat makes it even more educational. Captain-led tours offer information about bats, as well as history, city planning, and the changing Austin skyline as you tour the lake waiting for sunset. Pack snacks and drinks.
When: Departures 30 minutes before sunset; tours last an hour.
Where: Book through Lone Star River Boat or Capital Cruises.
Tips: Make reservations, and allow time for parking.

Nature Nights at Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center
This annual event teaches young visitors about Texas ecology and its plants and animals through nature crafts, short expert-led hikes, and interactive presentations and activities. Each week focuses on a unique theme, and the new Luci and Ian Children’s Garden makes it a perfect place to spend an evening. Check the website for this year’s schedule.
When:  Thursday evenings in June and July from 6pm to 9pm.
Tips: Get there early for parking (and for a limited number of auditorium tickets when a presentation is part of the week’s event). Pack bug repellent.

Zilker Hillside Theater
Younger children can absorb the arts as they roll and roam on the hillside while older kids take it in from blankets beneath the stars. Pack a picnic and drinks. (If you arrive early, set up your blanket, then take a dip in Barton Springs Pool or hop on the Zilker Zephyr while you await the evening festivities.) It’s a nice way to introduce children to Shakespeare (Thursdays–Sundays in May). In July and August, performances shift to Broadway musicals. Free.
When: Performances begin at sundown. Stake your spot beginning at 6pm.
Tips: Pack snacks, drinks, pillows, and glow sticks.


Art, history, science, and natural history lessons for all ages can be experienced at nearby museums. Another good thing about these is that many of them are air-conditioned for those hot summer days, and all of them offer free days or times. (Museums are listed below in order of age appeal.)

When visiting Austin’s children’s museum in the Mueller development, add a picnic in Lake Park across the street or a swim in the neighborhood’s Ella Wooten Pool or nearby Bartholomew City Pool. For babies and toddlers, visit the museum during Baby Bloomers hours when the museum is open exclusively for ages 0–3 (Mondays 9am –12pm and Saturdays 9am– 10am). Every Wednesday from 4pm– 8pm admission is free or by donation.

Umlauf Scuplture Garden
This outdoor museum offers lush, shady places to wander along stroller-friendly paths past beautiful sculpture pieces. Ask for the scavenger hunt for preschoolers and up. Free on Family Day, Sunday, June 7th, with special activities for 4- to 10-year-olds.

Contemporary Museum at Laguna Gloria
Strolling the paths of this beautiful spot along Lake Austin, kids can seek out the new art installments added to the grounds or visit the Driscoll Villa to see European-style architecture. You can also check out an Action Pack filled with materials to engage kids during their visit. Second Saturdays Are for Families offers hands-on activities for kids age 2–11. Free every Tuesday.

Bob Bullock Texas History Museum
With plenty of room to roam among three floors of Texas history exhibits and with its two theaters showing feature films and short educational films on animals, the Lone Star state, and history, this museum is a favorite, especially on hot or rainy days. Family storytimes are on Mondays at 11am during the summer. First Sundays offer free admission and additional kid-focused activities.

Texas Memorial Museum
In this museum on the University of Texas campus, you will find three floors of animal, insect, fossil, and bone exhibits from dinosaur times to modern day, with a fourth floor to engage older children in evolution and biodiversity. Free on Saturday, June 6, with family activities 10am–4pm.

Camp Mabry Military Museum
For children interested in Texas military history from 1903 to present day, this spacious museum in Camp Mabry’s old mess hall houses a surprisingly engaging collection for kids that is worth checking out. Tanks, helicopters, and aircraft are on display outside the museum, and a nature trail and pond are also on the base. Take your driver’s license for entry. Free, or by donation.

Texas Capitol Visitors Center
Ever wondered what the white building at the edge of the Capitol grounds holds? It’s not just for tourists! This free museum offers hands-on, kid-focused Texas history exhibits, and the building itself is fun to explore, with hidden staircases and telescopes.

Blanton Museum of Art
My favorite exhibit for young children is Cildo Meireles’ How to Build Cathedrals in the Modern Art Gallery, while older children will find a variety of their own favorites. Free on Thursdays.

Farm Life

Boggy Creek Farm
This urban farm allows kids to see how the food they eat is grown, and with the market open Wednesday–Saturday mornings, they can taste it too. The farm also offers a glimpse into Austin’s past with its old farmhouse on the grounds. Young kids will enjoy the chickens and adjacent dirt pile for playing in.

Crowe’s Nest Farm
For a short day trip, this educational farm near Manor offers tours of themed gardens, a milking barn, and a host of animals, from those you would expect to see on a farm (dairy cows, goats, pigs, and chickens) to more exotic creatures that make their home here (bison, emus, coatimundis, and raptors). Picnic tables are available for lunch/snacks. Contact the farm for reservations. They also host a half-day summer camp in June.

Green Gate Farms
Education is central to the mission of this East Austin farm. While families are welcome to visit during market hours, kids can get a true sense of agricultural life during “Farmer for a Day” camp or in weeklong, themed “Summer Farm Camps.” Learning the skills that used to be absorbed through daily life on the farm, campers become empowered to plant, harvest, cook (in a solar oven), and preserve food. Or they might choose to tend to the livestock, build farm structures, focus on the microscopic (including fairies), or learn of farming systems from around the world. (Another bonus: workshops and “Farm Camp for Adults” are offered too.)

 Annette Lucksinger

Making the invisible visible at the Hill Country Science Mill

We’ve fallen in love with the Hill Country Science Mill, and we think your family will, too. Alt Ed Austin contributor Shelley Sperry recently interviewed the new museum’s founder. Read all about it below, and then scroll down to enter our giveaway to win four passes to the Grand Opening on Valentine’s Day!

Amazing things are happening in a grist-mill-turned-science-museum in Johnson City. At the new Hill Country Science Mill a team of science educators and entrepreneurs is bringing innovative, hands-on science, technology, engineering, and math education to kids of all ages.

The Mill, which opens on Saturday, February 14, will serve students in nearby rural and small-town schools as well as urban students from Austin and San Antonio. All exhibits are bilingual—with explanations in Spanish and English—and all are designed to turn boys and girls into passionate doers and makers.

“We want to see engagement! We believe all kids are born with innate curiosity. They want to explore and do stuff,” says Bonnie Baskin, a scientist-entrepreneur and one of the Science Mill’s founders. Soon after moving to Johnson City, Bonnie was drawn to the rundown nineteenth-century mill that now houses the museum. She knew that the massive structure, silos, and creek could be an ideal setting for the kind of education project she and her husband, neuroscientist Robert Elde, had long dreamed of.  

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“You don’t fall in love with science by reading about it; you fall in love by doing it!” Bonnie and her team believe that middle school is a crucial time for engaging kids in science and math, so many exhibits are designed to connect with middle-schoolers’ devotion to technology and games. Each visitor gets a 3D avatar, or “science buddy” that she or he customizes. All over the Mill, kids check in at kiosks and tablets, and their avatars let them choose favorites and provide new information about the work scientists and engineers do. And then the kids take their avatars home.

“Why should a museum be confined within walls? We want to extend the experience into kids’ lives at home and at school. We want to engage students for the long term—not just for a few hours.” They can access more information by logging into the museum website, and their science buddies will join them to explore favorite topics again and again.

The museum’s grand opening is on Saturday, February 14th. Special activities and musical performances have been scheduled to help kick-off the day. Proceeds from the Grand Opening will benefit the Science Mill's Scholarship Program, which will help defray the admission and transportation costs for field trips and enrollment in science programs and camps for qualified students.

Bonnie finds it hard to choose a favorite exhibit, but one she’s especially proud of is the “cell phone disco.” Inside one of the 40-foot silos, thousands of red LED lights respond to students’ cell phones when they send texts. The interaction between their phones and the lights demonstrates the power of electromagnetic waves.

“It’s such a great example of making the invisible visible, which is just what we want to do at the Science Mill.”

Shelley Sperry

You have three ways to enter our random drawing for a family pack of passes to the Hill Country Science Mill’s Grand Opening on Valentine’s Day. The giveaway ends at midnight on Tuesday; we'll announce the winner on Wednesday morning. Good luck!

UPDATE: Congratulations to the winner of our random drawing, Tammy W.! And thanks to everyone who entered. We hope you’ll make it out to the Science Mill soon, and visit Alt Ed Austin often.

Celebrating informal science education in Texas

Emily Weerts has been an educator and program manager for museums, preschools, special education classrooms, and afterschool classes. She has been a member of the Informal Science Education Association of Texas (ISEA) since 2011 and currently serves on its board of directors. Emily is passionate about connecting with fellow educators and believes that great learning opportunities can happen anywhere.

Frank Oppenheimer, the visionary founder of San Francisco’s Exploratorium, once noted that “no one ever flunked a museum.” As a lifelong learner, I find the sentiment resonates with me—there are countless venues rich with educational opportunities, many that celebrate a learner-driven, informal approach to attaining new knowledge.

The field of science is particularly rich with informal venues; from museums to zoos, from state parks to aquariums, there are many science-rich institutions welcoming individuals, families, and classes interested in self-directed learning experiences. The Informal Science Education Association of Texas (ISEA) was founded in 1997 to support partnerships among informal and formal science educators to improve science education in Texas.

ISEA Texas defines informal science education as providing unique learning environments that increase appreciation and understanding of science, mathematics, and technology and their applications through voluntary and often self-directed experiences for individuals of all ages and backgrounds. Those interested in alternative schooling and inspiring learning experiences will relate deeply to the educators and professionals brought together by ISEA.

The firepit at Sky Ranch, venue for this year’s ISEA Texas conference

ISEA's annual conference will be held February 18–20 at Sky Ranch in Van, Texas. This year's conference theme is “Creating Connections: Building the Future,” and Dr. Gerald Liberman, PhD, will be delivering a keynote address focused on designing and implementing successful environmental education programs. As a museum educator I've had the pleasure of attending three previous conferences, and I always gain a great deal from the experience. As the name might suggest, the ISEA conference experience is informal and friendly; topics are accessible and participants are extremely welcoming. Through ISEA, I've connected with other educators, learned new skills, and talked late into the night about new approaches to education.

This year’s ISEA conference features a number of sessions that will be of interest to members of the alternative education community. Several focus on creating successful partnerships between educational groups and their communities. Gina Higby from UT will teach workshop participants how to engage diverse audiences in STEM activities through a parachute design class. Dr. Finkelstein and Dr. Silverman from the McDonald Observatory will overview activities about stars and galaxies and advise on how to successfully incorporate astronomy content into science curricula. There's even a session for fearful grant writers; in “It Was a Dark and Stormy Grant Application,” author and educator Christina Soontornvat will apply tools from fiction to write more successful grants.

Informal science educators delving into hands-on activities at a past ISEA conference

The ISEA conference always features an incredible silent auction, with participating museums, zoos, aquariums, parks, and educators donating great swag to support scholarships for the conference. This year’s attendees can opt in to participate in a pre-conference workshop focused on crafting engaging social media or attend a post-conference field trip to the Texas Freshwater Fisheries Center. More information about the conference, including registration and a scholarship application, can be found here. Hope to see some of you there!

Emily Weerts