It can take a lot of trial and error to identify good places to go with your kids. There are so many factors, so many moving partsóthe kids’ social speed and play style, their age and development, your income (these outings can get expensive). Every family is different, but the local balance between play-oriented childrenís museums and more traditional museums has worked wonders for our family.

The Museum of  Life and Science

433 West Murray Avenue, Durham,

There’s good reason this tops the list: The Museum of Life and Science is a little bit of a lot of things. With its vintage moon landing display, weather exhibits, and dinosaur trail, it’s a little bit of a museum; with its butterflies, owls, wolves, lemurs, and bears, it’s a little bit of a zoo; with its sailboat-centric wind exhibit, music station, and kinetic experiments, it’s a little bit of a classroom; with its mist garden, enormous tree house, and train, it’s a little bit of a play place. Even if you live outside the Bull City, a membership will serve you well.

Marbles Kids Museum

201 East Hargett Street, Raleigh,

Marbles is another reliable standby for local families, owing to two strengths: location and space economy. It’s centrally stationed in downtown Raleigh, meaning you spend a few hours at Marbles and then walk someplace nearby for food, coffee, what-have-you. As to the other strength, Marbles’ exhibits and play areas are compact but not cramped, meaning children are presented with a number of engaging choices once inside. My kids’ favorite was always the “money room,” primarily because of its climbing structure and elaborate plastic-ball-vacuum-tube system.

Kidzu Children’s Museum

201 South Estes Drive (University Place), Chapel Hill,

Though smaller than its counterparts in Durham and Raleigh, Chapel Hill’s kids museum makes up for that deficit by enabling child-directed play. There’s climbing and plentiful imagination-enabling toys, yeah, but also hammock swings and a readers’ nook for kids seeking a gentle, quiet moment; this feature in particular makes Kidzu an excellent destination for younger children. Check the museum’s calendar, as there are regular crafts and activities.

North Carolina Museum of Natural Sciences

11 West Jones Street, Raleigh,

Nat Sci makes this list both because of its exhibits and also because of the sweet events it hosts. There’s Bugfest every September, an arthropod block party with scientists and specialists, but also bands, games, and street food. Furthering this balance of education and entertainment, January’s Astronomy Days and March’s Reptile and Amphibian Day round out the calendar. As if that’s not enough, the museum’s Prairie Ridge Ecostation (1671 Gold Star Drive, Raleigh) is a surprisingly placid park with a pond and natural play area nestled just north of busy Wade Avenue. As for my kids’ favorite thing at Nat Sci, I’d say it’s the enormous snapping turtle.