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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A Preschoolers’ Guide to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History

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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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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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Very, Very Big Planes: The Udvar-Hazy Center of the Air and Space Museum

“Big planes fun,” was Sprout’s assessment of our latest outing. Big is a bit of an understatement – one of the aforementioned planes was the space shuttle Discovery – but he has a limited vocabulary. Nonetheless, he definitely expressed enthusiasm when we visited the Udvar-Hazy Center of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space Museum in Virginia this past weekend with old friends of mine and their son.

We weren’t planning on visiting the Air and Space Museum this weekend, but when I saw on Facebook that my friends Greg and Laura were visiting D.C., I had to reach out. Because their son – who just graduated kindergarten – is really into planes, they planned on hitting up both of the Smithsonian’s Air and Space museums. 

While the one on the Mall is more well-known and receives more visitors, the one in Virginia is better. It houses the “big planes” that can’t fit in the smaller facility. When NASA retired the space shuttle program, the museum actually replaced its test shuttle with one that’s actually gone to space. I teased Greg and Laura, who live in New York City, that they have the hand-me-down, as NYC now hosts the test shuttle previously at the D.C. museum.

Front on photo of the Space Shuttle Discovery in front of an American flag

The Discovery Space Shuttle

I don’t think Sprout comprehended what the shuttle was, but he was definitely impressed by it. Up close, the size alone is pretty overwhelming. We tried to explain it had been up with the moon and stars, but I suspect that was lost on him. However, he at least seemed to understand when we said fire came out the back of it. Personally, one of my favorite things about it is the scars from actually being in space. Its panels that protected the astronauts from radiation are faded gray and even white in places, compared to the shiny black of the test shuttle.

After the shuttle, my friends’ son wandered over to the military planes, which held zero interest for Sprout. I think they’re fascinating for older kids with some sense of history, but they don’t have the inherent “wow” factor of some of the largest exhibits. I tried to explain the Blackbird spy plane, which is virtually undetectable by radar, to him. Unfortunately, I think my explanation of what a spy plane is translated into what a toddler can understand came out pretty garbled.

The Blackbird spy plane

In our quick survey of the museum’s exhibits, the next stop was the Concorde, one of the fastest commercial passenger planes ever flown. In past visits, I’ve spent hours stopping at each placard, reading the details carefully. With a small, continuously moving person tugging on my hand, no such luck. This child can stand still for 10 minutes waiting to “watch trains” in the heat without complaint, but can’t wait for 30 seconds for me to read something. He had company on that front though. My friends’ son doesn’t read yet either (or at least enough to understand museum displays), so once he looked at a plane, he charged ahead. I barely had time to provide another brief description of the Concorde – confounded by “accuracy” and “details” by Greg, the engineer of the group – before moving on.

Taking a glass elevator up to a wide catwalk offered an alternative view of the planes, many of which were hanging from the ceiling. We spotted a few “baby planes,” one-seater recreational flying machines that looked more like toys than aircraft. They looked scaled to our kids’ size, but way too dangerous. Those would make me a literal helicopter mom.

We wrapped up the tour with an IMAX movie, in the museum’s theater that actually has a curved screen, not just a flat one. To add to the awesome, the movie, titled Journey to Space, was about the space shuttle program and narrated by Patrick Stewart. A nerderiffic trifecta. While we weren’t sure how well Sprout would do, we figured we’d bail at the first sign of antsiness. We didn’t want a repeat of the Monkey Kingdom incident.

But we didn’t need to wonder. Sprout was transfixed the entire time, hardly wiggling at all. The only time he took his eyes off the screen was when they showed the shuttle taking off, which was very loud. When he heard it, he’d turn around in my lap and wrap his arms around me. Then he’d turn his head slowly back towards the screen, definitely interested but a little unnerved. I loved watching how his curiosity overcame his fear. I also loved that I was able to watch the film withour interuption, as it had a lot of imagery of space and great interviews with astronauts.

Before returning home for naptime, we all ate together in the cafeteria. Unfortunately, McDonalds runs the food service for both Air and Space Museums. I had the foresight to purchase sandwiches earlier, but not quite enough to realize that I either should have brought a way to keep them cold or bought ones that didn’t need it in the first place. No one seemed to get sick, but next time, we’re packing PB&J.

The nice thing about getting everyone sitting in one location was that I actually got to talk to my friends. In the museum itself, we were following our respective children, not wanting to restrict their spirit of exploration but also not wanting to lose them. Sitting down and eating, it was s lot easier to keep an rye on them while also having a conversation. Greg and Laura are actually some of my oldest friends, who I first met in junior high and then became friends with again in college. I visited them in New York City when I did the Climate Ride and it was amazing to realize how much things had changed since then. Between the two couples, we’ve had a kid, moved houses and changed jobs multiple times. While I see what’s going on with them a little via Facebook, it was good to connect in person. I love my friends in D.C., but there’s something special about moving through the phases of life in parallel with people you have known for a very long time. I wish our family didn’t have to go home so soon, but tired toddlers are cranky toddlers.

Old friends, little kids and big planes turned out to be a pretty good combination.

Bringing Peru to the National Mall: The Smithsonian Folklife Festival

Every year, the Smithsonian brings a little piece of somewhere else in the wide world to the National Mall. Although not well-known by tourists, the Smithsonian Folklife Festival is a fantastic event that I always look forward to attending. This year, the Festival focused on Peru, making for a slightly surreal but very satisfying experience, considering I traveled there just a few years ago.

While seeing my personal experiences laid out as exhibits was odd, I was so glad I could share them in a concrete way with Sprout. One of the main tents focused on the highland Peruvians’ yarn-dying and weaving traditions. On our trip, we visited a mountain village, where we saw the women making elaborately patterned scarves and blankets with traditional tools. I still have a scarf I bought there, made of intertwining strands of pink and blue llama wool. At the Festival, they had a more modern version of the set-up, using a portable stove. Inside stainless steel pots, red dye bubbled and produced billows of steam. Sprout loved looking into the pots, feeling the heat and smelling the odd odor of cochineal, a bug used to make brilliant red dye.

Photo of dancers in full costume and masks waiting to parade as part of the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen de Paurcartambo

I forgot to take a photo at the Folklife Festival, so here’s an actual photo from our trip.

Similarly, there was a whole tent devoted to the Fiesta de la Virgen del Carmen de Paurcartambo, an amazing festival that we happened to attend through happy coincidence on our way into the Amazon basin. I had never heard of it before our trip; now I was reading a plaque about it on the National Mall! The costumes used in the festival are all bright colors contrasted with black, topped by detailed, grotesque masks that represent 13 different stories in Peruvian culture. Seeing the masks brought back memories of the little convenience store selling cheap plastic versions and the energetic dancers winding down the cobblestone street. Even though we didn’t get to see a dance demonstration, Sprout liked the bird-headed costume, probably because it was pretty obvious what it was.

Other tents highlighted parts of Peruvian culture we completely missed on our trip. Neon-colored posters with elaborately swirly writing were familiar to me, but until then I didn’t realize they were part of a specific art form called Chicha silk-screening that emerged from Cumbia amazónica concert posters. Nearby, an artist was filling in a giant version of the word Liberte over purposely painted graffiti on a huge wall. Afro-Peruvian music provided a soundtrack that I grooved to with Sprout hauled up on my shoulders. A radical radio station that promotes social justice issues in the context of native groups broadcast in both Spanish and English in the next tent over. Seeing the broad array of cultural and political diversity of the country that filled in some gaps in our trip made me value it all the more.

While we had little chance to talk to the people (I had to get back to work), one of the things I like the best about the Folklife Festival is that the staff members are actually from the country and culture being highlighted. They actively choose to share their lived experiences, both the positives and negatives. Unlike some exhibits that put cultures in a convenient little box, the Folklife Festival doesn’t shy away from the economic, social and cultural challenges people face. It also allows real conversations to take place, a cultural exchange that is often very difficult for people who face financial or other barriers to foreign travel. At a previous Festival, I chatted with a Welshman about the political aspects of my favorite band, who are from Wales. As I want Sprout to be exposed to a variety of people’s experiences and backgrounds, the Festival offers a unique opportunity to do so each year. Lastly, it offers an “in” to improve our understanding of our own community. We have a number of South American immigrants in our area, many of them from Peru. At our town’s Memorial Day parade, we saw groups wearing costumes very similar to those we saw on our trip and at the Festival. Whereas I would have just seen them as pretty costumes before, after our trip, I better understood their cultural context.

I wish I could have stayed longer and seen all of the exhibits, talk to the man fixing his fishing net or caught a dance demonstration, but I was so glad we could bring Sprout to the Folklife Festival. It was a really good reminder of why I love living close to the Nation’s Capital.

Butterflies, Spiders, and Insects Galore

What could be more beautiful than an iridescent blue butterfly alighting on one’s hand? A lot of things, according to my toddler, and it didn’t even land on him. While I smiled the moment it touched my skin, he shuddered. Fortunately, it flew off before he had a more extreme reaction. While the trip to the Smithsonian’s Museum of Natural History’s butterfly exhibit didn’t quite go as planned, it was still worth the trek out in some frigid weather.

The temperature on President’s Day in Washington D.C. was in the single digits. And yet, I knew I needed to get out of the house; cabin fever sets in on me quickly. I had planned to go to the butterfly house for weeks, so I wasn’t going to allow a little chill stop me.

So we bundled up layer upon layer, complete with a fleece blanket over Sprout in his stroller. While we shivered our way to the museum, it turns out that the butterfly exhibit is a great place to visit in the winter. Because many of the butterflies are tropical, the museum has to blast the heat to keep them active. I had to strip off my fleece jacket to keep from sweating.

Entering the exhibit, I expected to set Sprout down and have him hold my hand as we walked. I also expected him to enjoy the butterflies – butterfly is actually one of the few signs he knows. But I underestimated the sensory overload butterflies cause in a toddler. Instead, he just wanted me to carry him the whole time. On my hip, he displayed his typical watchful eye. As I pointed out the flying wonders perched on leaves and flowers, his attention followed. He was like a little field biologist, seemingly making mental notes about all of the things he saw – blue morpho, Viceroys, blue-banded swallowtails. But that interest didn’t dispel his dislike of their unpredictability. The few times butterflies came close to his head, his whole head twitched. I told him several times, “I know they seem scary, but I won’t let them hurt you” and added, “They’re more afraid of you than you are than them” for good measure. That was, until Chris pointed out that insects probably don’t have a sense of fear. Thanks for the scientific insight, honey.

Butterfly at exhibit in Smithsonian Natural History Museum

Sprout seemed to like the hornworm caterpillars better, which looked similar to the eponymous Very Hungry Caterpillar and were safely contained in a glass jar.

In contrast to the seemingly innocuous butterflies, Sprout was much more enamored with a creepier creature – a giant tarantula. Elsewhere in the museum’s insect zoo, a volunteer was feeding the big spiders. Maybe because the fat, happy, fuzzy spider didn’t move or because it was in a box, Sprout had no problem peering in. Guided by the docent, I explained to Sprout that like the character in one of his favorite books, the Very Busy Spider, this spider also builds webs. But instead of building a web on a fence post, tarantulas build webs on the ground and even make little caves to hide in.

Elsewhere, I continued to connect his favorite stories with animals we saw. Pointing to a crab, I said, “It’s like the one in This is Not My Hat, that gives away the hiding place!” Looking at chrysalises, I commented that they were like the little houses that the Hungry Caterpillar and Squiggly Wiggly build for themselves. In the wilderness photography exhibit, he “maaaaed” at a photo of mountain goats that looked just like the Three Billy Goats Gruff. I love drawing those lines between stories and nature, showing him how science and narrative are not separate things.

But his absolute favorite thing in the entire museum was both unexpected and heart-warming – the model of the right whale. As we walked through the Ocean Hall, he stopped, looked up, and started yelping at it in excitement. Hilariously, he was making his “roar” noise at the gentle creature. I suspect he associates roaring with any large animal, whether it’s a lion, dinosaur or whale. As I wanted to be a marine biologist for years before moving towards science communication in general, I adore the fact that of all things, the whale caught his eye. I can’t wait to bring him on a real whale watch.

In the coldest weather, it was great to enter a different, warmer world outside of our house for a little while.