On the Bus and Down the Rabbit Hole: Philadelphia’s Please Touch Children’s Museum

Photo: Picture of Chesire Cat from Alice in Wonderland and big card; text: "Philadelphia's Please Touch Children's Museum; We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

The heavy lion statues in front of the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia belie the raucous energy of the smallest visitors inside. Visiting Philly for our friends’ wedding, we made a full trip of it and visited both the Liberty Bell and this renowned children’s museum. (We’re working our way through the children’s museums of the Northeast U.S.) Despite some whining, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

The museum is split into several sections, each of which focuses on a childhood theme: transportation, construction, water, fairy tales, and pretending to be an adult.

Still harboring a deep love for buses, trains, and cars, Sprout was immediately drawn to the transportation section. He loved operating a tiny exavator that reminded me of a giant skill crane. We had a tough time dragging him off when it was the next child’s turn and then faced the same issue getting him to leave a toy car wash.

The museum designers must have known this area would cause angst about the need to share. In a spare corner, they conveniently located a “calm down” area with lots of fluffy pillows. After a bit of a breather, Sprout found the patience to alternate ringing the bell on the trolley with other kids, a tough gig for a three-year-old.

Rocket Monorail at Philadelphia's Please Touch Museum, a tiny rocket hanging from the ceiling.

I probably could have been more patient with him too. As an adult, it’s tough to see this wealth cool exhibits and sympathize with your child loudly whining about moving on from a single piece of equipment.

While Sprout was far more interested in pretending to fill a car with gas, my favorite part of this section was a rocket hanging from the ceiling. It once belonged to a prominent department store, where visitors could ride in it at Christmas. Can you imagine doing that these days? That makes Santa seem dull.

Making our way downstairs, we made a nice, long stop at the construction part of the City Capers exhibit. The area was made up of three components: a dump truck, a mini-elevator moved by a hand-crank, and a large funnel. In theory, a kid would take a giant foam block, send it up the elevator, and drop it down the funnel. Then the whole process would start over.

Mini-elevator for foam blocks in construction area of City Capers section of Please Touch museum.

The mini-elevator.

In reality, it was much more complicated, with a self-organized kid workforce taking their play very seriously. Several children took on each “job,” but there were surprisingly few conflicts. There was an older girl who clearly fancied herself the supervisor, although her attempts to coordinate the others had limited success. The only quirk was that none of the kids were refilling the truck. Chris and I wanted to see if the kids would figure out what to do when the blocks ran out, but some meddling adult stepped in. Folks, let them develop problem solving skills! (Although I thought about doing it too – Chris dissuaded me.)

After a break for lunch and a whirl on the carousel, we ventured back upstairs to the water works section. The troughs of flowing water were similar to those we’ve seen at the Baltimore and Pittsburgh children’s museums. Nonetheless, Sprout was enthralled, moving a plastic boat through the levee over and over again.

Alice falling down the "rabbit hole" at Please Touch Museum

In contrast, the section just below us themed around Alice in Wonderland was terribly original. Descending down the rabbit hole, a ramp led us into a moss-green “hedge maze.” Walls covered in fuzzy fake turf circled a huge tree. The Queen of Hearts played croquet with her servants while electric white roses waited for children to “paint” them red. (They changed from white to red when you touched them with brushes.) Another maze’s circus mirrors and optical illusions inspired giggles. “Look at how funny mommy looks!” we laughed. Sprout didn’t understand the references at all (we haven’t gotten to Alice yet), but the section was bright and funny enough that he enjoyed it.

However, I would warn to watch your step here. Some of the walls are half the height of others and Chris tripped over one and bashed his leg.

We finished with a room devoted to the Centennial Exhibition, a World’s Fair-like celebration in 1876 that was the original use for the building. It also featured a bunch of train paraphernalia. In a giant museum, Sprout managed to find the single wooden train set that he could argue over with other kids. Of course.

Even if you’ve been to other children’s museums, the Please Touch Museum is worth a visit. The only issue we had was the cost – it was $17 a person over the age of one plus $10 for parking. It wasn’t even in a garage, just their regular parking lot! (It seems to be a Philly thing.) Considering the cost, it’s a good idea to dedicate a whole day if you have the opportunity. We had to be back at the hotel by 3:30 and were a little rushed. It’s worth taking your time to explore every part of this great museum.

Check out my coverage of the other children’s museums we’ve been to: the Children’s Museum of Pittsburgh, the Schenectady Museum of Science & Technology and the Saratoga Children’s Museum, and Port Discovery in Baltimore.   

2 thoughts on “On the Bus and Down the Rabbit Hole: Philadelphia’s Please Touch Children’s Museum

  1. Yeah, the cost was pretty extravagant, but man, I am glad I had a small child so I could go :-). I could have spent all day in the Alice room (I really dig Alice in Wonderland). My son’s favorite part was the grocery store, which I just recently saw on a list of the top ten children’s museum exhibits in the US.
    Is the Delaware Children’s Museum on your itinerary? It’s a lot more modest than the ones you’ve talked about so far, but my young ones had a good time of it.

    • The grocery store was the one part we didn’t get to! There’s a really nice grocery store section at Baltimore’s Port Discovery, so I figured we didn’t miss too much. As for the Delaware Museum, we usually hit up a museum when we have to be in the area for something else (visiting family, work, etc.) We usually only drive through Delaware to get to New York, but it may be worth stopping on our trip home for Christmas. It doesn’t look like it’s far off of 95.

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