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As far as I know, Pierre L’Enfant and his successors were not thinking of children when they incorporated the long, open stretch of the Mall into their design for the city. But they may as well have been. This 2-mile expanse of lawn running from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol is a playground, really, and a backyard to the Smithsonian museums and National Gallery of Art, which border it. You can visit any of these sites assured that if one of your little darlings starts to misbehave, you’ll be able to head right out the door to the National Mall, where numerous distractions await. Vendors sell ice cream, soft pretzels, and sodas. Festivals of all sorts take place on a regular basis, whether it’s the busy Smithsonian Folklife Festival for 10 days at the end of June into July, or the Kite Festival in spring. Weather permitting, a 19th-century carousel operates in front of the Arts and Industries Building, on the south side of the Mall. Right across the Mall from the carousel is the children-friendly National Gallery Sculpture Garden, whose shallow pool is good for splashing one’s feet in summer and for ice-skating in winter.

The truth is that many of Washington’s attractions hold various enchantments for children of all ages. It might be easier to point out which ones are not recommended for your youngest: the Supreme Court, the chambers of Congress, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Marian Koshland Science Museum; the International Spy Museum is now recommending that its museum is most suitable for children 10 and over. Generally speaking, the bigger and busier the museum, the better it is for kids.

For more ideas, consult the online or print version of the Friday “Weekend” section of the Washington Post, which lists numerous activities (mostly free) for kids: special museum events, children’s theater, storytelling programs, puppet shows, video-game competitions, and so forth. Call the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre to find out about children’s shows.

Favorite Children's Attractions

Check for special children’s events at museum information desks when you enter. As noted within the listings for individual museums, some children’s programs are also great fun for adults. I recommend the programs at the Folger Shakespeare Library , the Phillips Collection , and the Sackler Gallery  in particular. (The gift shops in most of these museums have wonderful toys and children’s books.) Call ahead to find out what programs are running. Here’s a rundown of great kid-pleasers in town:

  • Madame Tussauds Washington D.C. : There are two kinds of people in this world: those who think wax museums are hokey, and children. Yeah, watch your offspring pretend to sing with Beyoncé, box with Evander Holyfield, stand tall next to George Washington, and whoop it up with Whoopi. Maybe you’ll find your inner child and start loving these wax figures, too.

  • Discovery Theater, inside the S. Dillon Ripley Center : Right next to the Smithsonian Castle is this underground children’s theater that puts on live performing arts entertainment for the kiddies, about 30 productions each season, including puppet shows, storytelling, dances, and plays.

  • National Museum of Crime and Punishment : Your little darlings can pretend to be little Dillingers and test their safecracking skills, or little Eliot Nesses as they learn how to take fingerprints and gather clues. The museum hopes soon to add a special exhibit geared specifically to children 4 and older. Can’t tell you more than that, because I promised to keep a secret.

  • Newseum : Proceed directly to one of two areas: the interactive newsroom on the second floor, where your children will happily, endlessly play computer games while testing their news knowledge and journalism skills, and where they’ll have the chance to play an on-camera reporter; or to the New Media Gallery for similar activities.

  • Lincoln Memorial : Kids know a lot about Lincoln and enjoy visiting his memorial. A special treat is visiting after dark.

  • National Air and Space Museum : Spectacular IMAX films (don’t miss), thrilling flight simulators, planetarium shows, missiles, rockets, and a walk-through orbital workshop.

  • National Museum of American History : Living-history performances and lively musical numbers staged in public areas throughout the museum switch a typical museum visit into something more fun and memorable. And the museum has gotten into simulators, offering rides on machines that make you believe you’re driving a race car or riding on a roller coaster.

  • National Museum of the American Indian : Children, and their parents, too, enjoy themselves in the museum’s imagiNATIONS Activity Center, where visitors learn basket weaving, kayak balancing, and other Native American skills, and play games to discover more about American Indian culture.

  • National Museum of Natural History : A Discovery Room just for youngsters, the Butterfly Pavilion and exhibit, an insect zoo, shrunken heads, dinosaurs, and the IMAX theater showing 2-D and 3-D films.

  • National Zoological Park : Pandas! Cheetahs! Kids always love a zoo, and this is an especially good one.

  • Washington Monument : Spectacular 360-degree views from the center of Washington, D.C.—unbeatable.

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.