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Thursday, April 16, 2015 12:01 am

Explore Rockford’s family-friendly museums

Avery Simpson plays doctor in the Tot Spot’s veterinary clinic at the Discovery Center.


As soon as they arrived, our grandsons Ryan and Evan headed straight to the Simple Machines, a colorful interactive exhibit of pulleys, inclined planes, levers, balls, screws, wheels and axles. They were hooked, and so were their parents, my husband and me.

You don’t have to be a child to have fun at Rockford’s Discovery Center Museum. With more than 250 enticing hands-on exhibits, the museum is a place where children and adults can have fun learning.   

It is one of three museums in Rockford’s downtown museum campus on the Rock River, about 200 miles north of Springfield.  The Discovery Center alone can entertain your family for an entire day, and you can add the Burpee Museum of Natural History and the Rockford Art Museum if you extend your stay.

Founded in 1981 by volunteers with the support of the Rockford Area Arts Council and the Junior League of Rockford, the Discovery Center keeps adding new programs and exhibits. Popular exhibits include the Giant Pinscreen, the Whole Body Bubble, Construction Instruction and, on the second floor, the Fitness Floor where kids can test their agility and strength.  The Tot Spot is a big hit with children ages 6 and under. Our granddaughter, Avery, enjoyed the kitchen and baby dolls at Ginny’s House as well as playing doctor at the veterinary clinic.

One of the most popular museum attractions is the Rock River Discovery Park, a giant multilevel outdoor area overlooking the river. The park invites young visitors to explore a cave, grab tools and dig for dinosaur bones, try out the slides and run through the mazes. At the WaterWorks area, children can race boats, manipulate water wheels or just get wet and wild.

The Rock River Discovery Park offers outdoor fun, adventures and science lessons to young visitors.


The Discovery Center is open every day from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 a person, but free to members and children age one and younger. The museum is located at 711 N. Main St. and shares a free parking lot with the other museums.

If you’re traveling with children, be sure to make time for the Burpee Museum of Natural History and its dinosaur exhibits. On display are Jane, the world’s most complete and best preserved juvenile T. rex and Homer, a “teen-aged” Triceratops, as well as bones and other fossils. Enhancing the visit is a short animated film and a realistic two-story carboniferous coal forest that will entrance young visitors.

Other exhibits such as the Ordovician Sea and GeoScience focus on what the Rockford area looked like millions of years ago and how forces are still shaping the earth today. On the second floor are exhibits about Native Americans in North America and exhibits of live animals that include reptiles, fish, a salamander and a tarantula. Through Sept. 7 visitors, for an extra $5, also can see the traveling exhibit, Savage Ancient Seas: Dinosaurs of the Deep.

The Burpee Museum is open seven days a week from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $8 for adults, $7 for children ages 3 through 12, and free for children under 3.  When you visit the same day as the Discovery Center, you can receive $1 discount on the Burpee’s general admission.

The Rockford Art Museum, next door to the Discovery Center, may entice the young artists in your group. On exhibit from April 12 to May 17 is the Youth Division of the annual Young Artist Show that showcases young artists in the Rockford area. Both adults and youngsters will enjoy the paintings, sculptures, mixed media and other work on display.

Dinosaur fan Evan Simpson hugs the Tyrannosaurus rex display at the Burpee Museum of Natural History.


A special exhibit that features the work of artist Carlos Rolon/Dzine runs through May 31. Dzine’s ornate sculptures and colorful paintings are on display as well as some of his elaborately decorated bicycles.  The museum’s permanent collection includes modern and contemporary American art, American masters such as Lorado Taft, and contemporary glass art.  The Rockford Art Museum is open daily from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. Admission is $7 for adults, $3 for seniors and students and free for members and children under 12.   

All three museums are accessible to wheelchairs and strollers. The Discovery Center has a lunchroom with vending machines but there’s no restaurant at the museum campus. Plan to bring food with you if you’ll be there for most of the day. Other Rockford attractions include the Klehm Arboretum and Botanic Garden and the Midway Village Museum. At the Village Museum, visitors can learn about life in a rural community in the Victorian era.

For more information about the Rockford area, visit: http://www.gorockford.com/.  

For more information about the museums, visit:

Mary C. Galligan is a freelance writer and editor in Chicago. A former editorial writer for the Chicago Sun-Times and former Midwest correspondent for U.S. News & World Report magazine, she alternates writing the month IT travel column with Mary Bohlen of Springfield. 


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