Shhh. Don't bother Nicole Washburn. She's in the middle of some serious scientific "research." The 9-year-old from Bradenton, Fla., is sitting behind the wheel of a yellow drag-race car. It's one of two life-size race cars in the "Field of Play" exhibit at the Strong National Museum of Play here. In front of her, the image of a drag strip is projected onto a large, flat screen. Her goal is to cross the finish line at the end of the track before her sister, who's sitting in the lime-green drag-racer next to her.
If play is the highest form of research, as Einstein once suggested, then the National Museum of Play is a giant laboratory where kids such as Nicole and her sister are the "scientists."
Earlier this month, the children's museum – located in the city that was home to Eastman Kodak and named after the late Margaret Strong, one of the film company's largest shareholders – reopened after undergoing a $37 million expansion. The additions make it the second-largest children's museum in the United States, behind the Children's Museum of Indianapolis.
"Race car driving" is just one of the new interactive displays at the museum that boasts one of the largest collection of toys in the US. That makes sense – the museum also is home to the National Toy Hall of Fame.
"Play is both the message and the medium," says Rollie Adams, president of the museum. "Children at play practice adult roles and learn to solve problems and make decisions. They socialize, discover appropriate ways of self-expression, and gain confidence."
Sound like fun? "It is fun," says Mark Bliss. He and his son, Nicholas, drove three hours from Kitchener, Ontario, to spend a day at the museum. For the past 20 minutes Nicholas has been playing intently with a Hot Wheels exhibit in which miniature cars are raced down a ramp; his dad is more than happy to let him continue the activity.
What makes this museum stand out from other children's museums is that "hands-on" is taken literally, wedding interactivity and artifact, which makes the exhibits and displays appealing for kids as well as the adults that drove them here.
The museum places a major emphasis on linking reading to play, as evidenced by the 12,000-sq.-ft. "Reading Adventureland" exhibit. Follow a winding Yellow Brick Road into five literary landscapes – mystery, adventure, comedy, fairy tale, and wizardry – and instantly be swept away to a land in which Cinderella and Nancy Drew live side by side. If that piques a child's interest, they can even check out a book. The museum is part of the city's public library system.
Next to "Reading Adventureland" is one of the museum's most popular new exhibits: the Dancing Wings Butterfly Garden. Temperatures inside the glass-enclosed building are kept at a constant 80 degrees F., says museum entomologist Ralph Charlton. He's the one who is responsible for looking after the 700 or so butterflies and moths that inhabit the garden.
If you stay very still and hold out your finger, a beautiful blue morph or a yellow-brown mocker swallowtail might stop by for a visit. But on this day, the butterflies seem much more intent on feeding on a tray of ripe fruits that has been placed near a cascading waterfall.
"Nature is one of the ways that kids play," Dr. Charlton says. It's also one of the ways kids learn, he says, for example, how to categorize butterflies by appearance.
After a trip to the butterfly garden, it's back to the "Field of Play" exhibit where Gina Lopez of Rochester is coloring with her daughters, 7-year-old Ysabella Santos and 2-year-old Nazarie Lopez. They're taking a break while Ms. Lopez's son climbs up an indoor rock-climbing wall. This isn't the family's first trip to the museum, but it's their first since it reopened.
"My daughter is young," says Lopez, "but she's learning about shapes and colors. It's educational."
The combination of fun and education makes sense to Mr. Adams, the museum's president.
"When we play, we grow physically, intellectually, and socially," he says. "We gain strength, balance, and coordination. We imagine, experiment, create, and discover. And we learn to communicate, share, and cooperate."
At this museum, you'd be hard-pressed to convince the "scientists" (or their parents) that playing and learning is anything other than fun.
• For more information visit strongmuseum.org.
The 34 toys that are included in the National Toy Hall of Fame exhibit, located on the second floor of the Strong National Museum of Play in Rochester, N.Y., all have one thing in common: They're not Tickle Me Elmo. For a toy to be inducted into this shrine, "It's got to be an icon," says Christopher Bensch, curator of the exhibit.
The Hall of Fame recognizes toys that have achieved longevity and national significance in the world of play and imagination. Toys such as Raggedy Ann, Silly Putty, Barbie, Lincoln Logs, Tonka Trucks, Etch A Sketch, Monopoly, the Hula Hoop, the Erector Set, the Radio Flyer wagon, and the Slinky are in the Hall. Tickle Me Elmo is not – at least, for now.
Anyone can nominate a toy for inclusion in the Hall, and every year, thousands do, says Mr. Bensch. In November, a group of curators, educators, and historians will tally the votes and select the top toys.
For a complete listing or to nominate one of your favorites, visit strongmuseum.org/nthof/nthof.html.