Spending two weeks with your extended family for the holidays is lovely, but you really need to get out of the house sometimes. That’s why when we were recently in upstate New York, we brought Sprout to not just one, but two different local museums. Unlike the New York State Museum, which was a staple of my childhood, I wasn’t intimately familiar with either of them. Both the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady and the Saratoga Children’s Museum had been completely overhauled since I had visited them, with the Saratoga Children’s Museum moving to an entirely different location altogether. In contrast to sharing my favorite experiences with Sprout, these museums provided chances for us to explore them together.
GE’s all-electric car.
The Museum of Innovation and Science is a bit of an odd duck. Schenectady is home to General Electric’s research division, so it has a deep regional history. In addition to a historical exhibit on important local discoveries, it also featured a large section on MRIs and an all-electric vehicle GE built in the 1970s.
But the museum doesn’t limit itself to its geographic location, touching on space missions, alternative fuels, renewable energy, fluid dynamics, and random “sciency” things like giant Legos. It had some terrific hands-on demonstrations, including ones where you control a mini-tornado and become part of a giant circuit. The museum even had one of the very few things I remembered from childhood, a phosphorescent wall that left your shadow “imprinted” on it after you moved away. Sprout seemed to understand why it was neat, but was not impressed enough to stand still for it more than once.
Only one thing and one thing alone seemed to truly impress him – a huge model train exhibit. As the seasonal display, it was prominent at the very start of the museum. Sprout immediately clambered up on one of the stools nearby and watched it intently, as if anything was going to change in the hundreds of times the trains went around the tracks. Admittedly, there was plenty to look at. In addition to a normal town setting, there were two carnivals with tiny moving rides, a river with sea monster Champ, an ice skating rink, a train with an aquarium in it, and oddly, an oil refinery.
During our first round of train-watching, he parked himself in front of one of the carnivals, staring at the red and blue trains chugging around. We managed to drag him away to see the other exhibits, but he soon remembered his purpose and literally ran back to the trains. The second time, he practically cemented himself in front of the oil refinery section, a location that baffled and saddened my eco-justice warrior heart. Later on, I figured out that he just really liked watching the trains going in and out of the tunnel, a fact I picked up on after hearing him talk about the tunnel for the 10th time or so. Fhew – parenting crisis averted.
Between the two spots, we spent a full 45 minutes watching the trains go around and around. We tried to talk to Sprout, but the conversation rapidly devolved into him repeating the same observations over and over again. Rather limited subject matter. My mom, ever the extrovert, tried to engage the crusty old volunteer manning the display in conversation. However, he was hilariously uninterested in discussing much of anything, responding with dry, unhelpful, succinct replies.
While the featured exhibit was clearly the star of the Museum of Innovation and Science, we had nearly the opposite experience at the Saratoga Children’s Museum. Sprout was only somewhat interested in the event we went for, but enjoyed the rest of the museum heartily. With our friends unavailable on New Years Eve and no desire to tromp around in the cold, we thought we’d try something more kid-centric. Last year, Chris and Sprout attended a noontime New Years Eve count-down at our local nature center, and enjoyed it a lot.
The Saratoga Children’s Museum’s New Years Eve dance party seemed to fill a similar niche, wrapping up at the terribly late hour of 3 pm. Like any good New Years party, it had music, balloons and funny hats. Sprout gravitated to the crafts table, whereby the magic of glue sticks, glitter, and an enthusiastic toddler turned a mere sheet of construction paper into a big mess. He also wanted one of the golden crowns, which surprised me because he generally doesn’t like hats. It turned out he only liked the idea of it; Chris wore it the rest of the day, jauntily perched upon his head. While we danced a bit to disco music, we mainly threw balloons at each other and played a mini-basketball game. Overall, Sprout was a lot less interested than I thought he would be. He adores dancing at home, but just wasn’t that interested there. (He loves singing at home, but doesn’t sing in music class either, so maybe it’s just a private vs. public preference.) Instead, he wandered out the door after less than a half-hour. On the other hand, he did mention the dance party several other times that day.
Fortunately, there were plenty of other things to do at the museum. The very first thing he headed for was a fake fire engine, which was rather funny considering he refused to get on a real fire truck when visiting the local firehouse the day before. The upstairs also had a play veterinarians’ office, grocery store, bank, school and diner. While Sprout’s little too young to understand the bank and the school was cluttered, the diner and vet’s office were just his speed. He eagerly listened to the stuffed dog’s heart with the stethoscope and stabbed it with the toy needle. While I love that he loves animals, I really hope he doesn’t start asking for a pet!
Downstairs had the ever-popular train table and giant bubble ring, along with some more locally-oriented exhibits. One was a mock-up of the real Congress Park in Saratoga, where Chris and I had our first kiss. Along with a scattering of puppets, the “play version” had animal costumes where kids could pretend to be a bug in an exoskeleton. Sprout was tickled at pulling the sides of the ladybug around him, especially when I put the bug-eye glasses on him.
But the most unique thing was a large model of the trolleys that used to transport people between Saratoga and neighboring towns. The museum cleverly had a ticket booth with different colored tickets matching your destination. Sprout reveled in sitting in the driver’s seat, taking tickets, turning the wheel and saying “all aboard!” It was challenging coaxing him away from it so other kids could take a turn.
Because I didn’t have a lot of expectations either way, the only disappointing thing about both museums was that my dad couldn’t fully participate. Because of a torn ACL, he didn’t come to the Schenectady museum at all and spent the time at the Saratoga one sitting away from the action. There’s no way in hell he would have danced – my wedding and his own were the rare occasions that happened – but he would have been able to interact more if he wasn’t stuck sitting the whole time. Fortunately, we had a lovely lunch at a nearby restaurant beforehand, so we had quality time together there.
It was good to return home and rediscover some little gems that I would have never gone to as an adult. I’m glad to see the area surrounding my hometown is still serving its youngest residents well!