It’s time to ring in the Year of the Rat, and there are a bunch of fun ways to do so around DC (see the latest Weekend Round-Up for details on several). The Kennedy Center has already begun the celebration with The REACH Winter Lanterns, a wonderful exhibition of about 100 stunning illuminations. Crafted by Chinese artisans, the display is made up of 10,000 colored LED lights, including the Chinese Four Symbols and 12 Zodiac Signs, Panda Grove, Mushroom Garden, Floral Garden, and Jellyfish Lagoon — all of it delightful and so beautiful.
Along with the lanterns, there are more activities to enjoy. When Sasha and I visited, there was a Beijing Opera make-up demo, panda photo ops, traditional costumes to try on, a calligraphy station, and a paper lantern making workshop. Food trucks are there for bites, and outdoor seating areas warmed by heaters provide a place to eat them.
A special Family Day on Saturday, January 25, will have free fun for all ages from 1:30-4:30pm. Activities will include arts and crafts, a traditional costume photo booth, zodiac stickers, demonstrations of sugar painting and wood block printing, magic shows, and more. Plan to stick around for the Winter Lanterns, which begins at 5:30pm. And the Beijing Bamboo Orchestra is the Millennium Stage performance that evening at 6pm.
The REACH Winter Lanterns will be on display select dates through Sunday, February 2 — this weekend through Sunday, January 26, then Thursday, January 30 – Sunday, February 2. It begins at 5:30pm each evening except for January 26, when it starts at 4pm. All of it is free, though parking at the Kennedy Center is $23. You can try for street parking nearby (though difficult to find a spot), so pubic transportation (nearest Metro is Foggy Bottom) is recommended. And all of the lanterns are outdoors on The REACH campus, so dress warmly! Other activities, however, take place inside.
[Note: This is a Guest Post contributed by Jennifer Liao, local mom and founder of Family Trip Guides. As my own kids are now well past the little kid stage, Jennifer brings a fresh take on navigating the National Mall’s museum scene with younger children.]
I started taking my kids to the Smithsonian museums as a tactic to survive the long summer, but it turned into the highlight of the season! We set a goal to visit all 12 Smithsonian museums with my then 2- and 5-year-old and made a passing grade of 8 over the summer and finished this past year. At first, my goals were to escape the suburbs and enjoy the free, world-class museums, but I wasn’t prepared for how much we would grow to love our visits! Now my kids regularly ask which museum we’re going to this week: The Dinosaur One? (Natural History), the Vehicle One? (Postal Museum), or the Inventions One? (American History).
Channeling Julia Childs at Wegmans Wonderplace in the American History Museum
The museums sparked so much curiosity and wonder in my kids that it became contagious. They were excited to share with kids and adults alike about what they discovered that, by the end, we were bringing neighbors with us on our museum trips. I started to get lots of questions from my friends about taking kids into DC by themselves, where to park on a weekday, and food options outside the museums. So, I started texting my tips to friends, which turned into emails, then ultimately created Family Trip Guides for the top five museums.
I love lists so below are: 1) My 3 favorite things about visiting Smithsonians with young kids, 2) Trip tips, and 3) Favorite museums for this age.
Exploring the African Art Museum
My 3 Favorite Things about Visiting Smithsonians with Young Kids
1. Following Their Wonder: I LOVE watching kids’ faces light up when they explore something new! I often follow behind my children when we first enter a gallery and listen to their oohs and ahhs and have them lead me to what they want to explore. Most recently, in the African Art Museum right behind the Smithsonian Castle, my 3-year-old was so transfixed by the beautiful gold exhibit from the Wolof in Senegal, commenting that one necklace looked kind of like a cupcake!
2. Free = No Pressure/No Guilt: All the Smithsonian museums are free which relieves a lot of the pressure to “see everything.” If you need to leave because of nap time or a tantrum, you have a guilt free pass to do so. We used to live in Chicago where the Field Museum is $26 for the basic admission per person so you wanted to get your money’s worth, i.e. you stayed awhile, even if the kids were no longer into it. The Smithsonians can be a great pop-in destination whether you live nearby or not.
3. Connection: Visiting a museum with younger kids requires a lot more attention for the parent or caregiver (why is Obama’s portrait at toddler-touch-level at the Portrait Gallery?!), but it leads to incredible moments of connection with your child. My kids help me live in the moment and see the wonder in the nature, art, and artifacts.
Don’t miss the Volunteer Carts for extra exhibits (and stickers!)
My Top 3 Trip Tips for Visiting Museums with Little Kids
1. Go at the Right Time: Parents and caregivers all know that timing is everything with this age group. Pick the time when your child will be the least tired, hungry, and overstimulated. For my kids, that’s in the morning, but I know some parents who visit museums after an afternoon nap. I aim to get to the museum right at 9:45am to get parking close to the museum (often right on the National Mall!) and get in line five minutes before the museum opens at 10am. This is my “magic time” before a lot of the school and tour groups seem to arrive around 11am, and tourists later in the afternoon. It gives my kids a couple of hours to enjoy a much less crowded museum and make a clean exit for lunch, either a picnic on the Mall or at an eatery close by. (I have 20+ food options categorized by each museum on my blog.)
2. Go to a Little-Kid Friendly Museum: There are 12 museums and an amazing National Zoo as a part of the Smithsonian Institution, the largest museum complex in the world! All of them are special and wonderful in their own way, but for this age group, I would highly recommend focusing on the most kid-friendly of them (see below), especially if you will need good changing tables and nursing areas.
3. Avoid the Gift Shop: Confession time… my kids have never been to a museum gift shop! I think my daughter knows they exist, because we had to walk by one and I diverted her to another gallery. We really avoid the gift shop because, as all parents know, it can be a drawn-out negotiation that takes time and energy I’d rather be spending on the exhibits. So, instead, I have included Gift Shop Alternatives for each age group and for each museum in my Guides. A few ideas for little kids: If you’re near the Smithsonian Castle on the National Mall, take a ride on the historic Carousel — for $3.50 the only dilemma is which animal to ride. If you’re at Natural History or Air and Space Museums, ask the information desk where the Volunteer Cart is for the day — they might be giving out free stickers. If you’re near the Postal Museum, get a food treat at Au Bon Pain, Shake Shack, or another place in Union Station.
Start a stamp collection at the National Postal Museum!
My 3 Favorite Smithsonian Museums with Young Kids
1. National Postal Museum: This was the surprise favorite of our whole family during our summer challenge and definitely the “easiest” of the Smithsonians with kids. It has wonderful hands-on exhibits and the largest collection of stamps in the world — and they let you take a few to start your own collection! My 3-year old son calls this the “vehicle museum” because it houses a real train, a stagecoach, and an 18-wheeler truck to climb all around. The museum is located right next to Union Station, making it perfect for metro, parking, and dozens of food options from Shake Shack to Chipotle!
2. American History Museum: This museum has so much to offer for all ages, plus the best enclosed play area for smaller kids. Wegman’s Wonderplace feels like a real museum (because it is!) with paintings and artifacts behind child safe glass and at their eye level. It is created for ages 0-6 and includes a kid-friendly bathroom, a nursing room in the back corner, a volunteer-staffed gate to keep kids inside, and an amazing kid-sized replica of Julia Childs’ kitchen! (Note: Wegman’s Wonderplace is closed Tuesdays.)
3. American Indian Museum: I love this museum because our kids don’t have much interaction with Native American cultures, and the museum does a great job at welcoming kids to learn more. We love the kids’ area called the imagiNATIONS Activity Center on the 3nd floor and The Mitsitam Food Court (which means “Let’s eat!” in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples). It’s an extension of the museum with foods from different regions. (Note: imagiNATIONS is closed Mondays.)
I hope something in all these lists sparked interest in taking your kids (or neighbor kids!) to one of the amazing national treasures we call Smithsonian Museums.
Thanks so much, Jennifer!
KFDC community, what are some your favorite Smithsonian Museums? Let us know in the comments below!
* * * * *
Jennifer Liao is a mom of two curious kiddos in Fairfax County who unabashedly loves museums. She created FamilyTripGuides.com to help other families have great visits with their kids. She also loves cooking with her husband and long bike rides.
[Note: This post was written a couple of years ago. Some features at The Wharf may not be available right now due to Covid.]
This has been a weird summer for us. We’re doing some house renovations and, while exciting, it also has added a new level of hectic to our everyday. People are working in our space, loud noises are constant, boxes are everywhere, dust is everywhere, and there’s just general disarray (of both our digs and my mind).
Needless to say, we’ve been trying to get out of the house a lot — which isn’t too difficult given all there is to do around the area, not to mention exploring the area is kind of my thing. And one place that’s become somewhat of a new go-to hangout spot for us (on non-rainy days, anyway): The District Wharf.
The area at the southwest waterfront opened last fall after a few years of redevelopment, and it’s a major and much needed asset to DC, in my opinion. Where there used to be several large, unremarkable seafood restaurants dominating that stretch along the Potomac River is now a beautiful, lively riverside locale that really takes advantage of the location on the water and brings an easy-breezy vibe to this city that often feels a bit more buttoned up.
Much of the hype when it first opened was over its restaurant scene and outstanding music venue, The Anthem, but there is so much more to enjoy there — and for all ages. On nice days, you can easily spend a good few hours hanging out there with the kids.
There is a splash pad to play in, complete with rocking toys that are free to use. And it’s not just little ones who use it. Owen and Sasha and their friends have had fun in the sprays of water, plus we’ve seen older kids, adults, and even dogs enjoy them, too.
Large bench swings along the Recreation Pier require a stop. Sit or stand as you rock back and forth and take in the views or do some people watching. In the same area is The Wharf Boathouse, where there are kayaks and stand-up paddleboards for rent.
Further down Wharf Street, which runs nearly the whole length of the area and is driveable (watch out for cars!), you’ll find even more ways to enjoy some riverside recreation. The Transit Pier hosts a variety of activities, some that change with the seasons. There have been life-size games and outdoor concerts in the warm months, and the Wharf Ice Rink in the winter. The Water Taxi also operates from that area — you can catch a boat ride to (or from) Georgetown, Alexandria, and National Harbor.
There is also a big fire pit just off the main street that is great in winter, nice seating and lounging areas, the beautiful District Pier where festivals often take place, great people watching, not to mention the many eateries, shops, and smaller music venues.
The nicer restaurants tend to be the ones we hear about most, but there are a variety of options for a bite, including a few casual, very kid-friendly places. We usually go to Taylor Gourmet (Update: It’s now Grazi Grazi, and it’s still our fave), and Shake Shack and Brighton are good for young diners, too. The Fish Market next to the new development also makes for a fun stop if you want fresh seafood. If you’re looking for something sweet, Ben & Jerry’s, Dolcezza Gelato, and Milk Bar are all good choices. (KFDC Tip: If you want to keep costs down, BYO or buy treats at the CVS there, then find some nice seating by the river where you can enjoy them. I once ran into a friend who was doing just that!)
If you’re planning a visit to The Wharf, definitely check to see if any special events are going on. Along with big festivals, there are often other happenings like free outdoor concerts, sports watching parties, and special performances.
And another KFDC Tip: If you drive, you can park at East Potomac Park, then ride the free jitney over to The Wharf. Not only do you avoid the hassle and cost of finding a spot for your car, you get to enjoy a fun, little cruise over in a boat! (Update: The Jitney operates daily from April through November, but only on weekends December and March, closed January & February. Hours are Monday – Friday 12pm until 30 minutes before sunset, and Saturday/Sunday/holidays 9am until 30 minutes before sunset. If you plan to ride it, be sure to check the status and make sure its operating that day, as it could be out of service for maintenance or repairs.)
Oh, in case it isn’t obvious, this all comes with the gorgeous backdrop of the marina and Potomac River views — and plenty of ways to sit back, relax, and enjoy them.
The District Wharf is located between Maine Avenue and the Potomac River from 6th to 10th Streets SW. Admission is free.
Winterfest, the Nationals’ event of the offseason, will again feature two days of baseball and holiday fun at the Washington Convention Center on December 16 and 17! Open to fans of all ages, guests can enjoy holiday and baseball-themed activities and interactive events, meet and greet their favorite Nationals player and coaches, take a photo with Santa and the Racing Presidents, enjoy their favorite ballpark concession, tackle any last-minute holiday shopping, and much more!
Activities for younger fans include:
· Clinics with Nationals players and coaches
· Home Run Derby viewing, featuring the Nationals mascots
· Snow fort building
· The steal home challenge and batting practice
· A winter or baseball-themed story read by a Nationals player
· Kids Press Conferences
· Sign ups for 2018 season Jr. Nats Kids Club memberships
· Rides down The Slider, a giant slide reminiscent of a sledding hill
· The “Video Pitch,” where fans can give virtual batters their best pitch
2016 Nationals Winterfest
Tickets may be purchased in advance ($39/adult, $25/child, free for children 2 and under) with prices increasing at the door. Once inside, all attractions are free of charge (except purchasing items such as merchandise, food, and beverage). Tickets must be purchased separately to each individual day. You can also try to win tickets for the whole family through the giveaway below!
* * * * *
Giveaway: For a chance to win five tickets (2 adult, 3 children) to Nationals Winterfest for Saturday, December 16, 2017, simply leave a comment below telling me your favorite Nats player. Get an extra chance to win by entering on the KidFriendly DC Facebook Page, too! This giveaway will run through December, 12, 2017, then a winner will be drawn at random and notified shortly thereafter. Good luck!