Kids Learn Through Hands-On Play at Tennessee Children’s Museums

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Tennessee children's museums

Discovery Center at Murfree Spring; Photo credit: Jeffrey S. Otto

Do you have curious, active kids in your family? If you’re wondering what to do with them while school is out for the summer, you’re in luck. Tennessee has children’s museums sprinkled across the state that all have a common goal – to show that fun and learning can go hand in hand. But be warned: Once you’re there, it’s likely your children will never want to leave.

Editor’s note: We had already finalized this story about visiting children’s museums across the state when the COVID-19 pandemic changed the daily lives of kids across the state – and their parents – overnight. We hope you’re able to visit these wonderful museums this summer, but we also wanted to share that many of them have provided resources for home learning and play. Check their websites and Facebook pages for science experiments, art projects and other educational activities.

Discovery Center at Murfree Spring

Just a stone’s throw away from Middle Tennessee State University in Murfreesboro, the Discovery Center at Murfree Spring has been welcoming families for more than 30 years.

“Our focus is on creating a space in which all are welcome and can find an engaging experience that encourages curiosity and play,” says Tara MacDougall, chief executive officer of the Discovery Center at Murfree Spring. “Our popular exhibits include Tiny Town, a life-size firetruck, our animals in Tennessee Live!, model trains and the outdoor wetlands.”

More than 128,000 visitors explore the Discovery Center at Murfree Spring each year. What makes this museum unusual is its 22 acres of outdoor wetlands (complete with a boardwalk) right off the downtown square, which allows learning to continue when guests wander outside.

Hands On! Discovery Center; Photo credit: Michael D. Tedesco

“Summer is a great time to visit because of all the outdoor activities such as Nature Play and the Bubble Exhibit, as well as our air-conditioned indoor exhibits,” MacDougall says. “We also offer summer camps for pre-K through fifth grade. The Science of Music exhibit will be open during most summer months, and we’ll have special events on select Saturdays, so check our calendar.”

The Discovery Center’s mission is to provide opportunities for all children to play and explore, no matter their physical, behavioral, sensory, financial or other needs.

“We offer All Access Nights for special needs families only, and we recently opened Chill Zone, a sensory calm-down room,” MacDougall says. “We also offer free days throughout the year, which focus on different cultures or holidays that celebrate the diversity of our community.”

See more: 4 Ways to Experience History at the Tennessee State Museum

Children’s Museum of Memphis

Have a future aviator in your crew? Play pilot or air traffic controller in the FedEx exhibit, Going Places, at the Children’s Museum of Memphis (CMOM). The museum’s FedEx plane features a full-size cockpit and a package conveyor belt. Another favorite exhibit among visitors is a 1909 fully restored Memphis Grand Carousel.

“Our H2Oh! Splash Park opens Memorial Day through Labor Day and is the highlight of summer fun for members and guests alike,” says Ramona Holland, public relations and marketing manager for the Children’s Museum of Memphis. “With picnic tables and the outdoor PlaySpace, there is plenty of funshine to fill your day.”

CMOM was intentionally designed to capitalize on children’s existing knowledge and curiosity about adult occupations, giving them endless opportunities for role-play. The museum’s mini cityscape invites them to explore real firetrucks, cargo planes and police vehicles while wearing costumes that set the stage of elaborate pretend play work.

Tennessee children's museums

Children’s Museum of Memphis; Photo credit: Michael D. Tedesco

“This is the kind of playful learning children love to initiate over and over again, which is why we see our member families so often and why young adults in our community talk so fondly of favorite exhibits from their childhood,” says Dr. Stewart Burgess, executive director of the museum.

Kids can learn about healthy food choices in the pretend grocery store and scan their items at checkout to learn about math, or select a costume and perform onstage in front of a working camera.

“In addition to all the opportunities to engage in rich pretend play centered on adult roles, children encounter spatial reasoning challenges, activities that support early literacy, and activities designed to promote good health and exercise,” Burgess says. “They also learn about weather, earthquakes and the properties of moving air.”

See more: Discovery Park of America Brings Visitors to West Tennessee

Hands On! Discovery Center

Have you ever seen a 5-million-year-old active fossil dig site in real life? You can at the Hands On! Discovery Center in Gray.

“East Tennessee State University scientists believe the site was formed by an underground limestone cave that collapsed and created a sinkhole,” says Kristine Carter, vice president of marketing and events for the Hands On! Discovery Center. “Visitors can get up close and personal with world-renowned scientists and even take a tour of the site. The preparatory lab and collections rooms are viewable through large windows, and current projects are displayed for all to see.”

Hundreds of plant and animal fossils have been unearthed at the site, including a saber-toothed cat, alligator, tapir, rhinoceros, short-faced bear, red panda and a 10-ton mastodon.

“During dig season from May through October, visitors can often find scientists and volunteers in the dig pits,” Carter says.

Tennessee children's museums

Hands On! Discovery Center; Photo credit: Michael D. Tedesco

Children ages 5 to 12 can participate in the summer Paleo Camp and dig for fossils, examine rocks and minerals, dissect an owl pellet, and more. Adults and teens ages 14 and older can get their hands dirty at The Big Dig, an exclusive paleontology experience that includes excavating and documenting fossil finds.

While the Hands On! Discovery Center is a favorite destination for kids (and grown-ups) who dream of being paleontologists, that’s only the beginning. The museum’s other exhibits focus on physics, chemistry, life science, construction and engineering in addition to creativity and the arts. Be sure to see the Guinness World Record-holding Tesla coil, which pays tribute to scientist Nikola Tesla and turns 220 volts into 200,000 volts of electricity.

“Using electromagnetic frequencies, the Tesla coil uses its electrical discharge to play a variety of songs, from classics to recent hits,” Carter says. “Guests are treated to a musical show as the bipolar Tesla coil uses frequency changes to produce different tones and melodies.”

Another unique attraction is the Paleo Tower, a three-story climbing tower that children and adults can climb to discover and touch 3D replicas of fossils found on site.

“The exterior of the Paleo Tower even mirrors the layers of soil found here,” Carter says. “This exhibit was custom-built for the Hands On! Discovery Center and is one of a kind.”

If You Go

Discovery Center at Murfree Spring

Location: 502 SE Broad St. in Murfreesboro

Hours: Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., and Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. Admission: $8 for children and adults. Children under age 2 are free.

Phone: (615) 890-2300



Children’s Museum of Memphis

Location: 2525 Central Ave. in Memphis

Hours: Open daily from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $15 for children and adults. Children under age 1 are free.

Phone: (901) 458-2678



Hands On! Discovery Center

Location: 1212 Suncrest Dr. in Gray

Hours: Tuesday through Saturday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday 1 to 5 p.m. During June, July and August, the museum opens on Mondays from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.

Admission: $10 for children and adults. Children under age 4 are free.

Phone: (423) 434-4263


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