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Okay, enough with the nesting! (Cocooning is so last year.) Pry your loved ones from the couch and tear them from the (pick one): TV, computer, video game screen, refrigerator. A quick roadtrip to one of these nearby destinations is bound to boost your family’s brain power. (Are you there yet?)

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 By Malerie Yolen-Cohen


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Within 90 miles of the county, there are ample opportunities to immerse yourself in a day of hands-on, brain-activated learning. After years of personal research with two hard-to-please boys, I’ve handpicked some of the interesting and enriching places a family can drive to and discover in one day—places you may know about but didn’t realize offer mind-expanding, innovative programs.


Imagine spending a few hours in a cardiac operating room, or gliding along at the bottom of the sea in a submersible robot. There are spots where even the tiniest explorers can assist zoologists in a rainforest or help edit their own movies.


I’ve omitted the obvious—like the Metropolitan Museum of Art or Manhattan Children’s Museum—and stayed outside the boundaries of Westchester County to select the top destinations where you can stretch those mental muscles while having fun.




American Museum of the Moving Image

35 Astoria Avenue


36th Street

Astoria, NY

(718) 784-0077



Art need not stand still. You are constantly reminded of this at the Museum of the Moving Image—a local treasure trove of movie-making history, technique and technology. Here in the former East Coast home of Paramount Pictures, you learn about the painstaking and inventive process of bringing a motion picture to screen.


Starting on the third floor, witness the history of cinematography from displays of a 1646 “Magic Lantern” and an array of working 1800s nickelodeons to the newest in digital technology. Kids can spend hours creating their own stop-action animation using an overhead camera and cutout pictures. Study the role of sound effects and musical scores, then dub your own voice into classic movie scenes in a soundproof booth.


In addition to interactive exhibits, the museum incorporates screenings and lectures, inviting directors like Tim Burton to preview and talk about their latest releases. Ongoing “Behind the Screen” tours and workshops that       concentrate on specific processes—motion, animation, sound and film editing—will surely inspire your in-house Coppola.



3 Beekman Street n Beacon, NY

(845) 440-0100



Visit the 300,000-square-foot Dia:Beacon on the banks of the Hudson River, and you will be forced to face the question: What exactly constitutes “art?” This former printing plant, glossed up and renovated for massive contemporary art installations opened in May 2003 and is drawing art students, historians and the merely curious to its soaring halls.

From the architectural photographs of Bernd and Hilla Becher to the eerie projections of Robert Whitman, over two dozen masters of visual art from the 1960s up to the present are featured in a space so vast it will take a relatively athletic person a couple of hours just to sprint through.


But you are meant to linger here. And absorb. Dia’s staff works with local elementary schools, teaching students about the power of observation. And every Saturday, knowledgeable docents lead hour-long tours (alternating in English, Spanish and Japanese each week), highlighting works from mansion-sized galleries filled with Andy Warhol’s Shadows, minimalist Donald Judd’s simple plywood boxes, Dan Flavin’s dazzling fluorescent light works and the macabre body parts and spiders from Louise Bourgeois’s tortured imagination.


For those of you who spend your free time wielding sheet metal and a blow torch, Dia:Beacon will feel like a home away from home. For all others, a stroll through this old factory will surely spark discussions about the definition of art.


Soundwaters Schooner

Brewer Yacht Haven Marina

69 Dyke Lane

, Dock S1

Stamford, CT

(203) 323-1978



The 80-foot Schooner SoundWaters is much more than a floating classroom. It’s a medium for soothing frayed nerves, getting out on the water, feeling the wind at your cheeks and/or singing lively songs.


But the SoundWater’s raison d’être is its popular two-and-a-half hour public Ecology Sail. From the time you leave the dock at Brewer Yacht Haven in Stamford until you return a couple of hours later, you can participate in everything from raising tall-ship sails while belting out old sea chanties to heaving out the trawl net (for which SoundWaters has a special license), to plucking various creatures, plant life, and sadly, trash, from the dripping mesh.


Crew and captain on board are educators—with a refreshing eagerness to impart knowledge about what lives in our waters to interested guests. Guests can interact with Long Island Sound creatures—such as flounder and spider crabs—in their own environment and learn how to better protect our precious waters. After a SoundWaters experience, viewing your home aquarium will seem downright boring.


New York

Botanical Garden

200th Street


Kazimiroff Boulevard

Bronx, NY

(718) 817-8700



Ashort while ago (in tree years), the New York Botanical Garden was the perfect sedate destination for Mom’s garden club. On the fringes of Westchester, it may have merely tickled the fancy of those flower-gloved green-thumb types. These days, though, you would hardly recognize the place.


The 250-acre Garden is now a hothouse for research and learning—offering hundreds of courses and programs for babies to seniors. One hundred and seventy researchers and assistants (60 are PhDs or working on Doctorates through affiliate universities) guide visitors and students through exhibits and workshops as eclectic as “Ethno-botany” (study of cultures and how they interact with indigenous plants), “Nature’s Pharmacy,” and “Horticulture-Therapy” (like pet therapy, but with dirt and seeds).


Though the Botanical Garden is one blooming tribute to earth’s abundance, it absolutely shines in its kids’ programs. Little ones sit in a field tent while learning what it’s like to be  a Traveling Plant Scientist. They use all their senses (yummy) to bone up on the origins of vanilla, chocolate, peppermint—and even gingerbread (during the Christmas season). Kids can have their own garden, and there are outdoor galleries that feature various habitats (including a small pond and creatures that love the scum).


Now you can finally put together “Do your homework” and “Play in the dirt!” and feel good about it.


United States

Military Academy

West Point, NY

(845) 938-2203



During the Revolutionary War, an enormous chain was stretched across the Hudson River from West Point’s Trophy Point as a barrier to the British war ships set on taking our fledgling nation’s stronghold. You can see the remains of this “Great Chain” along with many other captivating sights on a bus tour of West Point Military Academy.

For history buffs interested in the chronicles of the United States army or the annals of arms and warfare, the West Point Museum is second to none. Within a fortress-like building, a formidable display of weaponry—from tomahawks to atomic bombs (exhibited up close and personal)—is featured throughout several floors along with photos and artifacts from the world’s great battles.


Whether you’ve got a ROTC leader or a draft-dodger living under your roof, a working knowledge of our military past and present can add scholarship to any debate. And the right to deliberate in our free country is, after all, what all this fighting is for.


Ellis Island Immigration Museum

Liberty Island

New York, NY

(212) 363-3200



A young woman stands before you. Her clothing is faded and worn. She looks exhausted and possibly ill. She spent the little money she had saved to make the long, stifling voyage to America—and now you decide her fate.


Conducted in the Hearing Room of Ellis Island National Memorial, the “Board of Special Inquiry Program” educates audience members about turn-of-century immigration policy and law and then asks them to make a life-altering decision. This is just one of the tours offered by what was once our nation’s portal for the world’s huddled masses.


From 1892 to 1954, more than 12 million immigrants came to Ellis Island hoping against hope to be allowed to remain in the United States. Doctors became proficient at the “six second physical”—determining in a few moments if each prospective newcomer had a disease that would send them packing. The whole immigration process took up to five hours—and now the roof where the travel-weary could get some air—is open to visitors in addition to two other floors jam-packed with exhibits.


The award-winning documentary “Island of Hope, Island of Tears” is shown regularly throughout the day and it’s quite possible you will hear the voice of a relative in the expansive library stocked with audiotapes of first-hand accounts of the Ellis Island immigration experience.


Ellis Island is the premier destination to become enlightened about our diverse land and the history of immigration in America.


Yankee Stadium

161st Street


River Avenue

Bronx, NY

(718) 579-4531



A baseball stadium to boost IQ, you say? Well, yes! Aside from the fact that whole math curriculums are built around sports (quick, can you tell me the formula for figuring batting averages?), Yankee Stadium in particular is steeped in history. Just ask self-schooled historian Tony Morante, who has been leading tours of the “House that Ruth Built” since 1979.


The tour begins in the Press Box where visitors get the same bird’s eye view of the field that reporters from The New York Times and Newsday are privy to. Morante discusses the stadium’s various renovations and unique details. Next, on to the locker room—which looks to my discerning eye like a plush, carpeted navy and white department store dressing room. Here, you learn about the origins of the Yankees logo and uniform number system.


But perhaps the most thrilling stop on the tour is the dugout. “This is where Derek sits,” gush kids from the Mt. Pleasant Cottage School, as they run their hands along the cushy plastic bench.


Asked if a proposed new Yankee Stadium will be built eventually, Morante admits, “Most likely. All good things must come to an end.” Which is one more reason to visit Yankee Stadium now. Get your history while it’s hot.


Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration

55 Coogan Boulevard

Mystic, CT

(860) 572-5955



You don’t have to drive 100 miles to see penguins or seals—a trip to the Bronx Zoo or New York Aquarium will do. But Mystic Aquarium has something that no other place in the world can boast: National Geographic Society Explorer-In-Residence Dr. Robert Ballard.


Dr. Ballard, who made headlines when he found the wreck of the Titanic in 1985, directs Mystic’s Institute for Exploration and its Immersion Institute Programs. You can guide an underwater robot, in real time, through the kelp forest of Monterey Bay Marine Sanctuary—where you control underwater cameras from your seat at the Immersion Institute Theatre.


Ballard’s “Challenge of the Deep” exhibit showcases artifacts, pictures and video from his various expeditions highlighting geologic finds like hydrothermal vents and “black smokers,” recent discoveries in undersea life, and 1,500-year-old amphorae excavated from the Black Sea—among many other eye-opening wonders.


Also at the aquarium, you can get up close and personal with a beluga whale (through the Beluga Contact Program), learn how to rescue stranded marine animals, take a picture with mascot “edu-gator” and play the video game “Shark: Predator/Prey; Eat or Be Eaten.” As a recognized leader in all areas of oceanic study, Mystic Aquarium continues to push the boundaries of scientific knowledge. The perfect day trip for your blossoming Captain Nemo.


Liberty Science Center

Liberty State Park

251 Phillip Street

n Jersey City, NJ

(201) 200-1000



Bells and whistles, joysticks and computers and elaborate Rube Goldberg devices and their ilk have become de rigueur vehicles for hands-on learning at most science museums these days. The Liberty Science Center, its rocket-like facility overloo

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