With much anticipation, our family took the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument and looked out at the White House. I asked my 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.
How do you enjoy a visit to Washington D.C. with young children who might instead prefer a trip to Grandma’s house? What can they learn about American history and government at a young age? Will they be able to have fun and play in a city full of museums and monuments, or will it all be too overwhelming?
Monuments, Museums and the American Flag
The Washington Monument is surrounded by American flags, and in the summer time, vendors sell red, white, and blue popsicles. Now, every time we drive passed an American flag, my four-year-old shouts, “That’s our flag!” Then, my five-year-old sings the refrain, “You’re a grand old flag” over and over again. People young and old are bound to pick up a bit of patriotism and respect for the country’s veterans and leaders while visiting D.C.. Reserve your tickets online in advance for a small fee. We waited two months for our selected date to arrive. It turned out that we were scheduled for the cloudiest Saturday morning in August, but even in less than ideal weather, the view was spectacular.
Conveniently located across 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 the first ladies’ inaugural dresses to an exhibit on the history of transportation in America. My daughter affectionately refers to this museum as the “Fancy Dress Museum,” and my son remembers it as the “Train Museum in the City.” While my children may have forgotten that the museum houses the original flag that inspired our national anthem, they did enjoy playing with a large, touch-screen computer image of the flag when they visited.
The list of Smithsonian Museums open to the public for free in Washington D.C. can be overwhelming for a family trying to see it all. Instead, pick and choose from a variety of options. For example, visiting the National Postal Museum on Family Day is much more fun than braving a summer afternoon crowd at the National Museum of Natural History. Check the schedule for toddler and preschool-aged story times. The National Air and Space Museum, National Museum of the American Indian, and National Gallery of Art all have special programs geared towards children ages 7 and under at various times during the year.
Play Time in the National Capital
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 and another kid-friendly exhibit, “Play Work Build,” for older kids and adults. Young children will find almost every type of block imaginable here, perfect for the little engineer. Even if your kids aren’t engineers-in-training, no worries: my five-year-old spent an entire 45 minutes playing in the Building Zone playhouse and refused to leave when our time was up.
For some quiet time, head on over to The Library of Congress. The library itself is spectacular, but the Young Reader’s Library, a small room in the basement, 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.
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, kid-friendly performances showing nearly every day in the D.C. Metro area.
Monkeying around in the Great Outdoors
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!
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 4 and up and are located within a half-hour drive of the city. 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.
The National Zoo is often a top recommendation when visiting Washington D.C. with young children. 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 D. C. as a six-year-old and remember only a few things -breaking my parent’s camera in front of the Air and Space Museum, waiting in long lines at the White House, and the highlight of the trip, seeing those adorable pandas from the National Zoo.
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.