By Eileen Ogintz

TAMPA, FL (Day 1 of 2) — The kids at the Glazer Children’s Museum are busy navigating Tampa’s port, piloting a cruise ship and digging for treasure on an island.

Glazer Children's Museum in Tampa FL
Glazer Children’s Museum in Tampa FL

Nearby, at the Lowry Park Zoo, they’re oohing and aahing over the recovering manatees who have been brought here because they were injured and ogling a Florida panther.

I love it when museums and zoos encourage kids to learn about their own communities—or the communities they are visiting.

Take the Glazer Children’s Museum, adjacent to the Tampa Museum of Art.  The majority of their visitors are local families. But kids can “design” a downtown Tampa street, complete with block skyscrapers and street names, or play at a huge water table that mimics Tampa’s famous port.  They can “drive” a fire truck while looking at a computer screen of Tampa’s streets and navigate a cruise ship on another computer into port—it’s not that easy– I drove the ship right into perilous waters!

I especially like the summer’s new exhibit —  Road Trip USA where kids might jump into a 1957 Chevy and see what it was like to connect the Coasts in those days  or help the museum break the world’s record for the biggest ball of string anywhere.   In case you’re wondering—they have to beat one that is 19,873 pounds. The museum’ rock climbing wall will become Mt. Rushmore.

They can help build a Tampa house —“planting” flowers and vegetables, putting on hard hats and putting together pipes or figuring out how to make lights go on.

Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa FL
Lowry Park Zoo in Tampa FL

The Zoo, though not one of the largest in the country, is celebrated for its interactive programs—the chance to feed the giraffes, touch the stingrays, pet the horses, feed the birds in the aviary.  There are special family behind the scenes programs for families and sleepovers just for kids, starting with kindergartners.  And while local kids vie for spots in the zoo’s many summer camps, visitors can sign up for a 2.5  hour “mini camp,” starting for those who have finished fourth through eighth grades. Want to learn more about careers at zoo or take a closer look at the zoo’s reptiles?

This is a great place to learn about animal conservation too, starting with the rescued Manatees who come here for the “ER for Manatees” after they’ve gotten tangled in fishing line or hit by a boat propeller.  Two thirds ultimately can be returned to the wild; some stay for as long as two years.  Kids can visit the Manatee “hospital” and the recovering creatures native to Florida., while a new Animal Care Complex is being built.

Meet the orphaned Florida Panther who was rescued as a tiny kitten after his mother deserted her and now is thriving.

Of course there are lots of other animals—hippos and elephants, Heathliff the Koala, chimps and monkeys.

What’s your favorite?