A Day Out with Thomas at the B&O Railroad Museum

Text: "A Day Out with Thomas at the B&O Railway Museum / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So" Photo: Life-size version of Thomas the Train, with eyes that move.

While Sodor may be a dystopia where no longer “useful” sentient trains are threatened with getting melted down, my kid really, really loves trains. And therefore really, really loves Thomas the Train. So when my mom and dad offered to bring us to the Day Out with Thomas event at the B&O Railway Museum, I knew I couldn’t say no. Which led to us driving through Baltimore and pulling into the museum’s parking lot this past Sunday, ready for a day full of Thomas and his perky train friends.

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Wegman’s Wonderplace Children’s Area at the Smithsonian’s National Museum of American History

Photo: Replica of Julia Child's kitchen as a toy kitchen for children with pots and pans hanging on the wall; Text: "Wegman's Wonderplace at the National Museum of American History / We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

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.

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Just Streetcars: The National Capital Trolley Museum

Photo: A Dutch electric streetcar with a Dutch and American flag on top; Text:

“I love things that drive and move and moons,” Sprout announced to me the other day. When you’ve watched trains and ridden the Metro so many times you’ve lost count, what’s the mom of a transit-loving kid to do? Bring them to the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville, MD!

While the D.C. region has a wealth of museums, none of the others have trolleys (aka streetcars) you can actually ride on. If the idea of a 15-minute trolley ride through the woods doesn’t thrill you, this museum probably isn’t for you.

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A Preschoolers’ Guide to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

A Preschooler's guide to.png

The Smithsonian Museum of Natural History – a national treasure full of priceless specimens and engaging exhibits. But the perspective looks a whole lot different through the eyes of a preschooler, for better or worse. Living near Washington D.C., we make a trip to the museum at least once a year, typically in the coldest doldrums of winter.

Here’s a breakdown of the best and worst of several of the major exhibits, from a preschooler’s and a preschooler’s parent’s points of view:

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9 Things I Learned While Visiting the New York State Museum with a Three-Year-Old


What has luminescent rocks, woolly mammoths and a Native American longhouse? Unless you’re from upstate New York, you probably didn’t answer “The New York State Museum.” But if you did, congrats! This long-standing institution was one of my favorite places as a deeply-nerdy child. We brought Sprout there when he was a mere year and a half old, but he had very limited comprehension of the whole thing. This Christmas vacation, I thought I would give it another try.

Here’s what I learned:

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On the Bus and Down the Rabbit Hole: Philadelphia’s Please Touch Children’s Museum

Photo: Picture of Chesire Cat from Alice in Wonderland and big card; text: "Philadelphia's Please Touch Children's Museum; We'll Eat You Up, We Love You So"

The heavy lion statues in front of the Please Touch Museum in Philadelphia belie the raucous energy of the smallest visitors inside. Visiting Philly for our friends’ wedding, we made a full trip of it and visited both the Liberty Bell and this renowned children’s museum. (We’re working our way through the children’s museums of the Northeast U.S.) Despite some whining, we thoroughly enjoyed ourselves.

The museum is split into several sections, each of which focuses on a childhood theme: transportation, construction, water, fairy tales, and pretending to be an adult.

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From Icebergs to Foam Blocks: The National Building Museum with Kids

From Icebergs to Foam Blocks_ The National Building Museum with Kids

When Chris and I house-sat for a rather eccentric couple several years ago, we routinely got newsletters for the National Building Museum. “Who would go to the National Building Museum?” I’d say. “That sounds incredibly boring.” Eight years later, the answer to that question is “My family.” This past weekend, we escaped the heat by visiting the National Building Museum’s Icebergs exhibit, as well as their Play Work Build and Building Zone areas. Contrary to my initial assessment, the National Building Museum is a great place to bring kids that’s rather different from the usual museum crawl.

The big draw for us this summer was the Icebergs exhibit, one of the museum’s signature summer art events. While it wasn’t as over-the-top as last year’s The Beach – where they covered their massive atrium with one million white balls – it still had some serious grandeur.

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Exploring Wonder at the Renwick Gallery

I’m a fan of “big art” – sculptures that fill entire rooms, take up your entire scope of vision, and make you lose yourself inside of.  So when I heard about the Renwick Gallery’s  Wonder exhibition, I knew we had to go. Nine rooms, each featuring a thematically and physically large piece designed to provoke wonder, hit all of my aesthetic buttons. While bringing a little kid to an art museum is always a bit of a crapshoot, I hoped that Sprout would enjoy it as well.

Arriving at the museum on Saturday, we found that we were in luck – we happened to come on the Smithsonian art museums’ Family Fun Day. While people have generally been welcoming when we’ve brought him to art museums in the past, this just added an extra layer of normalcy and acceptance.

Sculpture made of sticks

From the museum’s formal lobby, we entered the first room, filled with sculptures crafted out of sticks collected from the forest floor. Weaving our way around, it evoked the feeling of being somewhere ancient, hidden and enchanted. It was a fairy tale wonderland, a place where gnomes or huge, intelligent birds might make their home. In fact, we actually used children’s stories to relate it to Sprout. We remarked, “This is what Big Bird’s nest might be like!” and “Doesn’t this remind you of the second house in the Three Little Pigs?” (Although he might not have fully understood the point of that story – he said he would like to live in a house made of sticks. Of course, if they were this lovely, perhaps I would too.)

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Trains, Dance Parties and Veterinarians: The Schenectady Museum of Innovation and Science and the Saratoga Children’s Museum

Spending two weeks with your extended family for the holidays is lovely, but you really need to get out of the house sometimes. That’s why when we were recently in upstate New York, we brought Sprout to not just one, but two different local museums. Unlike the New York State Museum, which was a staple of my childhood, I wasn’t intimately familiar with either of them. Both the Museum of Innovation and Science in Schenectady and the Saratoga Children’s Museum had been completely overhauled since I had visited them, with the Saratoga Children’s Museum moving to an entirely different location altogether. In contrast to sharing my favorite experiences with Sprout, these museums provided chances for us to explore them together.

GE electric car

GE’s all-electric car.

The Museum of Innovation and Science is a bit of an odd duck. Schenectady is home to General Electric’s research division, so it has a deep regional history. In addition to a historical exhibit on important local discoveries, it also featured a large section on MRIs and an all-electric vehicle GE built in the 1970s.

But the museum doesn’t limit itself to its geographic location, touching on space missions, alternative fuels, renewable energy, fluid dynamics, and random “sciency” things like giant Legos. It had some terrific hands-on demonstrations, including ones where you control a mini-tornado and become part of a giant Green wallcircuit. The museum even had one of the very few things I remembered from childhood, a phosphorescent wall that left your shadow “imprinted” on it after you moved away. Sprout seemed to understand why it was neat, but was not impressed enough to stand still for it more than once.
Only one thing and one thing alone seemed to truly impress him – a huge model train exhibit. As the seasonal display, it was prominent at the very start of the museum. Sprout immediately clambered up on one of the stools nearby and watched it intently, as if anything was going to change in the hundreds of times the trains went around the tracks. Model train carnivalAdmittedly, there was plenty to look at. In addition to a normal town setting, there were two carnivals with tiny moving rides, a river with sea monster Champ, an ice skating rink, a train with an aquarium in it, and oddly, an oil refinery.

During our first round of train-watching, he parked himself in front of one of the carnivals, staring at the red and blue trains chugging around. We managed to drag him away to see the other exhibits, but he soon remembered his purpose and literally ran back to the trains. The second time, he practically cemented himself in front of the oil refinery section, a location that baffled and saddened my eco-justice warrior heart. Later on, I figured out that he just really liked watching the trains going in and out of the tunnel, a fact I picked up on after hearing him talk about the tunnel for the 10th time or so. Fhew – parenting crisis averted.

Between the two spots, we spent a full 45 minutes watching the trains go around and around. We tried to talk to Sprout, but the conversation rapidly devolved into him repeating the same observations over and over again. Rather limited subject matter. My mom, ever the extrovert, tried to engage the crusty old volunteer manning the display in conversation. However, he was hilariously uninterested in discussing much of anything, responding with dry, unhelpful, succinct replies.

While the featured exhibit was clearly the star of the Museum of Innovation and Science, we had nearly the opposite experience at the Saratoga Children’s Museum. Sprout was only somewhat interested in the event we went for, but enjoyed the rest of the museum heartily. With our friends unavailable on New Years Eve and no desire to tromp around in the cold, we thought we’d try something more kid-centric. Last year, Chris and Sprout attended a noontime New Years Eve count-down at our local nature center, and enjoyed it a lot.

The Saratoga Children’s Museum’s New Years Eve dance party seemed to fill a similar niche, wrapping up at the terribly late hour of 3 pm. Like any good New Years party, it had music, balloons and funny hats. Sprout gravitated to the crafts table, whereby the magic of glue sticks, glitter, and an enthusiastic toddler turned a mere sheet of construction paper into a big mess. He also wanted one of the golden crowns, which surprised me because he generally doesn’t like hats. It turned out he only liked the idea of it; Chris wore it the rest of the day, jauntily perched upon his head. While we danced a bit to disco music, we mainly threw balloons at each other and played a mini-basketball game. Overall, Sprout was a lot less interested than I thought he would be. He adores dancing at home, but just wasn’t that interested there. (He loves singing at home, but doesn’t sing in music class either, so maybe it’s just a private vs. public preference.) Instead, he wandered out the door after less than a half-hour. On the other hand, he did mention the dance party several other times that day.

Fortunately, there were plenty of other things to do at the museum. The very first thing he headed for was a fake fire engine, which was rather funny considering he refused to get on a real fire truck when visiting the local firehouse the day before. The upstairs also had a play veterinarians’ office, grocery store, bank, school and diner. While Sprout’s little too young to understand the bank and the school was cluttered, the diner and vet’s office were just his speed. He eagerly listened to the stuffed dog’s heart with the stethoscope and stabbed it with the toy needle. While I love that he loves animals, I really hope he doesn’t start asking for a pet!

Downstairs had the ever-popular train table and giant bubble ring, along with some more locally-oriented exhibits. One was a mock-up of the real Congress Park in Saratoga, where Chris and I had our first kiss. Along with a scattering of puppets, the “play version” had animal costumes where kids could pretend to be a bug in an exoskeleton. Sprout was tickled at pulling the sides of the ladybug around him, especially when I put the bug-eye glasses on him.

Trolley ticket boothBut the most unique thing was a large model of the trolleys that used to transport people between Saratoga and neighboring towns. The museum cleverly had a ticket booth with different colored tickets matching your destination. Sprout reveled in sitting in the driver’s seat, taking tickets, turning the wheel and saying “all aboard!” It was challenging coaxing him away from it so other kids could take a turn.

Because I didn’t have a lot of expectations either way, the only disappointing thing about both museums was that my dad couldn’t fully participate. Because of a torn ACL, he didn’t come to the Schenectady museum at all and spent the time at the Saratoga one sitting away from the action. There’s no way in hell he would have danced – my wedding and his own were the rare occasions that happened – but he would have been able to interact more if he wasn’t stuck sitting the whole time. Fortunately, we had a lovely lunch at a nearby restaurant beforehand, so we had quality time together there.

It was good to return home and rediscover some little gems that I would have never gone to as an adult. I’m glad to see the area surrounding my hometown is still serving its youngest residents well!

Up, Down and All Around: Baltimore’s Children’s Museum, Port Discovery

Most museums don’t have multi-floor climbing structures running up their middle. Then again, most museums aren’t designed for patrons under 10 years old. But Port Discovery, the children’s museum in Baltimore, has a great variety of exhibits for kids of all ages. With Chris’s parents in town, we were lucky enough to visit the museum this past weekend.


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