One of the best family museums you will ever visit, The Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester NY is must-do bucket list material for fun-seeking families who like to mix learning and play.
The Strong National Museum of Play Review
Our family has visited our fair share of family attractions over the past seven years, including play spaces, theme parks, and interactive museums.
We try to keep a balance of kid-friendly activities and attractions that I enjoy as well, and we usually make a point to search out play opportunities and family-friendly museums in every city that we visit.
After reading a bit about The Strong National Museum of Play, I was so excited to realize that Rochester, NY was only three hours away! While that may seem like a bit of a drive to visit a museum, I think you’ll understand why I didn’t give it a second thought after you see how amazing The Strong is!
The Strong is a highly interactive, collections-based museum devoted to the history and exploration of play. The Strong is not simply a children’s museum—it is home to:
• the world’s largest and most comprehensive collection of historical materials related to play
• the International Center for the History of Electronic Games
• the National Toy Hall of Fame
• the World Video Game Hall of Fame
• the Brian Sutton-Smith Library and Archives of Play
• the Woodbury School
• and the American Journal of Play
Every single exhibit within The Strong has several different layers of interest.
- Children are introduced to real world concepts through interactive play in engaging, detailed environments
- Most exhibits also contain related historical or cultural displays that deepen understanding about that topic. Parents can read the exhibit cards to give historical and social context to the displays and there are also several video players throughout the museum that expand on the exhibits.
- There are various games or crafts that are rooted in that theme throughout the exhibit
- and there was always several exhibit-related books on display that allowed children to explore the concepts further.
In the America at Play exhibit and its adjacent exhibit spaces which span much of the second floor (snippets of which can be seen above), children get to play fun life-sized versions of some of their favorite board games while being surrounded by exhibits of board games from as far back as the 1800s. It was so cool to see Modern day toys posed beside their historical counterparts.
The Strong is also a circulating library within the Rochester Public Library system, which brings me to one of my favorite things about The Strong the—literacy integration. There are so many library collections at The Strong, which include scholarly works, children’s books, gaming magazines, and so much more.
Not only is there always several interesting, award-winning children’s books prominently displayed in each of the exhibits that related to the theme of the exhibit, families local to Rochester can even sign them out to borrow and bring home. (Non-local families like us can simply take a picture of the book and look it up once they get home.)
I really enjoyed being able to find curated suggestions of books to check out in each of the rooms, especially when I was able to see that my daughter was interested in the topics.
Learning Through Play at The Strong
Exhibits and collections can definitely serve to enhance a play museum and provide a balanced educational approach to the exhibits, but let’s be honest: the most important aspect to a play museum is how fun it is!
And I can honestly say, The Strong is the most fun museum we have ever been to.
From the moment you enter the museum and see a full-sized carousel and Captain America standing on top of a diner car, you know this museum is going to be doing things a little bit differently.
The first exhibit as you move past the two giant aquariums flocking the admissions area is The Field of Play, which uses interactive play and exhibits to explore the six major elements of play: anticipation, surprise, pleasure, understanding, strength, and poise. We used pulleys to launch balls onto tracks, had a virtual drag race, walked through a giant kaleidoscope and had some fun in the exaggerated perspective room.
(It’s only a matter of time before this picture is my reality!)
But the next room is where I fell in love with The Strong.
I immediately found myself on Sesame Street!
To say I was excited to be there was an understatement!
The Strong not only had the famous steps and storefronts, it had Big Bird’s Nest (complete with lots of reading material), a replica Elmo’s World, a taxi with lots of switches and buttons and some furry passengers in the back seat, a newsstand, hot dog cart, and a movie theatre playing classic clips from the show.
There were several interactive math and literacy activities throughout Sesame Street, in addition to the natural literacy and math activities that naturally come up in the play facilitated by the space (for example, using language and math skills in the ticket booth at the movie theatre).
Just this small corner of the museum could entertain and educate children for hours.
(Although, if anyone from The Strong reads this – my stepfather Mr Hooper was saddened to see that there was no reference to his store anywhere. He’ll have to hold out a little longer for that dream of posing in front of it!)
While walking down Sesame Street really got the visit started with a bang, I can honestly say it just got better from there.
Next up was a fully functioning grocery store (albeit with fake food) where kids could shop, serve in the deli or bakery, check themselves out, and restock the shelves.
While grocery store set-ups may be common, this one was in a league of it’s own.
First of all, it had the best and most varied selection of items that I’ve ever seen in a play grocery store – multiple varities of cheese, an organic section, sushi… and even working scales in the “produce department.”.
The bakery had some fun math activities and a craft set-up for kids to make their own chef hats out of a coffee filter and paper – but the best was yet to come for Ella.
When we went to check out, we discovered several cash check-outs, and each one had a working conveyer belt and cash register! Ella was able to scan all of her groceries (and hear that satisfying ping!) and then print out a receipt.
(It was at this point where I transitioned from being in love with The Strong to feeling seriously robbed in my childhood, but I digress.)
Behind the grocery store was a functioning television studio where kids could operate the camera or see themselves on TV announcing the news or the weather.
Around every single turn, there was a new, amazing exhibit that could keep kids and parents happy for hours. I think we could have spent an entire week exploring The Strong and we still wouldn’t have had our fill of it.
Reading Adventureland could easily be it’s own museum or theme park, with multiple rooms dedicated to different types of fiction and plenty of room for fairytales.
Each room could take a couple of hours to fully explore, with the crafts, sensory play, books, exhibits and interactive play opportunities. For example, the Wizard’s Workshop had:
- craft supplies to make magical drawings or wands
- “herbs” and potions for some alchemy-inspired sensory play in a large cauldron
- gorgeous displays of items from classic supernatural tales
- shelves and shelves of fantasy books
- an interactive magic mirror that explored the scientific concepts of light and reflection
- a VR game to get kids jumping
- a glowing crystal ball
- a build-your-own-story wall exploring the heroes, antagonists and settings
- – and even more things I didn’t get to explore since I was staying close to my daughter as she created some magical art
(I was also pumped to see that the pumpkin carriage had several of the books I recommended in my Multicultural Cinderella Children’s Books post.)
Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden
Just past Reading Adventureland lies a lush butterfly garden, complete with tropical flowers, various gorgeous animals (nothing too scary for the kids), and of course, hundreds of fluttering butterflies.
This room is a $5 upcharge to the base ticket price – so if your children will be afraid of the butterflies or dislike the warmer temperature of the room, you can stick to the lower ticket price. However, I think the price is super reasonable – you would be hard-pressed to find a butterfly room or conservatory that charges less, plus this is upstate New York’s only year-round butterfly garden.
Being able to get up close and personal with the butterflies, turtles, chameleons, and birds in this room was amazing – and the fairy garden theme they had going when we visited just added to the whimsy.
Plus, there was no time limit and you can revisit the gardens several times throughout your visit.
The Strong’s attention to detail throughout the whole museum was noteworthy, and this room was no exception. I constantly found myself delighted at the little surprises that were hidden all throughout the garden – from fairy doors and bridges, to pretty art installations, and of course, all those gorgeous butterflies in a variety of species.
Deepening Your Interests
A cool element that runs throughout the museum is that play is much more multifaceted and deeper than we sometimes think.
The Strong is adept at hitting that perfect balance of interactive play with educational elements and exhibits, allowing children and adults to deepen their understandings and appreciations for just about every play-related topic.
My daughter loved the doll exhibit, and after spending a decent amount of time playing, she was drawn to the displays of different dolls – including Thomas Edison’s first talking doll (whose voice would keep you up at night), various Barbie dolls representing different eras and social movements, the story of the German doll who inspired Barbie, and a sentimental connection: the doll of The Strong’s founder, Margaret Woodbury Strong.
It was very cool for me to watch my daughter explore her love of dolls while literally being surrounded by the history of dolls. The dolls themselves have evolved, but the essence and purity of being a little child playing with a doll struck me as truly timeless. The connection that my daughter feels to her “green baby” is exactly the same as the connection that Mrs Strong had for her Mabel.
Beyond the technological innovations and the amazing engineering of the exhibits and play spaces, one of the most powerful take-aways from the museum for me was the innate and universal human desire for play. Throughout history and beyond cultural and geographic borders, all children (and adults) share this universal thread that connects us: the pursuit of play.
American Comic Book Heroes
There were several exhibits that catered to interests that my daughter and I don’t have, so while we didn’t spend a lot of time in those exhibits, they still had a good amount of exhibits and activities that we found interesting.
I mention this so you don’t have to worry about siblings whining about how boring an exhibit is; they are still going to find at least a couple things to keep them entertained and interested. In my opinion, none of The Strong’s exhibits could be described as boring—even if the topic itself bored you!
The Superhero area was also where I stumbled onto one of my favorite features (which is perfect for parents who like to leave the phones at home and avoid distractions).
Several areas of the museum had these little kiosks where you could e-mail yourself a picture or video of your child interacting with an exhibit.
For example, this exhibit lets you pose like you are “climbing up a building” like a Superhero. You use the kiosk to snap a picture and then e-mail it to yourself.
These kiosks are free and how fun is that postcard!? What a great souvenir – most places where I’ve seen similar installations charge extra for these little bonuses, so I was pleasantly surprised to see that these add-on experiences were free.
Ella’s favorite kiosk was the bubble wall where she could wave her hands to create virtual bubbles, but my favorite kiosk had to have been the Giant Etch A Sketch screen.
Ella took a little rest on the bench in front of the screen and was amazed to see the Magic Etch A Sketch Screen start drawing her!
This alone would have been cool enough, but we also had the option to send the sketch to my e-mail.
And not just the finished sketch – they also sent us a gif of the sketch being created!
Again, not just a fun souvenir (especially for free!) but this would also be fun to share on social media or even use to make a family portrait for the holidays!
(I wish I had thought of that while we were still at the museum!)
Not only was there plenty of opportunities for my foodie girl to explore all sides of her obsession (like playing waitress at Bear Family Restaurant, complete with lots of math and literacy prompts), I was also pleasantly surprised at the food situation at The Strong.
The cafeteria had a few recognizable fast food brands available, all at the same prices you would see at the restaurants outside of the museum. Usually when you see a Subway or Pizza Hut in an attraction (like a museum), the prices are a bit higher than normal, but that wasn’t the case here. I was able to get a personal pan pizza for less than $5.
There is also a Bill Gray’s in the lobby which is not affiliated with the museum.
Whole Family Fun
One of the biggest issues parents experience when trying to pick family-friendly destinations for the whole family is that often attractions are catered to one age range more than the others.
This wasn’t the case for The Strong. I noticed plenty of fun toddler-only spaces alongside the exhibits for older kids, and the skilled combination of educational elements, fascinating exhibits, and hands-on play opportunities made every room one that parents and kids could find equally interesting and entertaining. Every single one of us – from ages 7 to 55 – had a blast and we cannot wait to return to the museum.
The Strong truly is the ultimate play destination for all ages.
The Strong museum is open 362 days a year. (Closed on October 26, November 22, and December 25 in 2018)
The Museum Hours are Monday–Thursday, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Friday & Saturday, 10 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Sunday, noon to 5 p.m.
General Museum Admission: Age 2 and older, $15; Under age 2, free; Members, free with current membership card and photo ID
General Museum Admission with Butterfly Garden: Age 2 and older, $20; Under age 2, free; Members, $4.
I hope you found this review of The Strong Museum of Play helpful and that you strongly consider booking a family vacation to Rochester to explore this amazing family destination.