“The bubble mixer, I really liked the bubble mixer!” – Lucas
Taking our young children to CERN (the European Organization for Nuclear Research) was, admittedly, a gamble. Guy and I have been wanting to visit for years, closet physics geeks that we are. But would three children age six and under get much out of this hotbed of scientific discovery?
I was so concerned that it would be a mistake that I contacted Stephanie Hills on the CERN communications team to ask for her advice. She immediately sent back an incredibly helpful and detailed response, advising us to concentrate our visit on the globe and Microcosm exhibition rather than taking the guided tour, which is suggested for those aged 12 and above. Armed with this information, we decided to go for it as we were staying a mere hour’s drive away!
What we did
The first challenge of the day was finding CERN. We programmed it into our trusty Google Maps app and set off. The ETA grew nearer and we had not crossed a visible border. Was CERN actually in Switzerland, as we believed, or was it in France? It turned out that the border is a few hundred metres before CERN and we passed through without incident. However, we did accidentally pull into the staff car park and cause a traffic jam. Never a dull moment!
Pulling up into the visitor car park, we spotted the Globe of Science and Innovation, a symbol synonymous with visiting CERN. Our children were transfixed and began to wonder what was inside.
We found out quickly enough as we entered the ‘Universe of Particles’ Exhibition. This was a fantastic introduction to the work of CERN, and the children raced from one exhibit to the next, peering into cases to look at a plethora of scientific tools and equipment.
Lucas particularly enjoyed looking at the interactive ‘map’ of the large hadron collider, with videos explaining the various parts. This was a really accessible guide, even for young children, and all three liked exploring ‘inside’ the LHC! Aurora loved the little booths where we could listen to info on the discoveries at CERN. Guy and I were fascinated by a report from Tim Berners-Lee, which led to the later invention of the World Wide Web.
When the kids began to get restless, we headed over the road to the visitors’ centre, which houses the permanent ‘Microcosm’ exhibition. It’s described as a ‘journey through CERN’ and gives insight into the experiments and research taking place at the centre. This exhibition is fantastic, with lots for kids to do and touch. It is very hands-on and there is plenty of room to explore, even when busy.
We particularly liked the ‘sculpture garden’, which does actually not contain sculpture but large pieces of scientific equipment that is no longer used. It was fascinating to see the scale of the tools and to read about the discoveries achieved with them. The machines prompted discussions about science with the kids and it was lovely to see their interest. They really liked one called the ‘bubble mixer’, and have requested one for their next birthday (can’t see that being an issue…).
What we thought
Despite my reservations about taking the children to visit CERN, we had a great time. The exhibits were accessible and interesting to all five of us, even the youngest two (aged three at the time of our trip). I particularly appreciated the spacious rooms in both the Globe and the visitors’ centre, as well as the number of hands-on exhibits for the kids to explore.
We spent about two hours at CERN, though Guy and I could have spent much longer! Towards the end of the visit, the children started to get a bit ratty and we wrapped it up fairly swiftly. There are only so many pieces of scientific equipment three kids under seven can look at before boredom sets in!
I would definitely recommend visiting CERN with your children if you are in the area. It was a fantastic day and has sparked many great talks with the kids about what we saw. It really helped their understanding of what scientists can do. Lucas said he would have also liked to see the scientists at work! Perhaps in a few years we can return and take the guided tour – I’m sure we would all find it fascinating.
- Take food with you – we didn’t see anywhere to grab lunch or refreshments.
- Stick to the Globe and Microcosm exhibits with children under 12.
- Don’t forget to take Swiss francs with you if you’d like to buy a souvenir!