With the dog days of summer approaching, it’s the perfect time to stop summer brain drain in its tracks and jump start your little ones’ learning right in time for the new school year. Fortunately, the Bay Area is filled with museums and centers dedicated to sparking your child’s innate love of learning. There’s no better time to check out all the interactive, educational activities the Bay Area has to offer. From virtual reality simulations to living history lessons, we’ve rounded up the best exhibits around to pique their curiosity and encourage them to pull on their thinking caps.

Image courtesy of California Academy of Sciences

San Francisco

The California Academy of Sciences

It’s absolutely impossible to leave this place without learning a thing or two. Where else can you trek through a 4-story rainforest, touch a sea urchin, dive into a tropical reef and visit the stars, all under one living, breathing roof? You can even travel into the distant past at their latest exhibit, Pterosaurs: Flight in the Age of Dinosaurs. Pint-sized paleontologists can view dioramas that recreate life in the Mesozoic era and see actual fossils of the giant flying reptiles, the pterosaurus. They can even ptero-soar through a prehistoric obstacle course as they pilot their own virtual pterosaurus in a thrilling virtual reality adventure.

5 Music Concourse Dr.
Golden Gate Park
San Francisco, Ca
415-379-8000
Online: calacademy.org

Exploratorium

At the Exploratorium, kids take learning into their own hands, literally. Just some of the cool things they can do: build a scribbling machine, draw with a pendulum, dance inside a tornado, even see the vibrations that sound makes. With over 600 interactive exhibits dedicated to exploring how the world works, the littles are sure to leave smarter and more stimulated than when they walked in. Don’t miss WildCard, a summertime exhibit that gives kids a chance to let their imaginations loose on that classic childhood plaything: a cardboard box. WildCard ends September 4.

Pier 15
San Francisco, Ca
415-528-4444
Online: exploratorium.edu

Children’s Creativity Museum

This interactive art and technology museum is packed with opportunities for kids to unleash their creativity by harnessing the power of technology. They can sculpt figures from clay and film their creations in their very own stop-motion animated movie. They can program robots to navigate a maze. At the museum’s latest exhibit, Sketch Town, kids even can draw their own vehicles and scan them into an interactive virtual city. Best of all, they get to capture their digital creations on a file to take home.

221 Fourth St.
San Francisco, CA 94103
415-820-3320
Online: creativity.org

Image courtesy of chabotspace.org

East Bay

Chabot Space and Science Center

The sky’s the limit when it comes to learning at Oakland’s Chabot Space and Science Center. Little astronauts can try on astronaut helmets and exercise gear, handle space tools, take a simulated moon walk, even climb into a Mercury capsule and land a lunar module — all in time to get back home for supper. This summer offers spectacular opportunities for skywatching: the Great American Solar Eclipse is happening on Monday, August 21. Schedule a visit between 9 a.m. and noon to view the partial eclipse as it makes its way across Bay Area skies. Learn about eclipses from astronomers and watch a live feed of the total eclipse. If you can’t make it, you’ll get another chance to witness a celestial event on August 12-13, as the Perseid Meteor Shower makes its annual trip through the night sky.

10000 Skyline Blvd.
Oakland, Ca
510-336-7300
Online: chabotspace.org

Lawrence Hall of Science

The Lawrence Hall of Science is packed with interactive exhibits designed to boost the brain. From the 3,000-pound sculpture of Pheena the fin whale to the ultra-small particles in the Nano exhibit, littles will enjoy hands-on, feet-on, body-on, brain-on fun. Make sure you catch a show at their National Geographic 3D Theatre, where you can live life as a mantis, cheetah, or polar bear in Incredible Predators 3D, or journey into the deep with acclaimed director James Cameron in Deepsesa Challenge 3D. Also, don’t miss the outdoor area, where you can experiment with water and learn about erosion, or just take in spectacular view of the entire Bay Area.

1 Centennial Dr.
Berkeley, Ca
510-642-5132
Online: lawrencehallofscience.org

Image courtesy of curiodyssey.org

Peninsula

Curiodyssey

Families from all over the Bay Area come to Curiodyssey to learn about the beautiful diversity of California’s natural environment, explore the natural world—or just have a good time. Look through a larger-than-life kaleidoscope and have your perception shifted exploring the world of distorted mirrors with the exhibition Reflections and Perceptions. And don’t miss the popular and hands-on “Backyard Science,” which takes science out of the lab and into the garden. Experiment with ambient sound tubes, listen with a giant ear, and test what it’s like to have “superhuman” vision. The exhibition Forces helps kids learn about all that pushes and pulls us: gravity, magnets, winds, currents and more. Drop-in to one of their many hands-on activities, take a class, a workshop, or see an animal show.

1651 Coyote Point Dr.
San Mateo, Ca
650-342-7755
Online: curiodyssey.org

Image courtesy of bayareadiscoverymuseum.org

Marin

Marine Mammal Center

Smarty pants with sea legs will have a blast learning all about California native Sea Mammals at the Sausalito Marine Mammal Center. Take a docent lead tour all around the facility where injured and abandoned marine mammals from the pacific coastal waters are tended to, rehabilitated, and rescued by scientists and loving volunteers. Alternatively, rent an Audio Tour and explore the center at your leisure. See how a fish milkshake is made to feed baby seals and sea lions, dissect a fish and examine its anatomy, look into the diet of wild pinnipeds through their poop, and dive into the full cycle of Domoic Acid from the beach to the brain.

2000 Bunker Rd., Fort Cronkhite
Sausalito, Ca
415-289-7325
Online: marinemammalcenter.org

Bay Area Discovery Museum

Parents love this museum’s hands-on exhibits because they develop problem-solving skills and ignite creativity. Kids love them because, well, they’re fun. Inside, kids can run through familiar Bay Area Landmarks like Fisherman’s Wharf and the Port of Oakland. Outside, they use giant interlocking foam noodles and blocks to build structures only limited by their imagination. Check their website calendar and time your visit for one of their Fab Lab sessions. Museum educators help kids as young as five use 3D printers, laser cutters, and vinyl cutters to create hands-on science and maker projects. It’s a great way for your budding young maker to build STEM skills through hands-on learning!

557 McReynolds Road
Sausalito, CA 94965
415-339-3900
Online: bayareadiscoverymuseum.org

thetech

Image courtesy of thetech.org

South Bay

Children’s Discovery Museum of San Jose

What’s better than a big indoor playground? Why, a big indoor playground that encourages learning through exploration. The Children’s Discovery Museum is full of interesting things to prod, test, and explore — and no one is ever going to say, “Don’t Touch”. To start with, kids can stroll down a replica city street, learn about the splishy-splashy properties of water, and dig for dinosaur bones. With over 150 interactive exhibits, it’s a fun way for little ones to learn about the world they live in. Speaking of exhibits, don’t miss their special summer exhibit, Thomas & Friends®: Explore the Rails. Thomas and Percy are on hand to cheer budding engineers on as they face all sorts of design and building challenges. Schedule a visit before Thomas chugs away into the distance on September 10.

180 Woz Way
San Jose, Ca
408-298-5437
Online: cdm.org

The Tech Museum of Innovation

Robots and earthquakes and space-oh my! What kid wouldn’t want to spend some time hanging out at The Tech Museum of Innovation, a 132,000-square-foot mecca of technology in downtown San Jose? Visitors can step on an Earthquake Simulator, take a ride in an astronaut jet pack, perform experiments with scientists from Stanford University, even build their own robot. As befitting a technology museum, The Tech is constantly renovating and updating its exhibits. The museum’s latest exhibit, Reboot Reality, uses the latest in immersive technology to send visitors into their own virtual worlds. You’ll be able to paint 3D virtual images, create 3D virtual sculptures, and use 3D blueprints to walk inside a building before it’s even constructed. For the ultimate in virtual reality, soar over Manhattan on Birdly, a flying simulator (requires a separate ticket; $8 general, $5 members).

201 South Market Street
San Jose, Ca
408-294-8324
Online: thetech.org

Do you have a favorite smarty pants excursion? Tell us about it in the comments below!

–Ana Picazo