Just when you start to think Connecticut  is all stores filled with fragile antiques and quiet inns, suddenly you bump right into one of the state’s many kid-friendly spots. In fact, there’s loads of hands-on fun for the wee ones in these parts, starting with the Beardsley Zoological Gardens , the state’s only zoo, where you can see plenty of species (some endangered) in well-kept environments. There’s a tropical rainforest full of exotic birds, a carousel, restaurant, and picnic areas.
At the Peabody Museum of Natural History  you’ll find live animals alongside brontosaurus and stegosaurus skeletons and exhibits on evolution and Ancient Egypt, plus rocks, minerals, and meteorites.
The Essex Steam Train & Riverboat Ride (1 Railroad Ave., Essex, 860/767-0103, www.essexsteamtrain.com , daily late Jun.–early Sept.; weekends May–Jun. and Sept.–Oct.) lets families cruise a riverboat down the Connecticut River, then hop on board an authentic steam locomotive.
Meanwhile, the Children’s Museum of Southeastern Connecticut (409 Main St., Niantic, 860/691-1111, www.childrensmuseumsect.org , 9:30 a.m.–5 p.m. Tue.–Sat.; noon–5 p.m. Sun. year-round) offers rotating indoor and outdoor exhibits that literally let kids get their hands on subjects like sciences, literacy, culture, and world geography.
It’s all fun and games at Quassy Amusement Park (Rte. 64, Middlebury, 203/758-2913, www.quassy.com , daily Jun.–Aug.; weekends Apr.–May and Sept.–Oct.), the 20-acre family playground on Lake Quassapaug with interactive water attractions, swimming, boat rides, and live entertainment.
Still more water fun happens at Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration , home to Amazon and African penguin exhibits, plus sea lion shows and live marine animals.
Or, head straight into the state’s historic relationship with the sea at Mystic Seaport . Sure, it’s crowded, but for good reason: Kids love exploring the wooden whalers, historic tall ships, the planetarium, and working shipyard.