What is there to do in DC with toddlers? Thankfully, there are many things to do in DC with toddlers, from story times at the Smithsonian Museums to seeing the pandas at the National Zoo. Both the National Museum of the American Indian and the Smithsonian American History Museum have indoor play areas specifically designed for young children.
On a sunny day, kids love playing outdoors at the United States Botanic Garden. After a visit to a museum or two, don’t forget to take a ride on the carousel on the National Mall just outside the Smithsonian Castle. Read on to see what else there is to do in DC with preschoolers and toddlers.
Fun Things to Do in DC with Toddlers and Preschoolers
Lesson Learned on Our Family’s First Visit to Washington DC with Toddlers
Our family moved to the Washington DC area with two young preschoolers, and we were amazed with all the fun things to do in DC with young children. On one of our first visits to the city, we took the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument and looked out at the White House with much anticipation.
I asked my young four-year-old, “Who lives at the White House?” followed by a hint, “it’s someone really important.” Just as his daddy whispered, “President Obama,” my four-year-old blurted out, “My Grandma! My Grandma lives at the White House!” The 20 people, squished like sardines at the top of the Washington Monument with us, turned around to smile and chuckle at my little boy. To him, the most important person in the world is not the president, but his Grandma.
Lesson learned: you will certainly have fun visiting Washington DC with toddlers even if they don’t care a bit about any of the notable history around them. Also, be sure to take grandma along if you can.
Experiencing Monuments and Memorials with Toddlers in Washington DC
Visitors young and old are bound to pick up a bit of patriotism and respect for the country’s veterans while visiting DC. The Washington Monument is surrounded by American flags. In the summer time, vendors sell red, white, and blue popsicles nearby.
When my children were preschoolers, my four-year-old used to shout, “That’s our flag!” every time we drove by a memorial or monument flying the stars and stripes. Then, my five-year-old sang the refrain, “You’re a Grand Old Flag”, over and over again. Toddlers can be kept busy simply by counting the American flags around the monuments in Washington DC.
Walking around the National Mall, my preschoolers used to love spotting the American flags. They also enjoyed tracing the engravings on some memorials with their finger. When visiting the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial, my kids found the engraving of the name of Martin Luther King Jr. right at their height. They traced his name with their pointer finger over and over again.
Which Smithsonian Museums are best for toddlers in Washington DC?
The National Museum of American History
Conveniently located just down the street from the Washington Monument is the National Museum of American History, which houses one of the most famous American flags in our country’s history. There is truly something for everyone at this museum, from an exhibit on the history of transportation in America to Wegmans Wonderplace for toddlers.
Wegmans Wonderplace is the only play area specifically designed for children ages 0-6 on the National Mall. With a Smithsonian Castle shaped climbing structure and miniature version of Julia Child’s kitchen, the Wegmans Wonderplace play area lives up to all the hype. Its 1,700-square-feet are separated into six separate play areas. Wegmans Wonderplace is plenty big enough for dozens of toddlers and preschoolers to play while their older siblings check out the rest of the museum upstairs.
As a preschooler, my daughter used to refer to the National Museum of American History as the “Fancy Dress Museum,” because it is the home of the inaugural gowns of most of the First Ladies. My son remembers it as the “Train Museum in the City.” There’s so much more than just Wegmans Wonderplace at the National Museum of American History for toddlers in DC.
The imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the National Museum of the American Indian is another favorite play area for families on the National Mall.
Special Events for Families at the Smithsonian Museums and Story Times
The list of Smithsonian Museums open to the public for free in Washington D.C. can be overwhelming. Families can pick and choose from a variety of options. I encourage families to find a special event that is a good fit for their family.
Visiting the National Postal Museum on Family Day is much more fun than braving a summer afternoon crowd at one of the more popular museums. On Family Day at the National Postal Museum our family got to participate in many toddler-friendly activities. However, we also had an opportunity to appreciate the regular collection, which is surprisingly interactive. The National Postal Museum is great for toddlers because it has many transportation themed exhibits.
Check the schedule for toddler and preschool-aged story times. The National Air and Space Museum and the National Museum of the American Indian both have regular story times for toddlers. Many of the other museums also have story times for toddlers on their schedule, especially in the winter months when Washington DC is not quite so busy.
Rounding out Museums on the National Mall, the National Gallery of Art also has special programs geared towards children ages seven and under at various times during the year. The National Gallery of Art has some of the best programming for the preschool and early elementary age group during the months of June and July.
Play at the Building Zone at the National Building Museum
Traveling isn’t very fun if it is all learning and no play. Even in the nation’s capital, young children need an opportunity to relax. Just a few blocks from The Mall is The National Building Museum, a great place for kids to play though it does have an admission fee. It has a unique play area called the Building Zone for young children ages 2-6.
There is also another kid-friendly exhibit, “Play Work Build,” for older kids and adults. Young children will find almost every type of block imaginable here at this children’s museum in DC. It’s perfect for the little engineer. Even if your kids aren’t engineers-in-training, no worries. My five-year-old daughter spent an entire 45 minutes playing in the Building Zone playhouse. Then she refused to leave when our time was up.
Enjoy Children’s Theatre In and Around Washington DC
For a change of pace after visiting some memorials, head over to one of the museums at The Mall to watch an IMAX movie. Alternatively, check out a children’s theater performance. From the Discovery Theater in the National Mall to Puppet Co. shows in Glen Echo Park just outside the city in Maryland, there are plenty of live, toddler-friendly performances showing nearly every day in the D.C. Metro area.
Visit the Young Reader’s Library at the Library of Congress
For some quiet time, head on over to The Library of Congress. The library itself is spectacular. However, the Young Reader’s Library, a small room in the basement, is set aside for children. It holds a traveling parent’s dream, bookshelves loaded with picture books and a quiet place to read. It is a great place to recharge after taking a tour of the Capitol or before heading out to eat on Capitol Hill.
Monkeying around in the Great Outdoors with Toddlers
For a momentary diversion before heading back into another museum, check out the Carousel in The Mall. It has been repeatedly voted my children’s favorite thing to do in the city. Take it from the experts!
Take a Short Hike Along the Potomac River with Preschoolers
If you have a car and want to mix up the museums with some more natural scenery, check out one of the many trails along the Potomac River. My two favorites are the trail at Scotts Run Nature Preserve, just over the border in Virginia, and the Billy Goat B Trail just outside of Carderock, Maryland. Both trails are best for ages four and up, and are located within a half-hour drive of the city. My family has hiked the Billy Goat C Trail with a toddler if you’re looking for something appropriate for two or three-year-olds.
If you don’t have time or energy for a hike, but still want to head out of the city to get some fresh air, Brookside Gardens and nearby Brookside Nature Center, both in Wheaton Regional Park, offer a nice place to get outdoors in Maryland.
Visiting DC with toddlers on a hot summer day? Let the tots splash in a fountain. Check out Georgetown Waterfront Park or one of our other favorite Fountains and Splash Parks in Washington DC for Families.
Don’t Forget to Visit the National Zoo When in DC with Toddlers
The National Zoo is often a top recommendation when visiting DC with toddlers. While the zoo is guaranteed to wear out both you and your young children with its hilly terrain, it may well be worth it. I made my first visit to Washington DC as a six-year-old and remember only a few things. I remember breaking my parent’s camera in front of the Air and Space Museum and waiting in long lines at the White House. However, the highlight of the trip was seeing those adorable pandas from the National Zoo.
Where to stay in Washington DC
Washington DC is a town that draws business travelers and families alike. Here’s Trekaroo’s guide to the best hotels to stay at with kids in Washington DC.
With little ones, having a kitchen and extra space to spread out can be really nice. Wyndham Old Town Alexandria and Wyndham National Harbor are just 10 minutes from downtown Washington DC. These 2 bedroom vacation rental condos offer the comforts of home and full resort facilities, activities and amenities. Both properties can be booked on Tripbound without being a vacation club member. Trekaroo families always get an additional 10% discount when they book a stay via our affiliate link.
Looking for fun for the older set while in Washington, D.C.? Don’t miss our Top 10 Things to Do with Kids in Washington, D.C. and check out The Ultimate Guide to Washington, D.C. for tour recommendations and more!