5 great children’s spaces in the Bay Area, California

I was fortunate enough to recently spend a month in California, mainly in and around San Francisco. During this time I visited a handful of children’s learning spaces and met with a bunch of lovely, passionate people working in both formal and informal learning contexts. The places listed below are places that I visited or that came highly recommended. I hope you find these equally as inspiring as I did!

Exploratorium in San Francisco

The Brightworks School

Founded by Gever Tulley who also started The Tinkering School, Brightworks is a project-based learning heaven that ‘weaves learning and life experiences together.’ In the every day runnings of the school, children are put into mixed-aged group teams and encouraged to investigate real-world problems collectively. ‘The Arc’ (I interpret this term to mean the pedagogical principles that drive the learning processes at the school) consists of three phases: exploration, expression and exposition. Learners move through these cycles, allowing for the development, integration and contextualisation of skills and knowledge.

Interested in hearing more about this approach to learning? The Brightworks school run a ‘Brightworks Curious Educators Tour’ approximately once a month that you can book into. Details can be found on their website. Gever also has an awesome TED talk on ‘life lessons through tinkering’ that looks at children’s experiences at The Tinkering School.


Max Ventilla, a former Google executive, created Altschool after he could not find an appropriate school to send his daughter to. Altschools are lab schools that utilise an array of new technologies to create personalised learning environments for its students. Fundamentally opposed to the American government’s standardisation curriculum, AltSchooler’s learning is driven by their interests, passions and skills under a ‘Common Core’ curriculum. Nicknamed ‘Montessori 2.0,’ the schools works closely with entrepreneurs and engineers to develop new technologies that allow students and teachers to grade and document learning in diverse ways. The New Yorker published an extensive article, ‘Learn Differently,’ on the startup last year. I also found this talk by Max Ventilla particularly informative.

Unfortunately I was unable to visit AltSchool while in SF. I was/still am really interested in learning more the relationship between assessment and the development of the apps being used and how these influence one another.


The San Francisco Museum of Modern Art re-opened in 2016 after major renovations. An epicenter for contemporary art in the Bay Area, the art museum is also a sensory-rich environment for young audiences. From my understandings the museum does not run specific programmes or have a dedicated area for children but there is an array of artworks that may capture the curiosities and imaginations of children. These include Dan Flavin’s luminous installation on level 5, Richard Serra’s ‘Sequence’ and Morris Lewis’ technicolour ‘Untitled’ painting (pictured below). With such an incredibly diverse and amazing mix of modern and contemporary art, it seems like the museum has great potential to further develop children’s learning programmes in the future. The Gallery has also put together an online museum guide for visiting with the little-ies.

The Children’s Creativity Museum 

Deep in the heart of SOMA’s Yerba Buena Gardens sits the Children’s Creativity Museum. The museum features an array of different ‘labs’ such as an animation studio, a tech lab, a music studio and community lab that aim ‘to nurture creativity and collaboration in all children and families.’ The day I visited, the museum was pumping. It is clearly a popular destination for young families living in San Francisco with lots of activities for children to play and make in. The museum certainly has a slightly commercial feel to it, as I often find in American children’s museums. An additional after thought I had was in relation to the separation of the different labs. I wonder what would happen if the tech lab, music studio and community lab became one big space for making and exploring across disciplines and art forms? Check it out: https://creativity.org

The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium

You might notice I write a lot about the Tinkering Studio on this blog but it is just because I truly believe in inquiry-based learning through play, which is what they do so brilliantly. Housed in The Exploratorium and overlooking the sparkling Bay, the museum’s mission is “to create inquiry-based experiences that transform learning worldwide” through explorations of science, art and human perception. The Tinkering Studio is not just for young children, it is a space for everyone to play, make, construct and deconstruct ideas and understandings about the world.

I really connect with The Tinkering Studio’s emphasis on curiosity as the driver for learning. This manifests itself in numerous ways including visitor’s learning during drop-in activities, teacher’s learning at professional development workshops and also (and maybe most importantly) in relation to the learning of the museum team. As an outsider I see it as a continuous process of learning together and that is inspiring. At the same time, the understanding of learning underpinning the practice seems so much more complex than just giving children agency. The activities on offer such as the marble machines, wind tubes and paper circuits are well-considered ‘problem spaces’ where explorations of interconnecting concepts happens through material experimentation. I saw a great quote on the wall of the museum by the American artist Jasper Johns:

“When something is new to us, we treat it as an experience. We feel that our senses are awake and clear. We are alive.”

The Tinkering Studio at the Exploratorium in the Bay Area

I related to this concept that new experiences and ideas keep our minds and bodies awake. Also that one’s desire to continuously strive for what is yet to come into existence or be discovered is a life force. The Tinkering Studio also has a great blog that the team use to share projects and ideas.

There is an array of other innovative startups/play/learning spaces in and from the Bay Area not mentioned above. To name a few: the Bay Area Discovery Museum, Wonderful Idea Co., the Khan Lab School, GCE Lab School, the Berkeley Adventure Playground and the Museum of Children’s Arts. I also highly recommend the Prelinger library for their ‘how to’ and ‘maker’ sections. The library is also a great place to get some general life inspiration. Can’t wait to visit California again!

P.S. Thank you Ryan Jenkins for the awesome recommendations!

The Bay Area is full of fantastic children's learning spaces. This post shares some of my favorites! www.louisapenfold.com

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