Kids in Museums: Washington, D.C. Edition

April 29, 2013

Kids in Museums, USA

When I tell people we went to see 17 different museums and galleries (well, 16 + the Zoo, but it’s a Smithsonian too) during our holiday in Washington, D.C., responses have included “how can you take them all in?” and “you must be insane, and with a toddler in tow too!”

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First of all, we were there for two weeks and we didn’t really do much else than visit museums – D.C. is like a proverbial sweetie shop for museum lovers – so that makes on average less than two per day, which I think is perfectly reasonable. You can easily take in two different things a day. Secondly, our toddler is quite a trooper when it comes to visiting museums. After all, he hasn’t really known it any different since he was born. But he does actually still take an afternoon nap, so we tried to choose something he would enjoy in the mornings, and then pick something else to see while he was sleeping, which accounts for six out of the 17 visits. There were also a couple of museums that didn’t appeal to him that much, such as the Bonsai Museum where he was more interested in playing with the gravel, but at least he had a good run around the National Arboretum afterwards. Which still leaves a good number of museums that he experienced and that were a success, so I thought I’d compile a “Kids in Museums” D.C. edition. I’ve already written about our experience at the Hirshhorn Museum in my recent post on taking kids to museums early and often, and about our visit to the Discovery Creek Children’s Museum at Easter. Here is a summary of the rest:

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

On the first day we headed in to downtown DC the question was, which museum do we start with. So we left it up to #MuseumBaby, which went something like this: “Shall we go visit a museum today?” “Ja!” “What do you want to see?” “Animals!” Which settled it, and we were off to the Museum of Natural History. As was the rest of Washington, D.C., or so it seemed during what happened to be the local Easter holidays. But we didn’t let the crowds dampen our enjoyment, though it did make us keep our visit relatively short. Natural History Museums are always a big hit with kids, and there’s lots to see and do at this one. However, we restricted ourselves to the Mammals Hall, since that’s what had brought us there in the first place. #MuseumBaby was ecstatic with excitement. He loved running around and spotting all the animals that he knew, including some of his favourites such as the giraffe, who was sticking out its tongue. He had great fun copying it. He was also fascinated by the casts that you could touch, and thought it was hilarious pretending to let the ‘Beaver’ bite his finger. All in all, a winner.

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Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

Being one of the most visited museums in the world, the Air and Space Museum was obviously going to be no less frantic during the Easter holidays. First of all, do not make the mistake of eating lunch in the café there, which is basically a McDonalds. It’s overcrowded and expensive. Do what we did for the rest of our time in DC and bring a packed lunch to eat outside in the park before going in. But our visit went uphill from there. After our big trip across the Atlantic, planes were the new flavour of the month with #MuseumBaby, and he didn’t really know where to turn to next from sheer excitement (the sections on space, on the other hand, left him completely cold – I guess because he has no concept yet of what a rocket is or how cool space is). The hands-on gallery “How Things Fly” was much too busy and noisy for him, so we went around some of the quieter galleries instead, with our favourites including Early Flight and Golden Age of Flight. There were lots of beautiful planes for him to look at, even from underneath lying on his back, and it was great to see all kinds of emotions from excitement to curiosity to fascination play out across his face.

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Smithsonian National Postal Museum

The Postal Museum is my favourite museum in Washington, D.C., and I really wanted to #MuseumBaby to love it too. It’s no where near as overrun as its Smithsonian fellows on the National Mall, which makes for an all round calmer visit. To be perfectly honest, #MuseumBaby would have been more than happy to spend an entire hour sitting at the wheel of the big mail truck in the main hall. He was very good in letting others have a go, but as soon it was free again he’d be back up those steps. Goodness me, that boy is obsessed with cars! We did however manage to pry him away long enough to go round the exhibition, and there found plenty of other things to amuse him. He may still be a bit too young to understand the concept of the postal service, but that didn’t mean he had any less fun sitting in an old mail wagon, sorting parcels, or examining fingerprints with a magnifying glass. For older kids there are even more mail related interactives, so it’s definitely one I would recommend for a family visit.

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National Building Museum

Another of my favourite museums in DC, is the National Building Museum. It used to be free to visit, but now they charge an admission fee. It’s $8 for adults and $5 for children aged 3-17. Luckily for us, #MuseumBaby is not quite 2 1/2 yet, though if you have enough time to make it worth your while, then the price isn’t really that steep. And you only have to pay if you are going in to see the exhibitions, so you can hang out in their gorgeous main hall by the fountain (e.g. to eat your packed lunch) or visit the shop and café without being charged the admission. They have several different exhibitions on at any one time, all to do with buildings and achitecture, and to be honest most of them while interesting to us weren’t that exciting for a small child. With two exceptions. One being the fabulous hands-on exhibition PLAY WORK BUILD, showing until November 2014, where visitors can explore the world of design and construction, using small construction sets through to supersized foam blocks (sadly I have no pictures, as I seemed to be the only person heeding the ‘no photography’ signs). The other exception was the just as fabulous ‘Building Zone’, a hands-on introduction to the building arts designed especially for the Museum’s youngest visitors, ages 2-6. You can pay separately if you just want to visit the Building Zone and not the rest of the museum. We totally fell in love with it and went back a second time. I’ll be writing up a separate post about it soon.

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Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian

#MuseumBaby slept for most of our visit to the Museum of the American Indian, which meant us parents could have a good look around the galleries without chasing after him ever two minutes :) He woke up just in time for a visit to the fabulous children’s activity centre, ingeniously entitled imagiNations. At the entrance, all kids get a little passport booklets, which they can then take round collecting stamps at each activity station. Activities range from basket weaving and igloo building, to testing out snow shoes and challenging yourself in the kayak balancing game. For older kids, there are craft sessions and a quiz to take part in. Younger kids will enjoy playing in the Comanche tipi or Amazonian stilt house. One thing #MuseumBaby really enjoyed was sitting in a kayak (I guess it’s a bit like sitting in a car) and watching an AV where kids were training their kayak skills using ropes. He was really fascinated. He also loved the sound station where you could listen to different bird noises.

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National Museum of the US Navy

I discovered the Museum of the US Navy on a parenting blog about kid friendly things to do in DC, so naturally we had to go and check it out. It turns out that #MuseumBaby is no where near as interested in boats and ships as he is in cars and planes, perhaps because he’s not has as much experience of them. In fact, one of the first things he did was to get hyper excited about the few planes suspended from the ceiling. However, it still made for a nice day out as its down by the waterfront and you can go aboard a navy ship afterwards. Also, being a hidden gem, it wasn’t too busy, another nice and calm visit. I think for slightly older kids, who can relate more to the concept of ships and boats, this would be a great place to visit, in fact, there were several older boys there at the same time as us who seemed to be having a great time. Since it’s a new discovery to me, I will write up a full post about the museum soon. And #MuseumBaby did really enjoy sitting on the big gun mounts.

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Newseum

Our visit to the Newseum is one of the few during our trip where I will hold up my hands and admit, we got it wrong. I guess the visit was partly doomed to failure from the beginning, because we’d paid nearly $40 (for all of us) to get in and were determined to get value for our money. Not that the other museums we’d been to were all smaller, but they are free so you can go as many times as you like to see everything you want. Here we were on the clock. And that did not go well with a toddler who just wanted to burn off some energy. But we REALLY wanted to see it, after missing out on our last DC visit. The first hour or so was not enjoyable to anyone. Not to us, as we kept sprinting after #MuseumBaby and couldn’t look at anything properly. Not to #MuseumBaby, as he didn’t appreciate being reigned in and told “no!” all the time. The Newseum lists all the family friendly things to do, but they’re probably aimed at older kids, not a two year old. A lot of the exhibits are, naturally, about words and that just didn’t grab his attention like a car or a dinosaur or even a colourful painting would. Actually, there were one or two cars, and it was all we could do to keep him from trying to climb inside! Here’s how we turned it around: We left the museum. The tickets let you re-enter all day, so we decided to take a time-out. We had a picnic in the park. We went for a walk. And when #MuseumBaby had fallen asleep for his nap, we went back in to the museum and had a really intense three hours looking at as much as we could. And yes, we let him nap twice as long as usual. Then we came back the next day, because the tickets are actually valid two consecutive days in a row. Everyone was in a much better mood, and we’d worked our way through all the historical exhibits the day before, leaving the museum’s 4D film and the interactive galleries. And this time we all enjoyed it, the adults and the kid :)

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