Wednesday, February 11, 2015

Toddler Adventure: Habitot Children's Museum (Berkeley)

When we awoke Saturday to wet weather, I pulled up my 2015 Bucket List and scanned down to find some novel indoor activity that we could try. Habitot Children's Museum in Berkeley jumped out to me, and off we went. It turned out to be a delightful way to spend a rainy morning!

Habitot is a very small but very sweet space, just right for young toddlers (I'd say new walkers through age 3 would enjoy it the most), tucked in on the basement floor of a building right in downtown Berkeley. Though tiny and windowless, Habitot's cheerfulness and creativity make it feel much bigger than its actual footprint, and its offerings, though far fewer than the Children's Discovery Museum or Bay Area Discovery Museum, were enough to entertain Toddler X for a solid 1.5 hours, and leave him begging to stay when it was finally time to leave.

For a total of $13 for the three of us (you get a discount with your CDM pass -- more on that below), we were delighted with the experience and the value. Habitot also provides a significant parent education component in its exhibits (more on that below), and has special programs for children with special needs and low income families -- in general, the museum seems to be a tremendous community partner.
The entire length of Habitot, one end to the other.
Habitot does have its drawbacks, the most significant being its small size and the possibility for crowding. Amazingly, the day we were there -- a rainy Saturday morning -- it was not overcrowded at all; the small space felt perfectly comfortable, and there was ample play area and amenities for all the kids. But I understand from other readers that crowds can be an issue, and with such a small size and fun offerings, it doesn't surprise me. Fortunately Habitot has a clever solution to crowd control -- a crowding hotline you can call before you head over!

In summary, while I wouldn't necessarily suggest a drive to Berkeley from the South Bay just for Habitot, the location (amid a slew of good, family-friendly restaurants, just across the street from the Berkeley Public Library, and near plenty of other Berkeley offerings) makes it a perfect part of an East Bay day (or half-day) trip.

Here are the details:

Location: Habitot is located on the ground floor/basement of the building at 2065 Kittredge Street, just off Shattuck Avenue. It's a couple of blocks from the Cal campus, and maybe four or five blocks from Telegraph Avenue.
  • There are signs pointing the way to Habitot from Shattuck Avenue (you take the stairs down between a Yogurtland and a Starbucks), from Kittredge Street, and from Allston Way, where the parking garage is located (see more below).
Shattuck Street entry.

Parking: There is plenty of street parking in the vicinity of Habitot, but all of it appears to have a 2 hour limit, and with the museum plus lunch (or some other diversion), you'll probably want more time. We ended up parking at the very convenient parking deck that can be accessed via Allston Way. Your GPS will probably send you to Habitot's address by taking Shattuck, then turning left at the light onto Kittredge. Do so, then take your first right onto Harold Way (just past Habitot), then right again onto Allston, and the garage will be on your left. Though I can't recall the exact cost of parking, it struck us as very reasonable (and we were there for about 4 hours, with lunch).
  • Note: If you follow the Habitot signs from the Allston Way parking garage side (which provides a wheelchair-accessible route), you end up going through a back alley and down a service elevator -- it's kind of bizarre, but it gets you there. 
  • Parking tip: Find other parking if you have a particularly tall car. Our SUV was fine, and we saw plenty of others in there, but I was shocked by how low the ceilings of the parking deck were -- I have no doubt somebody is hitting them daily, and I don't want it to be one of my readers.
Admission Cost: It's an interesting fee structure at Habitot -- kids under one are free, then kids 1 and up are $10, while adults are only $8. You get $1 off with AAA membership or if you're a senior, and adults also get $1 off their first visit with a paid child admission. But -- and this is a biggie -- if you're a member of the Children's Discovery Museum of San Jose, admission is half price at Habitot -- so yes, the three of us got in for $13! What a deal! There are also other deals to be had -- check out their discounts page for details.

Hours/Calendar: During the fall/winter months (October through March), Habitot is open Monday-Thursday from 9:30 a.m. - 12:30 p.m., and Friday - Sunday from 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. April through September have the same hours, except they are closed on Sundays for private parties. On certain holiday Mondays -- MLK Jr. Day, Presidents Day and Columbus Day -- Habitot has an extended schedule of 9:30 a.m. - 4:30 p.m. (Just a note: I love places with a 9:30 opening time and open hours on Mondays year-round -- I wish local favorites like the CDM or Happy Hollow offered that!)

Food: No food is served at Habitot, but you're welcome to bring your own and eat in the little room set aside for that purpose. One important note: Habitot is a nut-free facility, so leave the nut-laden granola bars or sandwiches at home. There are also TONS of family-friendly restaurants in the immediate vicinity (this is a college town, after all, and we've commented time and again that college eating habits and toddler eating habits aren't that different), and a Yogurtland and Starbucks right at the Shattuck Avenue entrance to the museum.

Restroom Tip: As you enter Habitot's building, you'll see several restrooms along the hallway. Don't bother trying -- they're all locked. You can find the key at the Habitot front desk. There is also a family bathroom (just one stall) inside Habitot,but that may get backed up on busy days.

What to Expect at Habitot:

It's difficult to come up with a comparison point for Habitot, as it's unlike anything we have in the South Bay. In one sense, it's a "learning museum" that's truly geared toward toddlers and their parents, rather than kindergarteners and school-age kids; I'd say almost 50% of the space is dedicated to pretend play, which is definitely learning, toddler-style. In another sense, though, it just feels like an expansion of the toddler activities you already have in your home -- a grander version of a playroom, if you will, with more varied toys and somebody else doing the clean-up.

Unlike, say, the Children's Discovery Museum, the Palo Alto Junior Museum or CuriOdyssey, the focus here isn't on technical displays exploring how things work or how forces interact -- there aren't gears or levers or things that spin or twist, and there are no lessons on physics or geometry or anything like that. Instead, there are opportunities for kids to weigh, bathe and feed baby dolls, care for stuffed animals in the vet's office, or shop for food in the market and serve it in the diner. There are Cozy Coupes cruising around the hall, an art room with a painting wall and simple projects, a train table with a basic track, and a very small water play area that's not much different from the water table you have in your yard. And the "lessons" to be learned are primarily geared toward the parents -- there are parent education materials (some really useful ones!) at each exhibit, helping you understand your toddler and how best to interact with him or her in play.

Some of the parent education materials near each exhibit

So if it's all stuff I could pull together at home (paint, water, pretend play, trains), then why did we enjoy visiting Habitot so much? Well, just because I could pull all this stuff together at home doesn't mean that I do -- not all at the same time, at least. At Habitot, Toddler X has so many of the pastimes he really enjoys at home available to him at one time -- it's not what I want to set up at a given moment, it's what he wants to do. What's more, if he changes his mind after 3 minutes, he's not faced with a frustrated mom saying, "But I set up the water table just because you asked for it!" or "You have to clean up all your play food before you move on to dumping out your train tracks." Nope...he can just take off the smock, abandon the painting wall, and move on to the ambulance (or whatever else catches his attention on the way). To a three year-old, this is pretty much heaven.

We also loved Habitot for the ambiance -- it's just so cheerful and positive and pleasant to play alongside other happy toddlers and their parents. While the CDM is amazing in its size and variety of options, tiny Habitot is comforting and cozy, which is really nice once in a while, particularly if you have a quick-moving toddler like I do -- I didn't worry once about losing sight of him, which I can never say of a CDM visit. And though the rooms are windowless and the museum is small, I didn't feel the least bit confined in the bright, warm space.

However, it's worth noting that the limited offerings, though perfect on the day we visited, may not have entertained Toddler X for long on a day when he had a shorter attention span. It's always hard to predict how a toddler will react to a given activity/area of a museum, and while a rejection of an activity at the CDM or BADM just means you move on to one of the many others, you don't really have that option at Habitot. We had a great day because Toddler X was in the perfect mood for a place like Habitot; on another day, our visit might not have been as enjoyable.

Habitot Highlights: Here are a few of the features that make Habitot special:
  • A very small but very well-stocked supermarket/diner area. This was Toddler X's favorite spot in the museum, accounting for at least 45 minutes of our 1.5 hour visit. There is a wall with bins and shelves full of an impressive array of pretend play food (from croissants to polenta to leeks to flan, they have it covered), with hand baskets and little metal shopping carts for kids to fill with their "purchases." There are two cash registers for "checkout" (the Learning Resources one we have at home and love!), then a "diner" area, with menus (cleverly tailored to the foods that are available for pretend play), booth seating, and a cooking area, complete with oven mitts (a Toddler X favorite) and serving pieces. It's the stuff Toddler X loves to play with at home, but just so much more of it. He was in heaven.

  • A bright and cheery art studio. The studio has a painting wall similar to the one at the CDM, but this one is completely washed down from time to time, and Toddler X loved watching the water drain at the bottom. There were two different projects set out for kids to try when we were there -- one table featured a Valentine's sponge paint project, and the other some sparkly play-doh -- as well as a sink and smocks.
  • A very small water play area. While this provides lots of fun for the under 3 set, an older child would get bored quickly. There is no running water or moving parts like at the CDM -- it's basically a simple water table with textured sponges and spray bottles, and then an inclined path feature, where kids can pour water in at the top and watch gravity take over. Though it's tiny, the kids who were playing there (including Toddler X) were perfectly happy. But while Toddler X can spend 20 minutes or more in the water section at the CDM, he was ready to abandon this one after about 5.
  • A neat "wind tunnel" section tucked in the back, with fans, "snowflakes" and brooms. Lots of fun.
  • A baby care area, with baby dolls and accessories for weighing, feeding and bathing them.
  • A medical area, with an ER "waiting room", an ambulance, and various doctor accessories.

  • A veterinarian area, with "dogs" in kennels, an exam table and bath.
  • A very cute crawler/early walker soft-play area, gated off to keep bigger kids out.
  • A basic train table.
  • A tunnel/climbing structure built into the wall that reminded me of a rodent's burrow. Toddler X wasn't a fan and refused to go in. 
  • A quiet reading room with pillows for relaxing.
  • An eating room for snacking.
  • A small gift shop.
  • A toy "library", where museum members can borrow toys to take home.
Habitot Drawbacks:
  • No real space for physical play. The climbing tunnel is sort of strange, and very small anyway. There's no big courtyard or anything (like the garden at the CDM or Discovery Meadows) where a child can move around more broadly.
  • Limited number of displays. If your child isn't interested in the offerings, it could be a quick trip.
  • Limited size, and the corresponding possibility for crowds.
  • Limited hours. Just mornings on most days.
  • Traffic to and from Berkeley on 880.
  • Denizens of the area. Shattuck Avenue and nearby streets feature a diverse cast of characters, many of whom are suffering from mental illness or addiction. Without intending to insult anyone, I do need to share that there are lots of people talking to themselves and occasionally passerby as well, not always in the nicest manner. I didn't feel unsafe by any means, but at points it was uncomfortable to have Toddler X hearing some of the things being said. I wouldn't not go for that reason, but just be aware of it.
What's nearby?
Across the street from Habitot is the Berkeley Public Library, a fun option if you want to expand your trip. The 4th Floor includes a nice children's section with a play area featuring toys, a wooden car, and games.

You are also just a few blocks from Cal's campus, which has lots of room to run around if you need to burn some toddler energy before a drive home.

Obviously, Berkeley is a college town, so there are lots of food options nearby. When deciding on lunch, I pulled up Yelp from a bench on the corner of Shattuck and Kittredge and searched for open restaurants, $ or $$, within a few blocks -- there were dozens of offerings, including burger, pizza, noodle and Mexican restaurants, sandwich and coffee shops, the aforementioned Starbucks and Yogurtland, and a diner.

We ended up meeting my brother and sister-in-law at Jupiter (a brewhouse with delicious appetizers, salads, sandwiches and wood-fired pizza...and, of course, beer), on the opposite side of Shattuck, one block over. The food was fantastic and the outdoor setting was delightful -- we sat on the tiered back patio, which has a firepit and a really nice ambiance. Though Jupiter is not specifically toddler-friendly -- there's no children's menu or special offerings for kids -- they were very family-friendly, happy to bring extra plates and drinks in a lidded cup. Toddler X loved the hummus appetizer and the chicken pizza, and mommy loved the Honey Wheat beer from the brewhouse. :)

And then, because we are totally those parents who reward our kid with ice cream when he's had a great day, we headed to Almare Gelato, back on the Habitot side of Shattuck, just a block down from the museum. Fantastic! The five of us each got a different gelato flavor, and every single one was delicious. A great ending to a really fun day!

Overall, Habitot is a really nice spot to know about if you spend time in the East Bay, or if you just like the idea of a day (or half day) trip to Berkeley with your toddler. Combine it with some library time, lunch, and maybe a visit to Cal's campus, and I think you'll be very pleased.

1 comment:

  1. So informative! Thank you for sharing. Habitot is awesome! :)


Hmm...what to do today?