Higher education isn’t cheap, but hanging out on a higher education campus can be. What’s more, some campuses have spots that are not only open to the public, but also kind of fun, even for kids. I recently took my children and a couple of their friends to the Washington State University campus in Pullman to find out their favorite places to visit.Before we begin, you need to know two things: These places (mostly museums) are open various days and times, but they’re all typically open between 10 a.m. and 4 p.m. Monday through Friday while school is in session; admission is free. The second thing you need to know is that even if you buy a top-notch parking pass, your first tour will likely be of a few campus parking lots. For these two reasons, I recommend that your first stop be at the easily accessible WSU Visitor Center, where you can get a campus map, parking map and parking pass, along with details on hours at the following locations, ranked by the kids, beginning with the best spot:
No. 1: Ferdinand’s Ice Cream Shoppe
Had this not been at the top of the list, you would’ve known this ranking was entirely unreliable. Whatever your age, it’s hard to beat good ice cream and fresh cheese curds, not to mention the two-for-one sale we caught on Cougar Gold quarters. But that’s not the only fun part. Next to the ice cream shop is an observatory deck where you can watch cheese being made. There’s a short movie (rated “cheesy” for all audiences) that shows the entire process, since you’ll only see part of it when you visit.
No. 2: Robert P. Worthman Anatomy Museum in McCoy Hall
The kids agreed that this is the first museum they’d send their friends to on campus, if for no other reason than to gross them out. The small room is full of preserved animal specimens that display bones, guts and all the other good stuff you’ll find inside. The collection is primarily used by veterinary students for studying, but it’s also open to the public — and thus, totally worth a visit, even if it’s just for the cyclops cow head in the hallway. We got lucky and ran into the lab supervisor who not only told us how the specimens were made but also explained the difference between cow stomachs and horse stomachs. (The things you didn’t know you didn’t know.)
No. 3: Geology Museum in Webster Hall
Rocks are a perennial kid favorite and this exhibit is no exception. Along with your average “cool rocks and fossils,” the museum features fossilized wood, geodes and a display of rocks that glow in the dark — or rather, reflect fluorescent minerals under black light. Be prepared to hear “cool,” uttered a time or two.
No. 4: Charles R. Conner Museum in Abelson Hall
We came to refer to this as the “skin-on animals,” in contrast with the “skin off” ones at the veterinary anatomy museum. The museum, which takes up three rooms, holds an extensive collection of taxidermied animals — it’s like a visit to the zoo, except all the animals hold still. There’s a wealth of information in the displays and a scavenger hunt worksheet, which is how the kids slowed down enough to take advantage of said information.
No. 5: Physics Display in Webster Hall
The Webster Hall lobby holds a number of geological items, but it also has a few interactive physics displays involving magnets and mirrors and pendulums. That means there was a lot of movement and noise involved, which likely related to the positive reviews it received.
No. 6: WSU Bear Center
Sure, if there weren’t so many fences to peer through to see the bears it might be nicer in some ways — but maybe not as nice in other safety-related ones. Even with the fences, there’s often plenty of movement that can be seen as younger cubs climb and older bears huff and wander about the yard. If you want to see bears, plan your visit during non-hibernating months, April through October.
No. 7: Compton Union Building
Since we decided to have ice cream for lunch, we stopped by the CUB food court for a “late morning snack.” That the six of us got food we liked from three different places in less than 10 minutes was nothing short of glorious. My favorite lunchtime observations: “Everyone here is older than us” and “this place looks like an airport where everyone is wearing Cougar stuff.”
No. 8: Museum of Art/WSU
In theory, an art museum is a great cultural experience for kids. In reality, however, not all art is easily accessible for kids, or even age-appropriate. The museum handles those issues well; kids will connect with some of the exhibits that come through the museum, but maybe not all of them — and that’s OK. We got what we could from the exhibit we saw and didn’t worry about getting all of it.
No. 9: Museum of Anthropology in College Hall
This small museum has a few permanent exhibits along the perimeter, mostly featuring ancient tools used by people in the region. Though they’ve seen them before, the clovis was an engaging favorite. The interior exhibit changes regularly but, while interesting, was designed more for people who do not have an incessant need for movement.