Making history come alive for kids is so very possible in Phoenix, Arizona. Five tips from a local mom pinpoint the best historical places to visit in downtown Phoenix. This mom with her kids and friends ages 3 to 14 explore first, then follow up with books for what’s most interesting to them. She shares practical stuff, like what’s free, and where to park.
Do your kids think history is boring? I sure did when I was a kid. As a homeschooling mom I discovered there is a great way to make history fun for kids: take them to historic places! It seems too easy, right? These are my kids’ five favorite living history sites in Phoenix.
Since all of these kid-friendly museums are close together in downtown Phoenix, we’ve visited all five in one day. On shorter trips to downtown Phoenix, we pop in to one museum. I’ve explored each living history location listed here with kids ages 3 through 16 and every age group has had a blast.
What in the world is Living History?
Living history is a homeschooling buzzword that just means kids learn about history at a place instead of from a book. This is how my kids learn history without using a textbook:
- Instead of reading about Arizona state government, we sit in on a Senate session.
- It’s more fun for my kids to explore the Pueblo Grande Native American ruins than to read about the Hohokam culture.
- We take a road trip to see the Grand Canyon because reading that the Grand Canyon covers 1902 square miles doesn’t sink in until we see how big it really is with our own eyes.
That’s not to say we don’t read history! Sometimes we visit a living history site after we’ve learned about it from books and media research. Sometimes we just explore the site and if the kids get interested in what they see, I notice they check out books on that place or historic period when we visit the library.
Phoenix Travel Tips:
Here are some quick tips to help plan your living history trip with kids in Phoenix:
- Free Admission: The Phoenix living history sites on this page offer free admission every day. These locations are closed weekends and holidays.
- Arizona Capitol Museum 9 a.m.–4 p.m. weekdays.
- Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza is outdoors so it’s always open, but I recommend visiting in the daytime.
- Phoenix Police Museum 9 a.m.–3 p.m. weekdays.
- Maricopa County Justice Museum 8 a.m.–5 p.m. weekdays.
- Wells Fargo Museum 9 a.m.–5 p.m. weekdays.
- Parking: There is free parking at the Arizona Capitol Museum and Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza. (Navigate to Capitol Parking Lot.) We park in front of the Phoenix Police Museum ($3 for two hours) and walk to the Old Courthouse and the Wells Fargo museum.
- Traffic: Don’t get stuck in Phoenix commuter traffic. Plan to arrive in downtown Phoenix after 9:30 a.m. and leave no later than 2:30 p.m. on weekdays.
- In hot weather: All of these places except Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza are indoors, with air conditioning.
- Food and drinks: I usually pack an ice chest with water, snacks, and a picnic lunch so we don’t have to spend any money. There is a cafe in the Capitol and fast food across the street from the Phoenix Police Museum.
- Ice cream! We love to stop at MacAlpine’s Soda Fountain on the way home (MacAlpine’s is just north of downtown Phoenix). My kids spend 30 minutes picking out their favorite ice cream soda combination—the crazier the better. I play it safe with a tried and true menu favorite like The Nutty Professor.
1. Watch history in the making at the Arizona Capitol
It’s so cool to live in a capital city! We’ve taken friends of all ages to the Arizona Capitol so many times that my kids show our visitors around like docents.
There’s a living history lesson at every turn in the Arizona Capitol museum: interactive exhibits, rooms decorated with furniture and memorabilia from early Arizona history, the hull from the U.S.S. Arizona—plus the Arizona House and Senate buildings are next door.
Be aware that the old Senate gallery as well as the working Senate and House galleries have a very low wall (knee height!) on the balcony. That stresses me out as a mom, even though they’ve recently installed a waist-high rail, because a kid could easily scoot under it and fall. I have my kids sit in the top rows of the balcony and I hold toddlers’ hands.
The Arizona Capitol Museum has an array of exhibits, from Arizona state history displays (of course) to artifacts from the U.S.S. Arizona (great for WWII studies) to the Historic Senate Gallery where kids can sit at the Senate President’s desk and hold court over imaginary proceedings. My kids like to pretend they’re President of the United States and make wild decrees.
Arizona Government in Action
These two Phoenix living history ideas for kids require planning ahead. Kids can:
- Sit in on a House or Senate session and
- Meet the Governor of Arizona.
We can step inside the House and Senate galleries any time the doors are open. It’s fun to find our representatives’ name plaques and see their desk decorations even when the floor is empty (many Representatives and State Senators keep stuffed animals on their desks).
All House and Senate sessions are public so all are welcome to walk right in and see government in action. Admittedly the topics aren’t usually interesting to kids but we just stay for a few minutes. Out of respect for the government proceedings, the rules include:
- Be quiet.
- A cell phone may be used as a camera but no calls or gaming are permitted.
To meet the governor, fill out the form on the governor’s website. There is an extra security checkpoint to get to the part of the building where the governor works—no firearms is a standard rule but I noticed other rules like no large bags, no drinks, etc. I stow prohibited items in my car before going through that checkpoint (or drink my $6 latte quickly).
Just outside the Arizona Capitol grounds is our new favorite Phoenix living history location.
2. Kids learn on the run in Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza in Phoenix
“Wesley Bolin Memorial Plaza” doesn’t sound very exciting, does it? They should have named it “Phoenix Memorial Park with Huge Cannons and Room to Run!”
My kids were thrilled when we found this park. We came and went through one door at the Arizona Capitol many times. One day we exited through a different door and my son yelled, “WHAT is that?” He had spotted the giant gun barrel from the U.S.S. Arizona. We discovered a really fun place where kids can let off steam after behaving so well at the Capitol.
There are more than 30 monuments at Bolin Plaza so we see and learn something new every time we run around there. If we get there in the morning (before it gets hot) we usually find veterans visiting the various memorials, and they’ve always been very friendly and happy to share their stories with us. Talking with a veteran is my kids’ favorite type of living history lesson.
3. Play cops and robbers at the Phoenix Police Museum
When we only have one hour to spend in Phoenix with kids, this is the place we go. The Phoenix Police Museum is tiny—there is only a main exhibit hall and a smaller memorial room—but they’ve packed a lot of kid friendly fun into a small space.
My kids love to play cops and robbers at the Phoenix Police Museum. They dress up in police uniforms, arrest each other and put the perpetrator in the back of the squad car, chase the bad guys on the police motorcycle…we tell all our friends to visit the Phoenix Police Museum.
There’s also a detailed history timeline of the Phoenix Police Department, and a somber memorial to fallen officers. I make sure my kids stay calm in the memorial room, but it’s pretty much a free for all in the main exhibit hall. The staff are usually retired police officers who are very patient with kids and love to chat. Bonus: free suckers.
4. Kids do time at The Old Courthouse in Phoenix
We love to visit The Old Courthouse (technically named the Maricopa County Justice Museum) right after the Phoenix Police Museum. After the police arrest the bad guy, they take him to the old jail…my kids keep this story going all day. There’s an interactive cell block where my kids take turns throwing each other in jail, and a mini criminal justice museum in the historic courthouse—built in 1929 which is very old by Phoenix standards.
The upstairs jail exhibit is fairly insulated from the working courtrooms downstairs so kids are free to let loose in the jail, but keep them quiet downstairs and on the staircase because court is in session.
It seems like every grownup who goes to the Old Courthouse thinks it’s pretty fun too. On one visit three people (two lawyers and a judge) told my kids their favorite details about the courthouse and jail exhibit!
5. The Wild West comes alive for kids at the Wells Fargo History Museum in Phoenix
I was surprised that my kids flat out refused to leave the Wells Fargo History Museum for two hours. These are the same kids who breeze through a Smithsonian in 45 minutes and say they’ve seen it all. The entire Wells Fargo museum is in one large room but it’s packed with hands on activities, artifacts, and historical tidbits.
On one trip our posse of six kids plotted a Wells Fargo stagecoach robbery and divided up the parts of Sheriff, Wells Fargo wagon driver, townfolk, and Black Bart, the gentleman bandit.
My 11-year-old loves to put her photo on money (a free emailed souvenir) and my 14-year-old studies the antique guns exhibit. When we took our favorite 3-year-old friend to the Wells Fargo museum he happily rode the Wells Fargo horses for a solid hour and cried his eyes out when his mom took him home. It’s that fun.