Despite having more museums per square mile than anywhere in the country, Washington D.C. doesn’t have a museum dedicated just to kids. In our ongoing survey of the children’s museums of the East Coast, there’s not a single one we can reach by Metro. But that doesn’t mean that there aren’t kid-friendly spaces available. The Smithsonian is working to develop some exhibits that focus on small children, such as the Wegman’s Wonderplace in the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History. On a visit a few weeks ago, we found it to be a cute area for small children, especially in the context of a larger visit to the museum.
Our first pleasant surprise was that while the museum’s website says the area requires timed tickets, they only follow that policy on very busy days. Many days, you can walk right in.
Entering the space, I immediately understood the timed tickets policy – the area is quite small. It’s substantially smaller than a similar space at the National Building Museum and just a fraction of the size of even the smallest childrens’ museums we’ve been to.
Nonetheless, it’s chock-full of good activities for young children. A big toy boat with a climbing structure integrated into it dominates the room. Plenty of kids were clambering all over it, getting out loads of excess energy. It was also a great “pretend play” tool for transportation obsessed kids like mine.
The other big pretend play area is the farm / farmers’ market and adjacent kitchen. At the farm, kids can drop wooden eggs into slots below pretend chickens. With a turn of a crank, you can get a very satisfying “ka-chunk” as the eggs fall down. Crates hold a wealth of plastic vegetables. Kids picked out the vegetables and were hauling around in wire grocery-store baskets. Some were carrying more veggies than they’ve ever eaten in their young lives!
In theory, you could “cook” the food in the miniature model of Julia Child’s kitchen. But not my kid. Although Sprout loves his own toy kitchen, the metal pots and pans were way too tempting to use as instruments. With a small whisk, he turned the whole wall into a drum set. As I had just taken our real whisk away from him that morning (it was getting damaged), I didn’t have the heart to stop him. No one seemed to mind the noise, at least.
Other features of the Wonderplace were particularly helpful for parents with babies. There were a couple of cushioned chairs with a whole basket of Boppy pillows next to them, obviously designed for nursing moms. There was also a tiny space just for crawling little ones. As Little Bird gets antsy if he’s in the carrier or stroller for too long, it was fantastic. I think he drooled on every single thing in there, but they fortunately had a basket of “toys to be disinfected.” There was also a nifty “touch and feel” wall full of door knockers and light switches.
Besides the size, the area’s one weakness surprised me – the lack of connection to the museum’s larger mission of teaching American history. The replica of Julia Child’s kitchen actually provided the most substantial linkage, as the real one resides elsewhere in the museum. There were also some historical toys, old pictures of children, and tips for bringing children to museums. Like a number of things in the Museum – which has the nickname of America’s attic – it was pretty haphazard.
In addition to Wegman’s Wonderplace, the museum has a number of other exhibits of interest to the youngest visitors. Next door, there’s Spark!Lab, a “maker” area for slightly older kids with lots of craft materials.
Among the rest of the museum, Sprout’s favorite part was the transportation section, called America on the Move. He especially liked the wood-fired train and a replica of a Chicago elevated railcar, complete with sound effects and period advertisements.
We also made a point to see a couple of other objects I thought he would appreciate. As he loves pointing out American flags, he found the Star Spangled Banner quite impressive. We also stopped by the Greensboro lunch counter where the first sit-ins of the Civil Rights movement happened. With all of the conversations about civil rights recently, I wanted to introduce him to the concept. After reading the picture book Sit-In, it was really neat to show him the actual physical object.
While we didn’t get there, other kids may be particularly interested in the First Ladies’ Gowns Exhibit. When the pop culture exhibit, which includes Kermit the Frog, reopens, that will definitely be a big draw for kids as well.
Like rummaging around in grandma’s house, the National Museum of American History isn’t the most organized place. Nonetheless, it’s still a fun place for an afternoon with your kids!
For coverage of the other Smithsonians, check out A Preschoolers’ Guide to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History and Very, Very Big Planes: The Udvar-Hazy Center of the Air and Space Museum.