News & Politics

Kid-Tested Terrain in Museums

Museums can be as family-friendly as summer camp

Of all the kid-tested areas to visit, the National Zoo is a guaranteed pleaser. Photography courtesy of Shutterstock.

Last summer my friend Joanie and I, our five rambunctious kids in tow, were asked to leave the Smithsonian American Art Museum about an hour into our visit. Its big paintings, lifelike sculptures, and dizzying video installations begged for too much up-close exploration by our kids.

The security guard who broke the news was polite—she even smiled—when she explained that she had “received word from upstairs” that things had gotten a bit too rowdy and we had to go. Wasting no time, she walked us to the museum’s revolving door, which our kids spun through a couple of extra times before we hit F Street.

We shrugged off the embarrassment, regrouped, and vowed to stick to more kid-friendly outings. They do exist, says Amy Miller, editor of Our Kids, a weekly e-newsletter detailing area activities for kids and parents. “Most museums have family-friendly offerings throughout the year,” she said. “Even the ones you might think are ‘hands off.’ ”

In fact, even the Smithsonian American Art Museum, which had literally showed us the door, hosts special family programs.

One of my favorite places for kids, the Capital Children’s Museum, closed in 2004 and is planning to reopen as the National Children’s Museum in Southwest DC in 2009. In the meantime, there are dozens of other great places to explore. Here’s a handful, many of them free, that have been thoroughly kid-tested.

The National Zoo: For summer fun, shake the kids awake and hit the zoo early before the crowds and heat. Gates open at 6 am, and on the hottest days, early hours are when most animals are active. Snore & Roar, popular summertime campouts, includes flashlight-led tours ( Sunset Serenades are free summer concerts where folks of all ages picnic and boogie on Lion/Tiger Hill: Thursday nights from 6:30 to 8 pm, June 28 through August 2.

Maryland Science Center: This big Baltimore destination invites kids to play in, touch, and explore all of its exhibits including the popular “Your Body,” where kids can stand inside a giant beating heart and breathing lungs. Bubble Days, July 14 and 15, feature a “bubble artist,” bubble-blowing contests, and more. August 11 and 12 bring Backyard Science Days, an outdoor science experiment extravaganza.

George Washington’s Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens: The 50-acre site includes Washington’s mansion, slave quarters, stables, greenhouse, and farm. An education center holds daily movies, lectures, and a “Hands-On History” children’s exhibit. Plan your visit around the crowds: April 1 through August 31, gates are open 8 to 5. Leashed dogs welcome. In the spring and summer, Tuesday through Sunday, visitors can buy tickets at the main gate for 45-minute Potomac River sightseeing cruises.

National Gallery of Art: DC’s premier art collection has plenty to interest kids, especially among the more modern offerings in the east wing—think Rothko, Pollock, Calder. Free children’s films are shown regularly in the East Building Auditorium. The museum has a full roster of children’s activities this summer, including tours and art projects; online registration is needed for some. Check for schedule of events.

Smithsonian American Art Museum: This renovated museum holds a family program, titled “SAAM I Am,” one Saturday a month. On July 7, from noon to 2, players from the Nationals will read a baseball-themed book and lead a scavenger hunt, which will incorporate Morris Kantor’s 1934 oil painting “Baseball at Night.” On August 18 from 1 to 4, kids can take in the museum’s “Earl Cunningham’s America” exhibit, which includes an array of boats and other features of American coastal life, then create their own ships-in-a-bottle.

Discovery Creek Children’s Museum at Glen Echo Park: This small, nature-themed museum offers family activities on weekends throughout the year. Within the museum there are crafts, story times, and animal encounters led by the museum’s young, knowledgeable staff. Kids are also free to explore the museum’s garden and sandpit, climb its pint-size climbing wall (open the first weekend of every month), and hike to nearby Minnehaha Creek. Daily schedule posted online and outside the museum.

National Museum of the American Indian: This beautiful museum can seem a bit flat for small kids unless you plan your visit to coincide with some of its terrific concerts, dances, storytellings, or family programs. NMAI’s Family Guide, available at the welcome desk, highlights its kid-friendly offerings. Not to be missed is the Mitsitam Native Foods Café; my kids are crazy for the fry bread. Summer highlights include free concerts of native music from throughout the Americas at the museum’s outdoor plaza—June 2 through September 15—and NMAI’s National Powwow, a three-day dance and drum competition held August 10 to 12 at Verizon Center.

College Park Aviation Museum: Housed in the world’s longest continuously operating airport, this hands-on museum is smaller and less crowded than the National Air and Space Museum. Even better, most of its exhibits are aimed at kids. Exhibits and activities change monthly, but there’s twice-yearly model-airplane and kite making. The Prop Shop features aviation-themed games, toys, and books.

National Aquarium in Baltimore: The aquarium is always a crowd pleaser, but those crowds can be overwhelming; try to steer clear of weekends and prime visiting hours, 11 to 3. In summer months, the aquarium offers behind-the-scenes tours and overnight camp­outs with a shark or rainforest theme.