Here's how we like to do it:
The museum is made up of three separate buildings, two of which have two stories, as well as the astoundingly giant and stupendous outdoor play area. You seriously have to see it to believe it. You very well could skip the entire inside museum part and just spend the majority of the day outside. But! First let's look at the buildings.(Side note: the entire museum is called Gilbert House Children's Museum - and their website is actually acgilbert.org (the museum is named after a pretty amazing guy from Salem) - but the museum is actually three houses altogether, even though only one is actually called the Gilbert House. Clear as mud?)
The main building is the Rockenfield House. It's where you enter and pay. There's a small gift shop right in the entrance, so beware of your kids getting stuck in there. While you're getting checked in, grab one of the handy little brochures that have a list of the exhibits, a map, and bathroom locations in them.
So. I recommend tackling The Rockenfield House first. Because, well, you're already in there, silly.
The Rockenfield House:
The first exhibit you will see is the "Village Grocery". It's a grocery store, complete with tons of food, scales, shopping bags and carts, and a cash register. For some reason, even though we have a kitchen's worth of pretend food at home, as well as a shopping cart, as well as a cash register (oh my word - too many toys!) my kid gets hung up in this room every single time. He loves it. Good luck not spending the majority of your time here.
The other highlight in this building is the "Recollections" room upstairs. It's a dark room with music and a projector that captures colorful outlines of your body and turns them into kaleidoscope-like pictures on the wall. It is super duper cool.
Now, the next building you hit could depend on your littles. Do you have kiddos who are six or older or really interested in constructing things? Head to the Parrish House. Younger littles should definitely head to the Gilbert House first.
The Parrish House:
This is the place to be for littles who love trains. In the "Imagination Station/Train Room" there's a very cool electric model train, with a bubble thing that you can duck down inside to feel like you're in the middle of the model. There's also a train table, but it's pretty tall, making it sort of inaccessible for toddlers, and (forgive me if this is unfriendly) it's seen better days.
In my opinion, the highlight of the Parrish House is the "Imagination Playground." It is full of giant blue foam-ish (not like the foam in the pits at NAAG - eww) blocks. If you have a little who is interested in building, engineering, or anything of that sort, they'll be thrilled. However, the blocks are big and sort of heavy, so if you have have a two year old they probably won't be super successful in there other than just playing with the blocks, which, don't get me wrong, is totally fun on it's own. Anyway, just look at the picture on their website - you'll see.
The Gilbert House:
"The Play Room" downstairs is a nice quiet little spot for littles ages two and under. It's also a great place for babies to eat. There's a rocking chair, board books, baby toys, and just a feeling of respite from the louder parts of the museum.
In the "Up, Up and Away" room there is a very fun airplane cockpit where two kiddos can sit and pretend to fly. Don't miss it.
The new "Farm to Table" room is also a must see. There are little tractors to sit on, lots of food to harvest, and a table to sit at for your "feast."
Upstairs in the Gilbert House, the "Village Vet Clinic" is always super popular. And for good reason - you can get a stuffed pet out of it's cage and pretend to bathe it, groom it, and give it a full checkup. You can spend lots of time in here.
Older kiddos will be intrigued by the "Tinker Tracks" room. My four year old has yet to show much interest in moving the PVC pipe tracks around on the metal walls to make marble run like paths, but I think it's really cool!
Be sure to check out the pretend submarine in the hallway of the upstairs of the Gilbert House. It is my kiddo's absolute favorite. It's very authentic - lots of dials and buttons and little red lights. You can hear the BEEP BEEP BEEP that submarines make and it's dark and mysterious.
Oh my. The outside of this place is just wild. Here's what you're going to do. Assuming you have plenty of time to spend in Salem, you're going to take as much time as your littles want inside the three buildings. Then you're going to move outside (even if it's rainy, because there is plenty of space under cover!! These people got the memo that we live in Oregon and it rains a lot but our kids need to be outside for the love!) and you're going to explore the outdoor area. You're also going to eat the picnic lunch you packed. After running out any leftover energy they might have, your kids will fall flat asleep immediately upon hopping in the car to drive home, which frees you up to listen to podcasts of "Wait, Wait...Don't Tell Me!" Yeeeessssss. Fist pumps all the way home.
Outside highlights: dinosaur bones (but they're in sand, womp womp), super cool musical instruments, the hugest play structure you've ever seen for little kids to run all over and get totally lost (beware - it really is super easy to lose track of your littles out there, especially when it's busy), and an even more huge play structure for bigger kiddos - it's two stories tall! For reals - I get nervous up there.
One last thing!! On the front porch of the Gilbert House, there is a rocking chair. But it's not just any old boring rocking chair. It's like a giant sized rocking chair. Makes for the cutest pictures you ever did see.
Parking can be a bit of a hassle. The actual lot in front of the museum is pretty small, and fills up quickly when it's busy. Go behind the museum on Water Street (paralleling the river) and there are sometimes spots there. If not, you'll have to go way down Water Street to the other big lot, but it is a serious trek.
If you can swing it, try to go on a weekday. We have been there on weekdays when it is just about empty. This is really convenient, because your kiddos can explore and linger and really take their time investigating and imagining.
There's a small cafe out in the outdoor playground. That being said, I've never actually been inside, so I can't comment on what's actually in there. Sorry!
The Gilbert House has a preschool. This is not super helpful to those of us in Lane County, other than to think about how totally awesome it would be to be a student there. :)
Parking: Plenty of free parking during the week (less so during the summer) and not so much on the weekends.
Cost: Free for Science Factory members - huzzah! Otherwise, the admission is pretty reasonable. It's free for under one-ers, $4 for 1-2 year olds, $8 for 3-59 year olds, and $6 for seniors. Also! AAA discount!
Food: There is food available for purchase both in the cafe at the back of the outdoor playground as well as in the gift shop in the Rockenfield House.
Resting/Nursing Spots: There are chairs and benches in pretty much every room. Hooray!
Push or Wear: Definitely wear. If you can, go through the museum without a bag, then go back out to the car (if you're not parked too far away) and get your lunch, then head out to the outdoor play area to eat.
Time Frame: At least 2 hours.
Megan Defferding is the mom to two super fun boys who love to find great stuff to do all around Lane County! Check out her blog series, Happy Adventuring, weekly on GoMomGo.