[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).
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.
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.
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.
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.