Day Tripping at the University of Wisconsin, Madison
If you’re visiting the culture, academics, and activity that encompasses the main University of Wisconsin campus near downtown Madison, we suggest these free, family-friendly venues owned and operated by the University. The bulk of the campus is just “off the isthmus,” we natives like to say, pretending everyone knows Madison is located on a narrow, diagonal, stretch of land between two sizable lakes–Monona and Mendota. My personal theory is that nobody really knows how to point East, so they just distract you with food and shopping and trust you’ll eventually meander your way to your final destination. One way to teach your kids the value of education, and emphasize the idea that moving away from home is “totally awesome,” come to campus and plan to spend the day.
Not only is the Geology Museum is free and open to the public, conveniently located near the heart of campus. Small enough to visit in a morning or afternoon, the museum involves a self-guided journey through five different exhibits: rocks and minerals, fossils, dinosaurs, meteorites, and a fluorescent display. If you have a group of eight people or more, guided tours are available for $2 each (call ahead).
Smaller kids will enjoy a replica of a cave and touching anything not encased in a formal display. From the giant spinning globe at the main entrance to the outdoor rock garden/courtyard, the museum is a “gem” of a find. Consult the museum website for area outreach and other special events and programs (like museum scavenger hunts and weekly story time).
South of campus (nestled in a residential shopping mall area) is UW Space Place. Part museum, part classroom, UW Space Place offers education and outreach for tots to teens. Open only during programs and for special events, UW Space Place is free to the general public. That said, an annual membership gives you special discounts on merchandise, workshop fees, and insider information on events and goings on.
Our family visited UW Space Place for a Saturday morning workshop and enjoyed the presentation almost as much as the exhibits and hands on displays for younger kids. Activities like star gazing nights and field trips (eclipses, meteor showers) happen off site and are best planned using the website. In fact, the largest exhibit is called “Planet Trek Dane County” and is a scale model of our solar system. Spread out along the Southwest Commuter and Military Ridge bike trails, the Sun is located at the Monona Terrace Convention Center in downtown Madison. To appreciate the expanse of the solar system, you can ride to Pluto 23 miles away from Monona Terrace, finding the trail marker sign in the western village of Mt. Horeb.
Located on the main floor of Chamberlin Hall, the L.R. Ingersoll Physics Museum is quite possibly the best kept secret on campus. Geared towards older kids, our four-year-old pushed buttons, pulled levers, and rolled pennies while I read about the science behind them.With exhibits in the following catergories, a trip to the museum is manageable in an hour or two: wave and sound, light and optics, computer based physics, modern physics, mechanics, and electricity and magnetism.
Part of the College of Agricultural and Life Sciences, Babcock Hall (west side of campus, near the hospital complex) continues its over 60 year campus legacy. A learning “laboratory,” the dairy plant is operated by university students and staff. Guided tours of the plant can be scheduled a week in advance for groups of 10 or more. Tours consist of a climb to a second-story observation deck, where you can watch milk transform into different end products. However, the observation deck usually open to the public and the machinery is labeled and visible from the windows (according to the website, Wednesday mornings are the best day for a tour).
Whether or not you take a tour, many people visit Babcock Hall just for the ice cream and dairy case. Inside the main entrance is a seating area for visitors. You can also watch an informational video (more facility history and dairy industry footage) on the flat screen TV in this room.
Nestled around Lake Wingra near the Henry Vilas Zoo and just south of campus, the UW Arboretem exists as a tribute to nature. With 1200 acres and over 20 miles of trails to escape the hustle and bustle of nearby city life, many people consider the UW Arboretum as Madison’s “open space” as it was intended back in the founding year, 1934.
Options for enjoying the UW Arboretum include: going for a hike, observing nature, photography, reading, painting, and breathing fresh air. Inside the Visitor Center you’ll find a library (ranging from field guides to board books), a gift shop, clean bathrooms, literature, and a museum area. Classes, special events, classes, camps, and guided tour information is all on the UW Arboretum web site. Open daily year round, the UW Arboretum is worth a visit at least once/season. Bring a bike or your skis, a walking stick, or a note pad. Or just bring yourself and leave the agenda at home.
The Memorial Union is known as the heart and soul of the University; it’s the social, cultural, and recreational center of campus. Linking the campus to the community, the Memorial Union offers performances at the Wisconsin Union Theater, not-for-credit courses, outdoor recreation programs (including sailing on Lake Mendota with the Hoofer Outdoor Recreation Club), canoe rentals, and ice cream fresh from the nearby Babcock Hall Dairy.
The Memorial Union Terrace, most recognized by the brightly colored metal chairs, is a wonderful place to read a book, people watch, or eat a meal from one of the onsite cafes and restaurants (including Der Rathskeller and Lakefront on Langdon). Outdoor concerts are popular reasons people pilgrimage to the Memorial Union during the summertime. If you can’t find an open chair, spread a blanket and plan to cool down in the lake breeze.
If these university-themed suggestions for family-friendly fun in Wisconsin’s state capitol have you inspired to spend more time on the isthmus, consider downloading the Madison Loves Kids iPhone app (created, authored, and maintained by yours truly). The app lists suggests over 100 more venues, events, day trips, and resources for making the most of your visit . And, if Milwaukee is next on your list, there’s an app for that. The Milwaukee Loves Kids iPhone app is designed to make the most of a trip to the big city on the lake.