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.
“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.
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:
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:
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.
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.
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.
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.)