Located in Santa Rosa, California, the Children's Museum of Sonoma County is an interactive museum dedicated to fostering children's creativity and imagination through exhibits exploring the sciences and arts. The museum grew out of a 2005 community effort by Sonoma County parents, who were concerned about mounting budget cuts to school science and arts programs and the lack of a children’s gathering and educational space in the area.
Although the Santa Rosa area is the largest city along the Californian North Coast, prior to the museum’s opening, the closest children’s museum was 55 miles away and not easily accessible for families with limited transportation. To combat this deficiency, the parent volunteer group established the Children’s Museum of Sonoma County as a nonprofit organization, launching the Museum-on-the-Go mobile outreach program as its first endeavor.
The Junior League of Napa-Sonoma provided major funding in 2008 for the organization to continue its mobile programming and establish a permanent site for its collections. In December 2011, a 4.2-acre site was secured for the future museum grounds. An $8.3 million funding campaign, along with a grant from the State of California’s Department of Parks and Recreation, facilitated the opening of the museum in 2014.
Modeled on other children’s museums in the area, including the Bay Area Discovery Museum, the museum attracts 70,000 annual visitors. The museum encompasses 36,000 square feet of outdoor exhibits, featuring exhibits centered on art, science, and nature. As of 2017, another 7,000 square feet of indoor space are currently in the process of being remodeled.
The outdoor playplace Mary's Garden was the museum’s first permanent exhibit, completed in 2014. Named for mariposa, the Spanish word for butterfly, the interactive area focuses on themes of nature and conservation. A replica of the Russian River is the playground’s centerpiece, featuring a self-draining gravel pit and an area of waterplay tables. Other attractions include a giant Styrofoam block playspace, a teepee-themed playground, and a garden for children to learn about growing produce. A Paint Window from the Ella’s Art Studio exhibit also overlooks the garden.
The Science & Imagination Gallery was opened on June 20, 2015, and is the museum’s largest area, featuring a number of exhibits. Modeled after a Petaluma train station, Jesse's Train Station allows children to operate a miniature train that travels around the museum, which families can watch via a GoPro webcast. More train-themed fun can be found at the Science and Imagination Railroad, containing 250 feet of model railroad loops, and Miniature Train City, which features free Lego play. The "Nuts & Bolts" Hardware Store also gives children the opportunity to hone their construction skills with KEVA plank toys.
Several mock structures line a miniature Sonoma County Main Street, including a Victorian House, where children can climb a spiral staircase to overlook the rest of the museum. The "Flavortown" Kids Café and Kitchen, the Head-2-Toe Health & Science Lab, and the Crocodile Dental Clinic introduce children to concepts of health, nutrition, and hygiene in fun, playful environments. An Apple Tree House & Pulley System also serves as a climbing space, where children can collect apples in baskets using a pulley mechanism, and a Fairy World transforms the trees into a secret world of magic.
Two light-centric exhibits, the Light Writing Space Odyssey and a light peg wall, inspire children’s artistic creativity. A pipe organ made out of PVC pipes allows for musical play, and a puppet theater offers both open theatrical play and guided storytime. AirMazing features a 15-foot-tall floor-to-ceiling air-powered maze, letting children direct the structure’s airflow as they test objects in the wind, and the Pachinko Gizmo lifts balls up into a giant mechanical game machine, bouncing them off of pinwheels and contraptions on their way down. Other science-themed exhibits include a magnet table, a magnetic ball wall, a wind vortex, Bernoulli blower tubes, air cannons, and the BeeHaven, which emphasizes principles of natural conservation.
The museum’s youngest visitors can enjoy the exhibit’s kiddie corner, with books, wall gears, and mazes. TOTopia, a safe no-shoe zone, is also designed for toddlers under 3 feet tall, featuring exhibits such as a grotto and tidepool waterplay area, the Baby & Me Flower Pit, and the Storybook Cottage.
Ongoing Programs and Education
The Museum-on-the-Go program still operates, bringing mobile science exhibits to local students in grades K-6. An S³ Science Speaker Series is presented the third Saturday of every month for children six and older, providing question-and-answer sessions and highlighting topics such as animal rescue, conservation, and pollination. KidsWorks Creative Workshops are also held monthly, and a Friday Family Late Night keeps the museum open until 7:00pm for twilight play for families.