Don't Miss This Must-See List of Local, Kid-Friendly Museums - Brought To You By A Museum Professional & Mom!
by Sarah Erdman
People who visit museums fall into a few distinct categories. You have the purists, the ones who feel you have to see the museum from front to back and top to bottom. Often, these are the visitors who are determined that this museum visit will “teach them something important.” You also have the fans, the ones who revisit a single museum (or sometimes a single piece of art) and just revel in that one experience over and over again. Finally, there are the fun seekers, the ones who choose a museum because it will be a fun thing to do with the people they are with.
The amazing thing about being in the D.C. area is that you don’t have to tie yourself down to one type every time. You can feel a little pity for the visitors doing the “museum march” through every Smithsonian museum; after all you can breeze downtown and just visit the elephant your kid loves and then head home. Since many of the museums are free (or offer good discounts and free days you can take advantage of when you are close) you can spread seeing the whole museum out over a summer, or just go in for the “blockbuster” shows that look like fun.
All of this flexibility also offers you a way to get your kids excited about a museum visit. Maybe all of you love museums and don’t need any convincing…if so, great! However, maybe someone in your family has a bad memory of being shuffled through a museum on a family or school trip and just feeling bored. For them, I want to offer the “Choose Your Own Adventure” model of museum visits.
Most likely, your child has something they are currently obsessed with. Maybe it is a show, or a type of music or a particular job they want to be when they grow up. Whatever it is, go with that to structure your museum visit. You can get them involved in picking a museum that caters to their obsession and then bring books and a related toy or craft with you when you go.
For the visit you can show up, see the object that relates to what they love (maybe you just visit one, which is ok!). After you see what you came to see, you find a quiet corner to read together, zoom the toy cars through the garden or draw the dress or accessory that you’d take home for yourself. This way, your visit becomes interactive, even if the place you are visiting doesn’t offer it for you.
Yes, it takes a little prep work for the adult, and it can feel awkward the first time you do it, but pretty soon you’ll get the hang of it! If you find you are struggling, or if you just want more ideas on how to pack for a visit like that, you can read my piece “Tips for visiting a museum with kids: Don’t arrive empty handed” on the American History Blog.
The hard part, really, is finding the museum tie in that matches your children’s interest. I did an informal poll of the kids I know and came up with a short list of the more common interest they had. Hopefully it will get you started! In the comment section feel free to add your own and we will try to match you with a place to visit (reader help is delightfully accepted!).
Princes and Princesses
·Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden: With a slogan like “Where Fabulous Lives” you can bet the Hillwood museum is gorgeous enough to make you feel like royalty. Just touring the grounds and house can give your prince or princess lots of ideas, but they also have changing exhibits that show all of the wonderful pieces collected by the Post family.
·Natural History - Gemstones: What prince or princess doesn’t need jewels? In the gemstone exhibit at Natural History you can pick out your favorite piece and decide where you would wear it and what outfit might go along with it.
·Freer/Sackler - Peacock Room: Every elegant prince or princess needs a room to match and the Peacock Room at the Freer/Sackler fits the bill. Since the whole room is part of the exhibit you can walk around, enjoy the space and really feel like you are living it
·Air and Space Museum: For any child obsessed with things that fly, the Air and Space museum is the place to go. Whether you head downtown or out to the Udvar-Hazy Center near Dulles, you will get up close and personal in a way that has even my 1 ½ year old’s eyes bugging out of his head
·American History - America on the Move: If cars, trucks and trains are more your scene then the “America on the Move” exhibit at American History will provide ample sparks for the imagination. Even in a busy museum you can find a quiet nook to read story and the number of things you can touch, climb inside or get very close makes this a big hit with the preschool crowd.
·American Art/National Portrait Gallery: If you have a child who loves to tinker and design new inventions then you have to visit the American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery. Two museums in one building, which used to be the US Patent Office. There are often displays of patent models along with other curiosities from the buildings history and they can also explore the way people have created and invented through art both historic and modern.
·American History - Lighting a Revolution and Power Machinery: In these exhibits at American History you can see the history of some pretty important inventions and even learn a little about Edison’s time in the patent office. The Power Machinery at the back of the hall seem like something out of a Dr. Seuss novel and just beg to be recreated and reinvented by the child inventor.
My Favorite Color is Rainbow
·Hirshhorn - Sol Le Witt’s “Wall Drawing #1113”: Taking up an entire wall in a big, brightly lit room on the 3rd floor, this piece is just right for a child who loves every color (or maybe one who has a favorite color). The other great thing about this room is that you have a panoramic view of the Mall from the large windows. Many of the exhibits at the Hirshhorn use color in really bold and beautiful ways, definitely a museum worth exploring.
·National Gallery of Art: Calder Room: Calder’s mobiles and stabiles (the ones on the ground) bring color to life. This quiet room is tucked off to the side and offers plenty of benches so you can sit and lie down and look up at his work. There is even a viewing window from a floor up so you can see the pieces from a different angle. The National Gallery of Art has Although it isn’t rainbow, “Multiverse” which is a light installation that runs above a moving sidewalk is a huge hit with kids. Be aware, you only have a little time to enjoy the East Gallery before it closes for renovation. If you miss it, bookmark this for when it reopens!
(There are so many wonderful art museums in DC, including small private collections and the Smithsonian. I’m deliberately highlighting just two but go check out all the others. Especially if you have an artist with a particular interest or focus!)
·National Gallery of Art: It seems like a no brainer, but if you have an artist in your family then you really need to bring them to the National Gallery of Art. There is so much variety in their collection and it has such a grand and important air about it that can make you feel very official as you sketch (pencils only please!) in the quiet rooms.
·Artisphere: Located in Rosslyn (Virginia), Artisphere has a huge range of programs from theater to dance to mixed media and beyond. You have to keep tabs on their calendar but this can be a great place for families who are looking for something a little different
·Sewell Belmont House and Museum: If your child has a passion for advocacy or social justice, take them to see the place that is a “center for feminist education and social change.” The National Woman’s Party has owned the house for over sixty years and it was here that the fight for women’s right to vote and for the equal rights amendment had strong and dedicated supporters.
·American History - Student Sit In Performances: One of the landmark objects at American History is the Greensboro Lunch Counter where students staged a sit-in that challenged segregated eating places. The museum has a powerful theater program that explores this
·Claude Moore Farm: A living history museum about life on a farm in Colonial Times, your animal lover will be able to see farm animals up close and personal. Kids will also be fascinated by the similarities and differences between their life and chores and the ones shown on the farm.
·Frying Pan Farm: A favorite with many families, this farm is showing what life was like from the 1920s-1950s. Luckily, the access to animals remains the same and kids can explore all over the farm. Plus it is free!
·National Zoo: For animals of the more exotic type, the National Zoo is the place to go. A successful zoo trip requires a little planning since it is built on a hill and gets quite crowded. If you are early risers then definitely go as soon as you are up. Even though the houses don’t open until 10am, the grounds open at 6am and many of the animals are out and about!
·Natural History: For a look at the world of ancient animals the Dinosaur Hall and the “Life in the Ancient Seas” exhibit are the place to start. Along with the bones and recreated displays, you can watch paleontologists in the “fossil lab” and see how they work.
·Dinosaur Land: For a less authentic, but equally fun, experience you can visit Dinosaur Land out in White Post, VA. This outdoor dinosaur extravaganza is sure to be a favorite no matter how old your kids are.
·National Building Museum: Right now, the National Building Museum has a great exhibit called “Play Work Build” where you can get your hands on giant foam blocks. However, even without that your block/building obsessed child can really dig into the stuff they have here. The Grand Atrium itself (especially the giant columns) are fun to explore and they sometimes roll out a family building activity where you have to try and construct an arch. For the littlest ones, the Building Zone is popular (you need separate tickets in advance to enter)
·Washington Monument: Yes, it seems a little silly to recommend a visit just for this…but have you ever actually walked up close and looked at it? Now that the scaffolding has come down you can see each of the bricks stacked on top of each other. Once you are able to get underneath it again, just look up and marvel at the way the perspective shifts and just how big those blocks really are! We suggest reserving your tickets for a small fee online first. Read more about how to do it in our Visiting the Washington Monument blog.
·American History - Artifact Wall: For wannabe wizards you can see some of the costume pieces from the movies in the artifact wall near the Warner Brothers Theater. It is just a taste, but you do get a close view!
·Smithsonian Castle: This one will take a little imagination, but the red sandstone turrets of the Castle could make a great Hogwarts! The display cases inside house selections from every museum and with the antique furniture and vaulted ceilings it is ripe for some pretending!
·Botanic Gardens: Within one building your adventurer can trek through an arid desert, hunt for dinosaur prints in the Garden Primeval and inch across a catwalk high above a steamy jungle canopy. The Botanic Gardens is extremely kid friendly and even has a seasonal Children’s Garden outside along with the popular train display “Seasons Greenings”
·Theodore Roosevelt Island: Although it is within sight of Georgetown and Rosslyn, Theodore Roosevelt Island feels like it is miles from civilization. The trails wind through woods and swamps and you can often see wildlife just off the trail. In the middle is a monument to Roosevelt that gives you plenty of places to run and explore.
·River Farm: The gardens at River Farm are the perfect setting for your child’s own adventure story. Whether you are playing in the groves and houses, or piloting the marooned boat you have lots of room for your imagination to run wild.
·Library of Congress: Any bookworm will feel right at home in the Library of Congress. Although it is a very formal feeling space, there is plenty for kids to explore. The building itself is stunning and there is lots to look at in the details of the space. The recreated Jefferson Library provides a fun peek into the President’s book preferences and many of the changing exhibits have artifacts you can’t see anywhere else. If you have a very little one, the Young Readers Center has story time every Friday along with books, resources and a place to sit down!
·National Gallery of Art - Degas: If your ballerina hasn’t met Degas “Little Dancer” they will certainly feel like they’ve met a friend when they see her. In the next room are a number of Degas’ sculptures that show bodies moving and stretching in ways that will be familiar to your dancer. The space is open enough that your child can try to imitate the poses, without risking priceless artifacts.
So many thanks to Sarah Erdman for this amazing and informative blog!
Sarah Erdman is a mom, museum professional and early childhood educator in Northern Virginia. She is the Early Learning Fellow at the National Museum of American History and the founder of Cabinet of Curiosities, which provides programs and training for museums and early childhood programs.
The Building Museum
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Hillwood Estate, Museum and Garden
National Gallery Of Art
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