Family Fun: Brookings, S.D.

It’s not all tame at the Children’s Museum of South Dakota. T-rex Jr. (above) provides a thrill, as does big mama.

T-rex, prairie playland create one-of-a-kind fun

Photos and story by Lisa Meyers McClintick

To the right, kids line up shoulder to shoulder to fish in a pond, squealing as they haul out and net realistic trout and sunfish. To the left, beyond willow twig tunnels and mazes of prairie grasses and flowers, there’s a roar building behind Brookings’ former school building.

A towering, protective T. rex mama snarls and twitches her tail as kids get too close to her or her offspring. That only ratchets up the shriek factor and adds to the thrill fest created by the Children’s Museum of South Dakota. Opened in 2013 in the historic 1920s school, it combines the fresh fun of an interactive, modern museum with a distinctive South Dakota setting.

Kids not quite brave enough to face the T. rex in person can watch the roars from inside for the former school gym where they can climb clouds up two stories, play house in a sod home, explore a tepee or harvest potatoes on a farmstead.

With the museum as the star attraction and a variety of laid-back family-friendly fun, the town of 22,600 residents and home to South Dakota State University provides a fun stopping point for a trip west or a hub for exploring the town and getting a glimpse of Laura Ingalls Wilder’s legacy in De Smet, about 45 miles west on Highway 14.
Get a little wet
It may be tough to get Children’s Museum of South Dakota visitors indoors when a 1.5-acre whimsical outdoor play area beckons with a stream for splashing and collecting buckets of water for activities such as rock-filled cyclinders that teach about filtration. Word to the wise: Bring a towel or change of clothes ($6; 1-605-.692-6700;

Here are some other top things to do Brookings, SD:

McCrory Gardens

Stop and smell the flowers

Junior green thumbs will enjoy a long romp through the 25 acres of McCrory Gardens, an arboretum run by the university. Among its draws are gardens dedicated to daylilies, sensory plants, new varieties and seed trials, and an eco building made of straw bales with a living room planted with sedum (Technically free, but donations of $3-$6 requested).
South Dakota Ag Heritage Museum

Tractors and big machines

With no admission, South Dakota Agricultural Heritage Museum shows off the evolution of tractors, threshers and other technological advances that changed farming from the 1860s through the 1960s. It’s best for anyone who can appreciate engines or grandparents who can lightheartedly point out the farm chores and responsibilities older generations had. It’s a perfect time to trot out those “When I was a kid…” stories.
SDSU Dairy Bar

Cookies and cream team

 Less than a block from the agricultural heritage museum, the modern Dairy Bar at Alfred Dairy Science Hall offers affordable ice cream and a sweet afternoon pick-me-up. Look for flavors such as butter almond or playful variations of cookies and cream, which the university claims to have invented.

 Prairie art

“The Prairie is My Garden”

Before leaving campus, stop in at South Dakota Art Museum anchored by Harvey Dunn’s painting, “The Prairie is my Garden.” His idyllic prairie works were inspired by his memories as the son of South Dakota homesteaders. He went on to illustrate World War I as it unfolded and to be one of the most prolific artists of his time. Other exhibits include works by Native American and South Dakota artist

Oscar Howe and an area dedicated to art that appeals to children.

Take a field trip
It’s less than 45 minutes to reach tiny De Smet, pop. 1,100, where kids can wander through barns, play with kittens, see newborn foals and take a buggy ride to a one-room school house on the 1880s Ingalls Homestead which inspired stories in “By the Shores of Silver Lake.” It’s open Memorial Day through September. The town also has additional historic sites and the cemetery where several members of the Ingalls family are buried.
Generous landscaping livens up Brookings’ downtown.

How to get to Brookings

It takes just under four hours to reach Brookings from Minneapolis. Follow U.S. Hwy. 212 west to Granite Falls, then head southwest on Minnesota Hwy. 23 for 50 miles. Take U.S. Hwy. 14 west to Brookings, S.D.

Brookings lodging

Several chain hotels can be found in Brookings (especially along Interstate 29). Hampton Inn and Suites ranks among the newer properties with 87 rooms ($114/night and up; 1-605-697-5232;

Brookings dining

Pheasant lettuce wraps
Handcrafted ice cream
The Pheasant Restaurant may look a little ho-hum on the outside, but it’s a

winning blend of creative and sophisticated on the inside with an oil and vinegar tasting room, a wine cellar and frequent live musicians. Fresh twists on comfort foods range from bison burgers with Thai flavorings and crisp pheasant salad wraps to homemade dulce de leche ice cream floating in a frosty, foamy mug of oatmeal stout. Daily ice cream flavors catapult past usual standards with combinations such as peach and Riesling sorbet, coffee ice cream with candied bacon and saffron ice cream with pistachios and pomegranate ripple.

Old Market Eatery
Coteau Cafe grilled cheese
Within view of the children’s museum and Brookings’ main street, Old Market Eatery and Bar serves refreshing salads, Mediterranean pitas, basil hummus, hand-cut market fries and desserts such as rhubarb upside down cake.
For the ultimate in kid-friendly dining, grab a seat in the sunny atrium of the children’s museum where the Coteau Caféserves grilled cheese sandwiches that look like owls, plus plenty of salads and pastas.