Reaching for Butterflies at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science
Reaching for Butterflies at the Cockrell Butterfly Center at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

Best Things to Do at the Houston Museum of Natural Science with Kids

Located in the heart of Houston's Museum District, the Houston Museum of Natural Science (HMNS) is one of the most visited museums in the country, and a fun, educational trip for kids. This world-class museum consists of five floors of permanent halls full of awe-inspiring exhibits and a steady rotation of traveling special exhibits. Discover the tropical rainforest, reach back in time to when dinosaurs walked the Earth, blast forward to learn about the future of renewable energy, and explore space in the Burke Baker Planetarium. Plus, the Wortham Giant Screen Theatre was Houston’s first IMAX theatre offering 3D images, and the Cockrell Butterfly Center is a stunning, living exhibit that showcases hundreds of live butterflies in a naturalistic rainforest setting.

There is so much to see and do at the Houston Museum of Natural Science. Take kids on an active learning adventure by visiting exhibits that are more likely to keep children's attention. Here, we’ve curated a few of the best things to do at Houston’s Museum of Natural Science with kids to help you plan your visit.

Interested in more Houston museums? Check out our article on Free Admission Times and Days at Houston's Best Museums, Zoos, and Gardens.

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Things to Do at HMNS on the Main Level

The Cockrell Butterfly Center

Near the back of the main level of the museum, furthest away from the Ticketing Center, you’ll see the stunning, three-story glass structure that houses a whole world inside. The Cockrell Butterfly Center is a simulated tropical rainforest filled with pollinator plants and built around a 50-foot waterfall. It houses hundreds of live butterflies that fly around you as you walk down winding stone steps, through a small trail, and towards the area where the waterfall ends in a small pond.

I often have to remind my kids to hang on to the railing for the steps because they will get distracted by all the butterflies flying around them and not look where they are going. Once at the bottom, there is a little trail you can follow through all the flowers and plants.

 
Walking on the trail inside the Butterfly Center

On the trail, you’ll find an enclosed beehive where you can see honeybees through glass, and you’ll definitely see and feel butterflies flapping around you amidst the foliage. Kids can try to find all the spots where butterflies are drinking from bowls of sweet nectar set out for them.

To exit the habitat area, you’ll actually be entering the Brown Hall of Entomology where you can explore preserved specimens of some of the world’s largest and weirdest insects, enjoy interactive games, and learn about the butterfly world.

Notes:

The Cockrell Butterfly Center is not included in the admission price for the museum. Tickets must be purchased separately and are currently $12 for adults and $10 for kids age 3 and up. Check the website for different kinds of discounts, including for Seniors, College Students, and other categories. Though times will vary, expect to spend about 45 minutes in this exhibit.

Strollers are not allowed in the Butterfly Center but there is stroller parking right outside the entrance. If you plan to bring a baby, bring a carrier so that you can wear your baby as you make your way through the habitat. If you are short on time and want to do something special that only takes about an hour, you can visit just the Butterfly Center without paying admission for the rest of the museum.

Morian Hall of Paleontology

Dinosaurs! Besides the butterflies, this is what the kids come to see: giant dinosaur bones looming spectacularly over them. They love to see these posed in action with other ancient skeletons to show life as it was: chasing, eating, and escaping. This impressive display leads visitors through a well-organized gallery of prehistoric animal fossils and history.

After the dinosaurs, my kids insist on going to the second floor via the nearby elevators. It takes you to a large balcony area called the Morian Overlook that lets you view the entire Hall of Paleontology from high up. Everyone enjoys seeing the dinosaur displays from this alternate viewpoint.

 
Dinosaurs! The Morian Hall of Paleontology at the Houston Museum of Natural Science

Things to Do at HMNS on the Second Level

Cabinet of Curiosities

 
Inside the Cabinet of Curiosities, located on the second floor

Now that you’re already on the second floor, you can head to the Cabinet of Curiosities. This kid-favorite area of the Museum houses many drawers filled with curious natural and manmade objects. Pull open a drawer and find a collection of beautiful seashells behind plexiglass. Open another and find eggs from different kinds of birds. Look up and see intriguing masks and maps adorning every inch of the walls and ceiling. All kinds of oddities fill this fun, wood-paneled space. The ability to open cabinets and explore makes it a great exhibit for curious kids.

 
Pull open a drawer and explore! All kinds of oddities fill this fun, wood-paneled space

Frensley/Graham Hall of African Wildlife

After you leave the Cabinet of Curiosities, make your way to the Hall of African Wildlife. You’ll find yourself walking through an aisle with glass enclosures that showcase dioramas representing seven different biomes in Africa, from the Congo Basin to the Sahara Desert. The stuffed animal specimens in their replicated natural settings include many rare species like the Giant Forest Hog and Lowland Gorilla. The natural panoramas are interspersed with video films about animals, ecology, and conservation that my older kids thought were interesting.

Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife

The Hall of African Wildlife leads you to the Farish Hall of Texas Wildlife. Here is where you can play a game of “I Spy” with the kids. This large, life-sized display houses stuffed replicas of Texas Wildlife in dioramas that span the entire hall. There is a guide in the front of the displays listing all the animals that you might spot within the dioramas.

 
Visiting the Hall of Texas Wildlife

Challenge kids to find and point out the different animals on the list. They can try to find the elk, whooping crane, or any of the other hundreds of species of animals in their replicated natural environments. We make a game out of it and challenge the little ones to find the bigger animals and the older kids to find the small ones.

Things to Do at HMNS on the Fourth Level

Wiess Energy Hall

Although it doesn’t sound like Wiess Energy Hall would be an interesting stop for kids, it actually is! One of biggest reasons is that this vast exhibit takes up the entire fourth floor, which means there’s a lot of open space. If it’s not a busy day, kids can have fun just running around this newly remodeled area.

Although there is a TON of interesting stuff here to look at, much of it might be too complicated for kids to understand. Most fun would be the two “rides” here in the Energy Hall. Though not quite as exciting, they do remind the kids of getting on those simulator rides at a theme park.

 
Visit the EFX 3000 in the Wiess Energy Hall

The Geovator invites visitors to go inside, take a seat, and take a simulated voyage down through the museum floors into the earth, then back in time to the dinosaur age.

The other big attraction is the EFX 3000 which is an experience that invites guests to step aboard the 42-person moving ride, shrink themselves, and ride down into the borehole of an oil well. Curved projection walls and motion effects makes the experience feel more real as you pretend to adventure down into the Earth and finally back up to the museum.

For both rides, you can leave your stroller outside and hold any small kids in your lap. Each ride takes about 10 minutes and runs about every 15 minutes or so depending on the availability of staff.

Things to Know Before You Go to Houston’s Museum of Natural Science

Hours: Monday - Sunday: 9:00am-5:00pm
Ticket Prices: Adults $25 (ages 12 and up), Child $16 (ages 3-11), Free (Kids 2 and under)
Free Thursdays: Every Thursday visitors can enjoy the permanent exhibits for Free!
Online Box Office: This is a MUST for weekends when the line gets very long at the Ticketing Center. Purchase your tickets online so that you can head straight to the permanent exhibit entrance and show your tickets to staff there.
Peak Times: The museum can be crowded on the weekends, especially during holidays. Thursdays will be very busy as well. Also, weekday mornings before lunch are often times when school field trips happen, although many school districts have suspended field trips for the time being due to Covid concerns.
Parking: The attached paid parking garage is the best bet if you want ease and proximity. You can also try to find street parking all over the museum district. Make  sure you have the ParkHouston App downloaded for easy payment. There are other parking lots in the Museum District including one near the Children's Museum that you can use, but plan to walk a little further. 
Exhibits Closed for Renovation: There are two main halls currently still closed for renovation. The John P. McGovern Hall of The Americas which celebrates the diversity and accomplishments of indigenous peoples of the Americas; and the Hall of Ancient Egypt, which showcases this ancient civilization with specimens from artifacts to mummies.

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Levy Park Conservancy - 4:30 PM Pick
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The Franklin Institute - various times Pick
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