Skip to main content

National Museum of Play, Rochester, NY


Yes, that's a real diner, inside the museum lobby. Sandwiches, snacks, frozen custard!

When I first heard about the National Museum of Play, I was already scheduled to visit Rochester, so the idea of arriving just on the weekend when two new toys were inducted into the National Toy Hall of Fame seemed like a natural…but I had no idea what a museum like that would be like.


For more on Rochester on TravelGumbo, click HERE for Rochester: City of Re-Invention. 

DSC06408I’ve been to toy museums, and generally found that while they show a fascinating history, there’s not much to touch. And I’ve been to playgrounds and play places, with my kids and on my own. What I didn’t expect was what must be the nearly perfect combination of the two. 

DSC06346 The Strong (to give it one of its names) or the National Museum of Play (to use its other) is a great place to learn about the history of toys, about the roles that play has played in our society and others—but it’s also full of open spaces and themed areas for children to play, and importantly for families to play together. 

DSC06365 I’ll be back…and that seems to be a theme. Many of the families I met as I wandered around make the museum a regular part of their family plans. There’s that much variety that kids won’t get bored doing the same thing every time. Put on a play this week, play games another, work in the art room…and more. 

DSC06392 Mini-theater: backstage, curtain, audience seats and even a ticket booth. No make their own!

 It’s the legacy of Margaret Woodbury Strong, a Rochester native whose family and money got her started early on the collecting path. Her father, a successful buggy-whip manufacturer (and early investor in Kodak) retired in 1907, when she was 10 and the family began traveling the world.

On one six-month trip, they hit Hawaii, Japan, Ceylon, Shanghai, Hong Kong, and Canton. Years later she said “I was allowed to carry a small bag to put my dolls and toys in, and to add anything I acquired on the trips. Consequently, my fondness for small objects grew.”


DSC06416Some of Margaret Strong's dollhouses, at home above and at the museum below

And oh, yes, it grew. By the time of her death, she had over 27,000 dolls, endless household objects and more, perhaps 300,000 objects in all, and most of them focusing on play. Her home began to resemble a museum, with two gallery wings added to her 30-room mansion. And she began to think of it that way; she asked visitors to sign a guestbook, and to record their impressions.

DSC06361 The next step was logical: Invite more people to visit. Starting in 1957, she opened the collection to visits by Rochester schoolchildren, and occasionally to a wider public. As the idea grew on her, she got a state charter in 1968 for a Museum of Fascination, and made plans to add another gallery and a lecture hall.

DSC06358Rescued from neglect and decay by The Strong, this 1918 carousel is  in the lobby, sitting next to the diner.

 However, she died the next year, and the additions were never built, Instead, she left the collections and most of her estate to create a museum, and the result, The Strong, opened in 1982 in downtown Rochester. It’s grown since then to include 285,000 square feet, and to be the home also of the International Center for the History of Electronic Games, the World Video Game Hall of Fame, the Library and Archives of Play and the journal, American Journal of Play.

DSC06341But more than anything, it has become the home of Rochester and visiting children and families who can play and study play in the same place, and see what others have said about play, and see if they feel it fits. It’s a unique museum—and if you visit, be prepared to be jealous of Rochester! Here are some more scenes and features to show you why.


DSC06351After a snack, time to shop for take-homes at the Museum's souvenir and toy shop...



DSC06360Rainbow Reef, above, gets lots of family action, as kids match pictures to fish. Below, the elevator has a special name. Inside, it has flashing lights and voice-over warnings about time travel.


Different aspects of play are described in the exhibits, which are mixed around play areas...there's no separation of "teaching" and "doing" here. One of the exhibts even examines the relationship between children's play and future work, and the roles we find ourselves prepared for.





Bart Simpson in a display about balancing...and some more play areas, including my long-time favorite, the crooked room. I tried to take a selfie there...but I found it hard to stay upright and get the right angle! 





 Sesame Street has a home in the museum, too...



 Family games, both electronic and...well...not.




DSC06424 The grocery store is filled with model products; kids lead their family shopping expeditions, and get to "check out" at electronic registers. Of course, it's only play...



 Art and dance have their places, too



Along with its examination of what might be called the sociology of play, the Strong has a strong historical bent, not only in its displays of older playthings and activities, but also in its decade-themed displays.



DSC06401 DSC06403

DSC06405 DSC06409



But it was hard for me to avoid spending the rest of the afternoon in the pinball and arcade area...





Not an arcade game, but wow! A giant Etch-A-Sketch with twin controllers...


And finally to the National Toy Hall of Fame, where this column gives information about the people and toys that have been named to the hall—including this year's two inductees, Twister and the Super-Soaker. Hmmm....Imagine a family armed with Super-Soakers playing Twister...







And time for one more history stop: Everyone knows the story of how Charles Darrow invented Monopoly during the Depression...I did...and was surprised to learn that he had only modified a game that was popular in Philadelphia game clubs, and was based on a 1902 patented anti-landlord game! Here's a true treasure: an early Monopoly board—in the round!


 Museum Hours and Admission

  • The Museum is open 10-5 Mon-Thurs, 10-8 Fri-Sat and noon to 5 on Sunday.
  • Admission is $14 over age 2; $9 for afternoon only Mon-Thurs. There are (small) discounts for military and AAA, and 50% for reciprocal members of American Council of Musuems.

Food Suggestions

  • The diner in the lobby is an obvious choice.
  • Dinosaur Barbecue on Court Street is a few minutes walk, in an old rail station by the river
  • Abbott's Frozen Custard (same brand served in the diner) has an interesting menu; on St. Paul Street in the historic Warner Lofts Building
  • James Brown's Place (not walking distance, see link in other blog above)
  • Sinbad's (also a drive, also linked in the other blog).


Images (64)
  • DSC06341
  • DSC06346
  • DSC06348
  • DSC06350
  • DSC06351
  • DSC06352
  • DSC06355
  • DSC06356
  • DSC06358
  • DSC06360
  • DSC06361
  • DSC06363
  • DSC06365
  • DSC06366
  • DSC06370
  • DSC06371
  • DSC06372
  • DSC06373
  • DSC06375
  • DSC06376
  • DSC06378
  • DSC06380
  • DSC06382
  • DSC06383
  • DSC06385
  • DSC06386
  • DSC06387
  • DSC06390
  • DSC06391
  • DSC06392
  • DSC06393
  • DSC06394
  • DSC06395
  • DSC06396
  • DSC06397
  • DSC06398
  • DSC06399
  • DSC06400
  • DSC06401
  • DSC06402
  • DSC06403
  • DSC06405
  • DSC06408
  • DSC06409
  • DSC06410
  • DSC06411
  • DSC06416
  • DSC06417
  • DSC06419
  • DSC06422
  • DSC06423
  • DSC06424
  • DSC06425
  • DSC06429
  • DSC06430
  • DSC06431
  • DSC06432
  • DSC06433
  • DSC06434
  • DSC06435
  • DSC06436
  • DSC06438
  • DSC06441
  • DSC06445

The best part of every trip is realizing that it has upset your expectations

Add Comment

Comments (2)

Newest · Oldest · Popular

"By the time of her death, she had...300,000 objects in all..."


I see now, the difference between hoarding and collecting may be how much money you leave behind to deal with the aftermath.  I'm glad to see Margaret's compulsion turned into enjoyment for others, likely true of many (almost all?) museums.

I'm always amazed at how many interesting places there are to visit.  This very much sounds like my kind of attraction and I had no idea it existed.


Some of the most interesting places I've visited are those which display the collecting hobbies of the very wealthy, such as the Getty Museum and Villa. 

Twitter: @DrFumblefinger

"We do not take a trip, a trip takes us".  John Steinbeck, from Travels with Charlie

Link copied to your clipboard.