Washington bursts with kid-friendly attractions. Not only do they hold the nation’s best collection of dinosaur bones, rockets and one-of-a-kind historical artifacts, but just about everything is free. Another bonus: green space surrounds all the sights, so young ones can burn off energy to their hearts’ content.
- National Zoo
Pandas play, orangutans swing and lions roar at DC's top family attraction.
- National Museum of Natural History
The mummified kitty, T rex skull and tarantula feedings generate big squeals.
- National Air & Space Museum
Touch moon rocks, look up at rockets and walk through space capsules in the Mall's most popular museum.
- National Museum of American History
Gawk at the Star-Spangled Banner flag, George Washington's sword and a 23-room doll house.
Junior journalists report ‘live from the White House’ via the TV studio – and get the take-home video to prove it.
- National Gallery of Art
Stay busy with activity booklets and a ride on the underground walkway; don't forget to pick up the kids' audio guide to see highlights.
- International Spy Museum
Kids get to become secret agents and identify disguises, find hidden cameras and go on GPS-driven scavenger hunts.
- Museum Sleepovers
Who doesn't want to spend the night in a sleeping bag beneath a 50ft whale? The Smithsonian offers sleepovers at its Natural History and American History museums, as well as at the Air & Space Udvar-Hazy annex in Virginia. See https://smithsoniansleepovers.org for details.
- Georgetown Waterfront Park
It has fountains to splash in, a labyrinth to curlicue around and boats to watch (or hop aboard for a sightseeing ride).
Take a spin on the old-fashioned merry-go-round on the Mall.
- Tidal Basin Boathouse
For a gentle jaunt, rent a paddleboat and glide out past the Jefferson Memorial.
Attractions Out of Town
A couple of popular attractions lie beyond the city limits:
- Glen Echo Park
This beautiful park 9 miles northwest of downtown has a huge retro carousel (per ride $1.25, operating May through September) and excellent children’s shows by two resident troupes: the Puppet Company and Adventure Theatre MTC.
- Six Flags America
The park offers a full array of roller coasters and tamer kiddie rides. It's located about 15 miles east of downtown DC in Maryland.
- Mt Vernon
George Washington's home in Virginia is always a crowd pleaser. Youngsters can pet the horses and other animals at the Pioneer Farm (open April through October) and dress up like Martha Washington in the Reynolds Museum and Education Center.
- National Harbor
An enormous Ferris wheel, public art to climb on, and free outdoor movies and concerts make National Harbor (www.nationalharbor.com) a fun family destination, especially if you travel by water taxi from DC.
- National Theatre
Free performances take place on Saturday mornings at this elegant, and some say haunted, theater, from puppet shows to tap dancers.
- Discovery Theater
The Smithsonian's kids' theater features cultural plays and storytelling.
- Glen Echo Park
Two theater companies are based at this park just over the border in Maryland. The Puppet Company specializes in puppet shows putting on classics such as Beauty and the Beast every Thursday through Sunday. Also here is Adventure Theatre MTC, which has been around for more than 65 years and stages musicals based on children's books.
- Bike & Roll
Among the company's many offerings is an all-ages, 4-mile cycling tour that zips around the Mall and Tidal Basin. Children's bikes are provided.
- DC by Foot
This operation offers pay-what-you-want walking tours. While it's not specifically geared to kids, it is popular with families. The Mall tour takes about two hours and covers a mile; the route is stroller-friendly.
- Catch an IMAX
The Smithsonian has two IMAX theaters on the Mall: one in the National Museum of Natural History, and the other in the National Air and Space Museum. The latter also holds the Einstein Planetarium. Schedules are amalgamated at www.si.edu/imax.
- Rise & Rhyme
The activist cafe chain Busboys & Poets hosts a weekly morning storytelling and performance series for children age five and under. The 1½-hour events (per child $5) take place at B&P's various locations around town. Check www.busboysandpoets.com/events/info/rise-rhyme for the schedule.
- Boogie Babes
Boogie Babes (www.facebook.com/boogiebabesdc) gets the preschool-age crowd rockin’ with interactive musical performances at Eastern Market every Thursday at 10:30am (per child $6). The program also travels to other venues on occasion; check the website for locations.
Films to Set the Mood
Never underestimate Hollywood's power to get your kids psyched for their DC trip.
- Night at the Museum 2: Battle of the Smithsonian (2009) Museum exhibits come to life for Ben Stiller in the National Air and Space Museum and National Gallery of Art. (FYI, the first film was set in the Smithsonian's New York City history museum, and the third film takes place at London's British Museum.)
- National Treasure (2004) Nicolas Cage finds a coded map on the back of the Declaration of Independence that leads to – that's right – national treasure! The sequel came out in 2007, and the third installment supposedly is in the works.
Eat Streets for Kids
The National Museum of the American Indian's Mitsitam Cafe provides unique options. The National Gallery of Art's Cascade Cafe has pizza, pasta and a gelato bar. Or there’s the old standby McDonald’s in the National Air and Space Museum.
- 7th and 8th Sts NE
- 7th St NW
In Penn Quarter leading north from the National Archives, this street and its environs have quite a few kid-friendly burger and pizza places.
- Zoo area
The areas north and south of the Connecticut Ave entrance have heaps of restaurants, such as Lebanese Taverna.
Games for Kids
Many sights and museums have a section on their website with interactive computer games for children. Favorites include the following:
International Spy Museum (www.spymuseum.org/kidspy) Loud, booming games to create disguises and to 'diffuse robotic covert pigeons with explosive birdseed.'
Library of Congress (www.americaslibrary.gov) Kids can animate a cartoon, listen to a jukebox of historic recordings and meet bison hunter Buffalo Bill Cody and other amazing Americans.
National Gallery of Art (www.nga.gov/kids) Young artists can create portraits and landscapes using interactive tools.
Smithsonian (www.si.edu/kids) Lets kids peruse the institution’s objects from rocks to rockets, baseball cards to brontosaurus bones, plus play games to hunt insects and detect disasters.
Mount Vernon (www.mountvernon.org) Offers games that star George Washington.
Other Fun Projects
Write a Letter to the President
There’s something pretty cool about writing to the prez while you’re in the neighborhood. White House staff respond to every letter, so make sure your child includes a return address both on the letter and on the envelope. Here are some writing tips:
Introduce yourself to the president in one sentence (how old you are, where you live etc).
Explain why you’re writing. To ask for help with a certain issue? To approve or disapprove of a decision he made? To ask the president a personal question?
Explain the action you’d like him to take, ie propose legislation, visit your town, send you a photo.
Address it to: President, The White House, 1600 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, DC 20500.
Wait for his response!
Create a Blog
This is a great way for older kids to share their experiences with friends. Check out Kids Learn to Blog (www.kidslearntoblog.com), which walks parents through the process of setting up a blog for youngsters, including information on safety and monitoring the blog. Kids also can sign up for blogs on monitored sites like Kidzworld (www.kidzworld.com).
Need to Know
- Family Guide Booklets Most museums provide booklets with activities kids can do on-site; ask at the information desk.
- DC Cool Kids (www.washington.org/family-friendly) Features activity guides, insider tips from local youngsters on things to do, and museum info.
- Discounts The Newseum and International Spy Museum run money-saving promotions on their websites. The ticket broker Goldstar (www.goldstar.com/washington-dc) often has half-price tickets.
Some sights – including the International Spy Museum, National Archives, Washington Monument, Ford's Theatre and the Capitol – allow you to make advance reservations for a small fee. During peak season (late March through August), it pays to go online and do so up to a month prior if you want to avoid lengthy queues.
For an insight into Washington, DC aimed directly at kids, pick up a copy of Lonely Planet’s City Trails: Washington, DC. Perfect for children aged eight and up, it opens up a world of intriguing stories and fascinating facts about Washington’s people, places, history and culture.