Salem’s A.C. Gilbert’s Discovery Village has an interesting set of obstacles to overcome. The whole children’s museum is founded in three, old, cool-looking houses and the backyards that those three houses share. In visiting the place, it’s clear to me they try hard to utilize the rooms and the space they’ve got without tearing down the cool houses and without doing too much demolition of the gorgeous original woodwork.

As an adult, I appreciate that. As a parent, it makes the children’s museum awkward to maneuver through. So, after going myself and figuring out the maze, I’ll map it out here for you. Because if you’re vacationing in Salem and you’ve got kids, you really ought to visit the Discovery Village. If you do anything else kid-related in Salem, you’ll see advertisement for it or proof of sponsorship from it. And you’ll wish you made time.

I highly suggest glancing through their website before going; there aren’t many signs on the walls and through the halls telling you what’s around the next corner or what exhibits are in this particular house. Knowing what was in each house beforehand helped me guide my toddler to places that were most age-appropriate and that he’d be most interested in.

Once you’re standing at the front entrance, you’ll see an admittance booth and a white gate to the left of the booth. If the booth is empty, go through the gate and take either the stroller ramp or the staircase to the house on the left. When I was there, only the house on the left was staffed with a customer service agent; we could have easily gone through the house on the right or on to the playground and not paid admission. I don’t know how far we would have gotten because I don’t know whether there are security cameras, but it felt like they were relying a little too much on my honesty.

There are three houses. We found we liked the Gilbert House the best; it had a bubble room, which we spent the most time in, and a toddler room, which was essentially a bunch of toys. Cool toys that my kid had never seen before, and places for adults to sit, but toys nevetheless.

The houses are clearly designed for parents to interact with their kids with a dialogue about smart, real things. That’s just great, especially if you’ve just done some other vacation activity that isn’t so interactive, and there can be a lot of those.

There’s also a place to let your children run wild if they’ve got pent-up energy. The place for wildness is, naturally, outside, but the outside playground exhibits are all meshed together. They’re meant to be separate exhibits and each is supposed to teach a different concept, but I could easily see children running pell-mell through as if it was normal playground equipment.

As for us, we stopped for lunch outside in front of a life-sized chess set. We watched another family arrive with their lunches and pounce on the chess set with shouts of, “Hey, look! I love checkers—come on: who wants to play a game?” They didn’t know the name of the game or how to set up the board and soon found that the tops of most of the pawns were too easily detachable.

I pointed out the directions on how to play, but they were posted too high for the kids to read, and they wandered away. One educational moment, lost. Later, after staring at the pieces through lunch, I set up the board myself—I found that there were no queens or kings. I couldn’t decide whether this was meant for volunteers to run, for parents to direct, or an area for staff to correct.

We left soon after a bathroom break and one last exhibit. After we finished, I found that I took the most pictures of my boy—naturally– and the murals. I can tell that the Discovery Village hired at least one muralist, and whoever it was is talented and versatile. The murals are in the bathrooms, the stairwells, and at the entrances of each exhibit, as well as inside each exhibit.

There’s one last challenge that the Discovery Village faces: making a museum that will engage kids of all ages and of all developmental ranges. Because I went with my toddler, he was only genuinely interested in two or three rooms. During the rest of our visit, I made quite an effort to transform each room into something he’d be interested in: a maze to run through, stairs to clamber up, paper and—a rarity for him—markers, and a train set to discover.

Sometimes we’d skip whole rooms, but the point is that this is a place where we felt free to do all those things–to discover and wonder. As long as the kids’ minds are engaged and they’re not parked in front of the hotel TV, the time will probably be worth it to you.

Disclosure: I did not pay for our admission, but my thoughts are my own.

Kate is originally from Albuquerque, New Mexico. As much as she’s learned to seek out the subtle colors of the desert, Kate has found that she really is a tree girl at heart. She posts on parents’ tips for kid-friendly traveling havens from a curious newcomer’s perspective; Kate is a very recent resident of Salem and thrilled to be here. Kate writes personally and with just as much enthusiasm here.

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