Tag Archives: Washington DC Museums for Kids

Scenes from a Visit to the National Museum of the U.S. Navy


One of the coolest museums in DC is one that many people don’t even know exists.  Located on the Navy base in Southeast DC, the National Museum of the U.S. Navy is a trove of fascinating artifacts, stories, and art that illustrate the history and impact of the Navy over hundreds of years.

I first posted about the Navy Museum nearly a decade ago after Owen and I visited for the first time, calling it a “True Hidden DC Gem — which says a lot, as it’s rare that I use the term “hidden gem”  to describe a place.  (As I explained in this old post several years ago, when I was a writer/editor for a travel company a bunch of years back, it was forbidden — considered too cliché — to use the term.  And it’s a rule that, for the most part, has stuck with me.)

The museum’s location is part of what garners the “hidden gem” designation. Situated on the guarded base, it’s not overtly visible, plus most people just don’t even know it’s there.  I used to recommend it somewhat regularly, but haven’t since pre-Covid, as I wasn’t certain it had reopened.  But now that I know it has, let this be a big endorsement to go.

Our family has been to the museum several times since that first visit, but it had been awhile. I was thinking about it recently, though, as I was reading the novel Great Circle about a 20th-century female aviator.  The Navy and World War II factor into the book, and the museum has a whole WWII exhibit, including old airplanes on display.  Anyway, it was on my mind as I was making plans with a friend in town, trying to decide what to do a Tuesday when most Smithsonians on the Mall are currently closed.  So I confirmed that the Navy Museum was open, and we decided to go.  It’s a nice, easy walk from our house, plus we could get lunch after at The Yards, a short stroll away along the Anacostia Riverwalk Trail, where there are lots of good dining options.

The museum has barely changed since I first wrote about it back in 2012.  It’s all contained in one long hangar-like building, where guns and gun parts were manufactured in the late 19th century.  It had some other uses during WWII and over the years, then became a museum in 1961.  And it’s a fantastic and fascinating one for all ages, kids and adults.

‘The collections within are as striking to view as they are interesting to learn about.  Artifacts on display range from large and small parts of ships to actual weapons used in war to whole submarines to photographs to war memorabilia. Models of all kinds of ships are so intricate, you keep finding new details to examine.  There’s a great exhibit about baseball and its relationship with the Navy.  A few interactive elements like periscopes to peer into for river views outside (you can see the new Fredrick Douglass Memorial Bridge from one!) and control boards with buttons to push and levers to pull add some extra engagement, especially for kids.

I love how major parts of ships are showcased and integrated into the space.  A nearly floor-to-ceiling replica of the USS Constitution fighting top is one of the first sights upon entrance. A hull with cannons extending out of portholes is the wall of a recreated gun deck.  Ship quarterdeck name boards are hung on high beams all around.   Huge guns, life rafts, and other installations are centerpieces of the exhibits.  You used to be able to climb onto some of them and sit in gun seats, but that kind of access is now off limits due to Covid.

A few very important things to know about visiting the National Museum of the U.S. Navy:
* Non-military visitors must enter at 11th & O Streets SE, just before the 11th Street Bridge. Let the guards on duty know why you’re visiting, and they will direct you to the Visitor Center.

* You need a pass to be on base and visit the museum. You can obtain one at the Visitor Center, the small building on your right as you enter the base. Be sure to bring ID, as you will need to show it to get a pass, along with providing fingerprints (it’s a military base). More about that here.

* Note that the Visitor Center is closed on Saturdays, so if you want to visit on the weekend, you must obtain a pass prior to that (again, more here).

* If you drive, look for street parking off of M Street SE in the Navy Yard neighborhood, then walk a few blocks to the entrance.

* Allow for some extra time to get your pass, about 15 minutes.

* The rest of the Navy base is very interesting to tour. Plan for some time to walk around before or after your museum visit.

* DO NOT take any photos of the base outside of the museum! It is not permitted. I learned this the hard way.

A new, bigger, campus-style National Museum of the U.S. Navy is in the works, expected to open in late 2025.  There’s an exhibit showing plans and the progress of it.  Sounds like it won’t be quite as hidden as it is now, but it certainly will still be a gem.

National Museum of the U.S. Navy
Where: Entrance is at 11th & O Streets SE | Navy Yard, DC
When: Monday – Friday, 9am – 4pm & Saturday, 10am – 4pm
Admission: Free

Leave a Comment

Filed under DC, Museums

Mission: Explore the New Spy Museum at L’Enfant Plaza

You never know who’s watching at the International Spy Museum


The International Spy Museum was pretty stealth about the transition to its new location at L’Enfant Plaza. The former venue in Penn Quarter closed at the start of 2019, then seemingly while we weren’t watching… poof! The beautiful, new building was complete and welcoming visitors in July.

Between summer travels then the start of school and a busy fall schedule, we didn’t make it there to check it out until a recent day off from school. But when we finally did visit, it made for a fun and, of course, intriguing outing for Sasha, her friend, and me for a few hours.

The new Spy Museum is much like the old one in that it showcases the fascinating world of espionage, and visitors discover it all on an “undercover mission.” What’s new and different is the breadth of the exhibits that extend to present times and generally cover much more. Not only is the state-of-the-art space twice as big as the old one, there are many more displays, multimedia installations, and interactives that are engaging for a wide range of ages.

Get a secret agent identity

Learn about spies from past times

Apparently, not all vodkas are what they seem…

Once you get your secret identity and watch a short video about being a secret agent, the museum is open to tour on your own throughout the 4th and 5th floors of the building. It starts on the 5th with “Stealing Secrets,” “Making Sense of Secrets,” and “Covert Operations.” There are large installations featuring several spies during different points in history. Exhibitions focus on tools of the trade and what it takes to be a good spy. Some of the updates include exhibits about the capture of Osama Bin Laden, a comparison of Kennedy and Krushchev, and stories about World War II operations. All of them include interactive elements that enhance the exhibits and let visitors put their spy skills to use.

Create a disguise

Craft secret messages

Be part of Operation Neptune Spear, the mission to kill Osama Bin Laden

On the 4th floor, exhibitions include “Spying that Shaped History” and “Uncertain World.” The former illustrates the impact of intelligence on history through a variety of exhibits including some that recreate spy locales from the past, a theater highlighting films about espionage, and underground operations to escape East Berlin. The latter explores modern responses to threats, from interrogation to surveillance, and how they should be handled. A whole exhibit about cyber security is part of this, including an “infinity room” reminded us all of Artechouse.

Watching vintage hidden camera footage (and videoing it on an iPhone)

Infinite cyber

Some of this might sound sophisticated for young museum-goers, but it’s presented in a way that makes it interesting for them with interactive elements like cracking codes, creating digital disguises, games that test their knowledge, and experiences that put them in spy situations. And, yes, they still can crawl through the air duct!

They air duct never gets old

The museum is recommended for ages 9 and up, but I saw children even younger enjoying the hands-on activities with the help of parents. When you go, be sure to exit via the stairway, not the elevator. With glass walls, the atrium-like space offers fantastic views and makes for nice photo ops.

The International Spy Museum is located at L’Enfant Plaza, just south of the Smithsonian Castle, in Southwest DC. Metro is probably the easiest way to get there — the L’Enfant Plaza stop is on the Blue/Orange and Yellow/Green lines. Hours are 10am – 6pm daily. Admission is $24.95/age 13+, $14.95/7-12, free for ages 6 and under. You can save $2 on adult admission when you purchase online.


Leave a Comment

Filed under All ages, DC, Educational, Exhibit, Museums, Weekdays, Weekend

Play & Learn Through American History at Wegmans Wonderplace

Climb aboard for some fun in Wegmans Wonderplace

Climb aboard for some fun in Wegmans Wonderplace

Parents with little ones, take note: The new Wegmans Wonderplace at the National Museum of American History should be among your go-to places to take your babe to play. Designed especially for children 0-6 years old, the activity center in the recently opened Innovation Wing incorporates play and learning in the museum’s context with fun and interesting features that cater to curious young visitors as well as their accompanying adults.


My kids are too old for it now, but it’s exactly the kind of place I sought out in their early years. (I know this from joining a friend and her 4-year-old on a recent visit there.) As the museum puts it, “Wonderplace is built around the enduring wonders of childhood, the things kids are naturally curious about — blocks, animals, sounds — and branches out to make connections to the museum’s diverse collections and exhibitions.”

Active play in the museum

Active play in the museum

Taking the wheel of the boat

Taking the wheel of the boat

What's for dinner, Stig?

What’s for dinner, Stig?

They achieve this with a variety of exhibits that appeal to little guests with hands-on activities, active fun, and pretend play opportunities. A big boat in the middle of the room welcomes children to climb aboard, slide down, and drive. There’s a market to shop for veggies, and a kitchen where they can use them to prepare a meal. A farm area lets them collect eggs from chickens, and a corner dedicated to blocks and building encourages them to use their imaginations to create all kinds of structures. A wall of full of framed portraits shows how history is the story of people. And throughout the space are items from the museum’s collections on display that relate to the exhibits.

The blocks station is a must-play

The blocks station is a must-play

Down on the farm

Down on the farm

A nice feature at the stations are panels that explain the connection of the activities to both the museum and childrens’ learning, plus tips for parents on ways to explore them at varying stages — infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. And all of the exhibits are at eye-level for kids, so they can engage completely and comfortably.

The collections section

The collections section

Tips to make the most of your visit

Tips to make the most of your visit

These are among many thoughtful details that parents can appreciate. Some others are boppy pillows in the reading area for nursing moms, a crawling area for babies with soft toys and a low-hung mirror, and a restroom within the space that includes a changing table and child-sized toilet. And enthusiastic museum staff are on hand to answer questions and occasionally jump in with helpful suggestions for both adults and children.

Room for reading, nursing... and snuggling

Room for reading, nursing… and snuggling

Take your own portrait

Take your own portrait

When I asked my friend, Jody, what she and her son thought of Wegmans Wonderplace, she said, “I think the fact that I had to drag him out of there speaks volumes!” She noted that the mix of activities kept him occupied for a full two hours and also pointed out that the location inside the American History Museum is a bonus “because it gives some good variety in the outing for grownups, as opposed to trucking to a play zone place just for that purpose.”

All kinds of building materials in the blocks area

All kinds of building materials in the blocks area

A great point, indeed! You can extend your visit beyond Wegmans Wonderplace and explore other parts of the museum that young children enjoy, like some of the displays in the Innovation Wing and America on the Move, where they can sit on an L train car and gawk at other vehicles. And the newly renovated Spark!Lab is adjacent, but generally geared toward older kids. (That’s also good to keep in mind…while Wonderplace is supposed to be for ages 0-6, I thought it seemed like 4 and under would enjoy it best. But you can always bring your 5/6-year-old, and move to the Spark!Lab next door if they seem too old.)

A little marble run fun in the Spark!Lab

A little marble run fun in the Spark!Lab

And did I mention that it’s all free? That’s right, like many Smithsonian gems, there is no entrance fee. There’s a chance of a short wait if it happens to be crowded, but you have a whole museum to explore until it’s your turn to go in.

Wegmans Wonderplace is located on the First Floor West of the American History Museum (14th & Constitution NW). It’s open every day except Tuesdays and December 25 from 10am – 4pm. Admission, as mentioned, is free. There is street parking nearby, and you can probably find a close spot on a weekday, but weekends will be more challenging. The nearest Metro station is the Smithsonian stop, just across the National Mall at 12th and Independence SW.


Filed under Babies, DC, Educational, Exhibit, Free, Indoor Play, Museums, Preschoolers, Toddlers, Weekdays, Weekend

Where to Play on the Weekdays: June 23-27

Prepare to be fascinated at the Maryland Science Center

Prepare to be fascinated at the Maryland Science Center


Monday – DC public pools and spray parks are now open daily! Jump in or splash around for free (or a small fee in you’re not a DC resident). Check the DC DPR website for locations and hours — find pools here and spray parks here.

Tuesday – Enjoy a flick for a buck with the Regal Summer Movie Express. At participating Regal theaters, you can catch a family movie for just a $1 every Tuesday (and Wednesday) at 10am. Visit the website to find a theater near you and see what’s playing this week.

Wednesday – Make your way up to Baltimore to visit the Maryland Science Center, where your crew can explore a variety of fun and fascinating hands-on exhibits, play in the Kids Room, see an IMAX movie, and more. Hours are 10am – 6pm. Admission is $18.95/adults and $15.95/ages 3+, free for 2 and under. Younger children might prefer Port Discovery, Charm City’s other fantastic children’s museum with multiple levels of interactive fun. Even better, Goldstar has a great discount on tickets for all dates through the end of this month!

Thursday – Be hugely entertainment at Imagination Stage where The BFG is opening this week. The production will run through August 10. Tickets start at $10.

Friday – Spend the day at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival where the annual celebration of living cultural heritage is full of activities, performances, demos, and much more from June 25-39 and July 2-6. Enjoy it from 11am – 5:30pm each day. Admission is free.

Leave a Comment

Filed under All ages, Annual, DC, Educational, Exhibit, Festival, Free, Live Entertainment, Maryland, Movies, Museums, Seasonal, Summer, Theatre, Virginia, Weekdays

Where to Play on the Weekdays: June 24-28

Go big at the Maryland Science Center.

Go big at the Maryland Science Center.

Monday – Discover the history of flight at the College Park Aviation Museum. Guests can view early airplanes up close, dress up like aviators, create flight-inspired art, and more. Keep an eye on the runway right outside the floor-to-ceiling windows — you might see planes take off and land at the College Park Airport, the oldest continuously operating airport in the world! Open daily 10am – 5pm. Admission is $4/adults, $2/children, free for ages 2 and under.

Tuesday – Beat the heat for a buck with the Regal Summer Movie Express. At participating Regal theaters, you can catch a family movie for just a $1 every Tuesday (and Wednesday) at 10am. Visit the website to find a theater near you and see what’s playing this week.

Wednesday – Fly to Neverland at Imagination Stage where Peter Pan & Wendy will be entertaining audiences through early August. Showtime is 10:30am, and tickets start at $10.

Thursday – Make your way up to Baltimore to visit the Maryland Science Center, where your crew can explore a variety of fun and fascinating hands-on exhibits, play in the Kids Room, see an IMAX movie, and more. Hours are 10am – 6pm. Admission is $16.95/adults, $13.95/ages 3+, free for 2 and under.

Friday – Splash, slide, swim, and have a blast at a water park! All of the local parks are now open for the season, and there are several throughout the area — the 2013 Summer Guide has a list of and links to all of them.

Leave a Comment

Filed under All ages, DC, Educational, Exhibit, Free, Indoor Play, Live Entertainment, Maryland, Movies, Museums, Outdoor, Park, Seasonal, Summer, Theatre, Virginia, Weekdays