By Jessica Steinhoff | Pictured: Discovery World (left) courtesy Travel Wisconsin, Bookworm Gardens (top right) courtesy Travel Wisconsin, Sip & Purr Cat Cafe (bottom right) courtesy Visit Milwaukee
School isn’t the only place for kids to feed their minds and cultivate a lifelong love of learning. Educational opportunities abound when you travel, especially if you can tie part of the trip to your child’s hobbies and interests. Here’s a collection of Wisconsin attractions tailor-made for a wide range of youngsters, from avid readers and budding scientists to fans of animals and gourmet snacks.
FOR THE FAIRYTALE FANATIC
Queens in ice castles and boys who climb beanstalks, wizards on broomsticks and creatures that talk, gingerbread houses and mermaids that sing: If these are a few of your kid’s favorite things, make a beeline to Sheboygan’s Bookworm Gardens. Inspired by children’s books, each nature-filled nook in this botanical garden brims with opportunities to learn. The fairytale and fantasy genres are well represented with tributes to “Goldilocks and the Three Bears,” “Cloudy with a Chance of Meatballs” and the “Magic School Bus” series. But be sure to enjoy the poetry and nonfiction as well. Whether you search among the koi fish in McElligot’s Pool or pen haikus in the Japanese tea house, your imagination will thank you.
For more fairytale-fueled fun, head to Bristol Renaissance Faire in Kenosha, which offers a Kids Quest until 4 p.m. each day, with sign-up between 10 a.m. and 2 p.m. Designed for youngsters ages 4 to 10, this half-hour romp involves helping Puss in Boots choose between the life of adventure his pirate pal Sinbad advocates or the life of responsibility espoused by his princess friends, Rapunzel and Penelope. There are plenty of educational opportunities beyond the quest, too, from learning how a jousting match works to discovering the best way to eat a giant turkey leg.
FOR THE ANIMAL ADVOCATE
Milwaukee is an ideal destination for little ones who yearn to help animals. First and foremost, it’s the home of the Milwaukee County Zoo. In addition to housing more than 350 animal species, including giraffes, monkeys, penguins and big cats, this zoo is nationally renowned for its conservation and research programs. With a steam train, a sky glider and an epic playground for ages 2 to 12, it’s also the perfect spot for a family safari. Young animal advocates should check out the Zoological Society of Milwaukee’s Kids Conservation Club, which shares facts about endangered species and how to aid their survival. Club members also get to sponsor one of the zoo’s endangered animals and attend exciting educational workshops on site. When you visit, be sure to greet the new two-toed sloth, Nentas, and see if she flirts with Fezzik, a charming male who might become her mate.
For a closer look at local animals and their homes, scamper over to the nearby Schlitz Audubon Nature Center, a 185-acre conservation site filled with forests, wetlands, bluffs and Lake Michigan shoreline. Strollers are allowed on many of the hiking trails, which are dotted with nesting boxes for Eastern Bluebirds, as well as on the Mystery Lake boardwalk, where frog sightings are common. Bring your binoculars and you might also spot a hawk, a warbler or even a swan. Before you go, browse the kid-friendly exhibits in the nature center building, especially the one featuring Amelia, the flying squirrel, and a snapping turtle named Emerson.
If you’re craving critter cuddles at any point during your trip, the Sip & Purr Cat Cafe on Milwaukee’s east side can meet your needs. There’s coffee, wine and beer for the adults, lemonade for the kids and adoptable felines for everyone to meet. If the timing is right, you might come home with a new pet.
FOR THE YOUNG INVENTOR
If your mini-me loves to invent, design, build or simply tinker, a STEM-focused excursion could be as enjoyable as it is educational. In Green Bay, The Einstein Project’s maker workshops are just the place to get the gears turning. Designed to foster curiosity, creativity and confidence, each of these two-hour events at the Brown County STEM Innovation Center challenges participants to solve a problem with both their minds and their hands. Upcoming challenges include building a new and improved boat ( June 2, 3 or 5) and making a lightbox and other trinkets that light up ( July 7, 8, 10). Kids of all ages are welcome to attend, but those in fourth grade or below must bring along an adult helper. Registration is required.
Future engineers, physicists and innovators of all stripes can also explore their passions at Milwaukee’s Discovery World, which features interactive exhibits about hybrid vehicles, simple machines, virtual reality and more. Visitors can meet robots and make foam toys at Automation Everywhere, then operate a pneumatic dinosaur and send messages in morse code at Innovation Station. Many of the exhibits are geared toward school-age kids, but several, like a thrilling one where you can place your hand inside a tornado, are suitable for all ages.
FOR THE PINT-SIZE EPICUREAN
A child with an adventurous palate or celebrity-chef aspirations will likely find Usinger’s in Milwaukee a delectable treat. Founded in 1880 by an industrious German immigrant, the shop now carries more than 70 varieties of European-style sausage crafted just a few blocks away. Whether your young foodie wants to know how bockwurst differs from weisswurst or how the bologna gets made, a local expert will answer the question with skill and maybe, just maybe, a sample of the goods.
FarmWise, a 35-acre educational farm in Elkhorn, takes an even deeper dive into food’s backstory. Here, kids can feed pigs, collect eggs and milk a cow by hand to learn about the care and collaboration that go into organic agriculture. Families can start their learning journey by pitching in with animal care on summer mornings. Pulling weeds, planting seeds and performing other farm chores are also part of the bargain. The work is hard, but founder Bente Goldstein infuses it with fun, including cooking projects and music. Her young apprentices often sing songs from around the world as they work, learning how music is both a storytelling tool and a source of emotional strength. Another option is reserving Goldstein’s Airbnb rental, which includes opportunities to meet the animals and hit the barn for some fulfilling early-morning labor.