Big museums cost money and take energy to navigate. And after all that cost and trouble, your toddler is usually interested in just one exhibit. That’s why every Bay Area parent should know about a small museum in Oakland that pulls all the stops of the bigger attractions, from hands-on play to live animal discovery, and all for less than $5, including parking. Here’s the inside scoop on this season’s drop-in programs at the Junior Center for Art and Science

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Go:
Drop in this spring from Tuesday through Friday (10:00 am to 6:00 pm) or Saturday (10:00 am to 3:00 pm). Classes on field trips often visit the Junior Center on weekday mornings, so weekday afternoons are the quietest time to come, and chances are you may even have the playroom all to yourselves. On Saturdays, the crowds vary, but tend to stay on the mellower side.

Get there: Find the Junior Center for Art and Science at 558 Bellevue Avenue in Oakland. The museum is located on the grounds of Lakeside Park, where there’s cheap parking for $2 on weekdays and $5 on weekends. If you want to park for free, look for a spot on Perkins Street, just off of Grand Avenue.

What to wear: Comfy play clothes for the museum. Bring a light jacket or hoodie for when you’re ready to play outside. The Junior Center for Art and Science is located right next door to the Lake Merritt Bird Sanctuary and the children’s playground.

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Where to eat: Pizza at Arizmendi on Lakeshore is a popular spot for families. Find quesadillas and other Mexican food favorites right across the street at Los Canteros on Grand Avenue, or kid-friendly Ethiopian at family-owned Enssaro. You can always hop in the car for dim sum in nearby Chinatown, or a nourishing meal made with local ingredients at Chop Bar in Jack London Square. If you pack your own lunch, there are lakeside picnic tables on the museum grounds, and several picnic benches line the lake’s perimeter.

Things to do: Jake’s Discovery Garden is one of the newest exhibits at the museum. The exhibit promotes learning through play for 2 to 5-year-olds, and the playroom’s got a beautiful, picture-window view of Lake Merritt, a quaint play house, and interactive toys like gardening tools and cooking play. The whole room is designed like a garden, with a pretend lawn, pretend vegetables you can pull from their roots, and felt lemons you can pull from a painted tree. Of course, learning is all part of the fun as parents read to their kids about how amphibians, reptiles, mammals, plants, and invertebrates are all part of Jake’s Garden. In the Science and Nature Lab, live animals like a bearded dragon, turtle, snakes, crickets, toads, hissing cockroaches and geckos smile from their cages. (They only come out on Saturdays, when kids make art with the animals as inspiration.) And for an extra fee, kids can glaze pre-made pottery in the Art Studio for pick up after it is fired by the staff.

Cost of trip: $2 drop-in fee per child. Adults are free.

Bonus: The Junior Center for Art and Science hosts a yearly Earth Day event, which takes place this year on April 20.

Online: juniorcenter.org

What did you do the last time you visited the Junior Center with your juniors?

–Renee Macalino Rutledge

photo courtesy of The Junior Center facebook page