Building for Kids, a children’s museum in the heart of downtown Appleton, Wisconsin, is a must-see for families with children. With three children under 8, we are frequent flyers at all of our Chicagoland children’s museums. While we love these spaces, it was really refreshing to see exhibits we’ve never seen before. Thoughtful planning and details engage toddlers all the way through elementary-aged children. We spent nearly five hours at Building for Kids and could have stayed longer. Read below for all the details about the exhibits, tips for your trip, and more places to explore while you are in town.
Our family was invited to Appleton and hosted by Building for Kids, but all opinions are my own. It’s an amazing museum and all of us loved it. We couldn’t wait to share it with you!
Exhibits at Building for Kids
The moment we walked in, my children started playing pretend. The main level of the museum is full of real-world spaces to explore. Just to the left of the entrance is a bank complete with drive-thru teller station, coin sorting, and bank bags. This was one of our favorite spaces, which is funny to me, as I can’t remember the last time my children were in a bank branch.
To the right of the entrance is a grocery store and restaurant, complete with a pizza making station. While we’re used to seeing grocery store play areas, the pizza-making station was an extra touch we’ve never seen at a children’s museum before.
Another favorite spot was the doll hospital. We had to stop at the checkup area to make sure our babies were healthy, examine x-rays, and test out a working scale.
As we rounded the corner, we were taken to the Big Rig Depot, where we pumped gas in a semi, mapped our shipping routes on a pegboard, and even practiced with an engine simulator.
We sorted shipping and receiving for various sized packages in the Loading Dock. We loved quizzing our son on his shapes and colors, comparing sizes, and, of course, making a mess.
Towards the back of the first floor, you’ll give (simulated) flying a try in the BFK Jet, or stop in the Innovation Lab for quite a few hands-on STEM activities. Here we looked under microscopes, experimented with a wind tunnel, and built a large t-rex out of foam bones.
At this point, we had been so busy already, and hadn’t even started on the second floor yet. Visitors can take the elevator, stairs, or climb the ramps in the Discovery Tree to head upstairs.
The second floor is home to a huge creation space known as the da Vinci Studio. Children can paint, draw, build with clay, create music, or express themselves however they’d like. We normally make short stops at art areas, but all three of my kids felt particularly inspired by being in the da Vinci Studio.
My 3-year-old’s favorite space upstairs was the Water Gallery. This was not your typical water play area. Water sprays were aimed at sets of chimes, so the water stream created music. He loved dropping ducks down the water vortex, or moving barriers to change the water flow down the main structure.
There was a beautiful play space for guests three and under, even more so than what fits in the picture below. While my son is 3, we opted to keep him out for the sake of smaller guests who were enjoying themselves. This space was very clean, which is always a priority with your littlest explorers.
At the center of the 2nd floor is Move It, the ultimate physics experiment. Levers, pulleys, ramps, all filled with balls, line the walls of this tinkering space. We worked together, filling buckets and testing air flow.
My 3-year old loves to dig, but even my girls were moving things around in the Big Dig space. We all love sensory play, especially when it’s not overly messy!
Right around the corner was Construction Junction, my 8-year old’s favorite spot, as she was able to put her crane game skills to the test.
One of our final stops upstairs was Station 99, the perfect spot for firefighter fans. Try on a hat and coat, hop onboard the firetruck, and save the day!
It’s hard to believe, but there were even more spaces to explore in Building for Kids. A LEGO table, live birds, the Amazing Heart Slide and more fill every corner of this one-of-a-kind museum.
On the first floor, there is a small area for families to sit and enjoy a meal. There were two vending machines for drinks and snacks, or you’re welcome to bring your own food. Since we were coming from out of town, we didn’t come with anything besides small snacks.
Guests are welcome to leave the building for a meal at a nearby restaurant, then return for more fun. Just make sure to get your hand stamped before you leave or show your receipt upon return.
This were a number of individual bathrooms stationed throughout the museum, each with their own changing table and manual flushing toilets.
The museum is open daily from 8:00am – 4:00pm. Check their website for holiday hours and schedule changes.
All guests will pay $9.50 to play at the museum, unless qualifying for access admission. The museum does not have a designated parking lot, so you will need to pay to park as well. We used the Red Ramp parking deck a half-block away from the museum. The fee for being there most of the day was only $3. There is also metered-street parking available. (These details were updated on June 21, 2022 and are subject to change.)
Recommended Ages for Building for Kids
With 8-, 7- and 3-year old kids, sometimes it can be difficult to find things that they’re all excited about. Building for Kids was the perfect sweet spot for our family. Unique exhibits encouraged problem-solving and creativity, and my kids were all equally excited to turn a corner and explore something new. Even areas that I thought would have been too young for my 8-year-old kept her playing and having fun.
Best Days/Times To Go
We visited on a Friday from 9:00am – 2:00pm and it was not crowded at all. Weekends tend to be more crowded than weekdays.
Special Needs Accommodations
On the second floor, there is a quiet room for guests who need a sensory break while visiting. In this space, the lights are dimmed and there are sensory-friendly toys and books, as well as a rocking chair for feeding babies.
There is an elevator in the center of the space for easy wheelchair and stroller access to the second floor. Most exhibits are wheelchair-friendly.
Upcoming Events at Building for Kids
Building for Kids publicizes their special events on their website and Facebook page. Check in advance to see if there’s something special happening while you’re in town.
Building for Kids Children’s Museum
100 W. College Avenue
Appleton, WI 54911
So you might be asking… What else is there to do in Appleton, WI?
Appleton, Wisconsin, part of the Fox Cities, is filled with classic American charm. The quaint downtown, situated along the Fox River, is lined with parks, restaurants and shops. A ride on the trolley, a sweet scoop of ice cream, and a stop at one of the museums will make for a memorable road trip this summer. Escape the hustle and bustle of the Chicagoland area and head to one of northern Wisconsin’s most charming cities!
Other Places to Go with Kids in Appleton, Wisconsin
History Museum at the Castle
History Museum at the Castle
330 E. College Avenue
Appleton, WI 54911
Appleton’s History Museum at the Castle is not far down the road from Building for Kids. It’s home to three main exhibits, as well as a handful of smaller ones. We learned so much during our time here. While DaVinci the Exhibition is a temporary exhibit, it spans two floors of the museum. We read about the abundance of masterpieces created by Leonardo DaVinci; from his paintings to his inventions, the influence of his work is limitless. Pulley systems, armored tanks, parachutes, and floats to walk on water are some of his many inventions that still impact our lives today.
While there are quite a few displays where visitors are encouraged to touch, the exhibit as a whole is geared towards older children and adults. My 7- and 8-year old were interested in all of the information and eager to carefully test out his inventions. There are a lot of signs to read, and with fragile displays, it wasn’t the best spot for my 3-year old. He had a lot more fun (as did the older two) at AKA Houdini down the hall.
AKA Houdini explores the life and work of Harry Houdini, one of Appleton’s most famous residents. Magic boxes, testing handcuffs, and balancing acts all bring Houdini’s illusions to life in a fun way for kids. We lifted fake barbells, tested our resistance to cold, and even tried escaping a straightjacket. We learned quite a bit about the truth behind the illusions and how Houdini was so successful in his acts.
The hands-on nature of this exhibit made it much more kid-friendly, and my husband and I even learned a thing or two about Houdini. We rounded out our time at the History Museum at the Castle with a stop through the final major exhibit, ABC Fox Cities, which is a collection of local artifacts.
This kid-friendly space (all fragile things are encased) has a small dress up area and a spot to color your own postcard. The display cases are filled items representing each letter of the alphabet, such as the Peekies, which were commercialized by Appleton native Bob Neller.
Depending on the ages of your children, your time at History Museum at the Castle will vary. My 7- and 8-year old were more interested in testing Da Vinci’s inventions, trying Houdini’s illusions, and decorating a postcard to mail home to our dog. Admission to the museum is $15 for adults and $10 for children 3-17, with daily hours from 10:00am – 4:00pm.
Butterfly Garden of Wisconsin
Butterfly Garden of Wisconsin
Appleton, WI 54913
A stop at the Butterfly Garden of Wisconsin will take you outside the downtown area of Appleton. A community-owned non-profit, the garden’s grounds are home to a butterfly-shaped maze, a butterfly feeding enclosure, a waterfall, and a gift shop. Guests can visit from 10:00am – 3:00pm Wednesday through Saturday. Adults are $10, children are $5, and visitors 2 and under are free. Admission includes a short informational session about butterflies and unlimited food to bring into the butterfly house. Visitors can also purchase monarch raising kits to bring home, as well as various crafts and homemade gifts.
Where to Eat
Visitors will find plenty of restaurants, coffee shops, and ice cream parlors along College Avenue, the main road running through downtown Appleton. We ate a delicious lunch at Copper Rock Coffee Company, where we also enjoyed an afternoon “Brew of the Day.” Crazy Sweet is just a few blocks down from Building for Kids and is a great spot for ice cream and other sweet treats. Another highly-rated restaurant in downtown Appleton is Antojitos Mexicanos. Off the main strip, we ate dinner outside at StoneArch BrewPub, where all three kids devoured the cheese pizza and fish and chips.
More Things to Do with Kids in Appleton, Wisconsin
Visitors can enjoy a Downtown Appleton Trolley Ride, which runs for approximately 30 minutes throughout the downtown area. On Thursday and Friday evenings, as well as all day on Saturdays, this free service loops through College Avenue, Lawrence University, and various parks and landmarks. We enjoyed the chance to sit and relax as we took in the sights, rather than trying to navigate it on our own.
We spotted Jones Park, one of Appleton’s many playgrounds, on our walk back to our car, but weren’t able to play after a long day of exploring Appleton. Located right in downtown, the playground would be a great spot to burn extra energy.
Hearthstone Historic House Museum, the first home powered by hydroelectricity, is situated along the Fox River in Appleton. Small group tours are available Thursday through Sunday, with ticket sales both online and at the door. Admire the architecture of this beautiful home and learn all about the history of electricity usage.
Lawrence University, a liberal arts college, is situated right along College Avenue in Appleton. If you plan to visit when classes are in session, I recommend checking their calendar to avoid any busier times.
Where to Stay
Our family spent the night at the Comfort Suites Appleton Airport, which was about a 10-15 minute drive from the main downtown area of Appleton. Continental breakfast is included with your stay, and it has a large pool, water slide, hot tub, arcade, and ping pong tables. Our family loved being able to swim in the pool, especially the water slide. There are guests rooms that open up to the pool area, which was convenient, but could be noisy at times. I wouldn’t recommend it if your family has light sleepers, as other pool guests may keep them up or wake them earlier than you’d like. A number of other hotel chains are also located near the Appleton airport if you have loyalty to one brand over another.
If you’d prefer to stay within walking distance to the downtown area, there is a Courtyard by Marriott Appleton Riverfront, or CopperLeaf Boutique Hotel & Spa. There’s even the charming Franklin Street Inn Bed and Breakfast for more mature crowds.
Looking for more Wisconsin road trip ideas? Nicole shared great ideas for a summer vacation in Sheboygan, Wisconsin.