Washington, D.C., is filled with attractions for kids, but it's not surprising that munchkins can grow frustrated in museums. When big people press in front of them, derrieres may be all that's recollected by those under 4 feet tall. Knowing this, museum curators are catering to the needs of their youngest visitors (tomorrow's benefactors). Here are a handful of our favorite kid-friendly museums and exhibits -- most of which are free.
National Building Museum (401 F Street NW; tel. 202/272-2448; www.nbm.org) Metro: Judiciary Square; free museum admission; $5 per person for the Lego exhibit. Open: Mon.-Sat. 10am-5pm, Sun. 11am-5 pm
The National Building Museum displays models of architectural marvels, such as the Empire State Building, Sears Tower, and Dubai's Burj Khalifa (currently the tallest building in the world). Professional architect Adam Reed Tucker used ordinary Legos to assemble these iconic structures. At work stations next door, would-be Frank Lloyd Wrights can fashion their own Lego skyscrapers, condos, and houses -- and then display them for future visitors to see. The adjacent museum shop sells Lego kits of the White House and other D.C. landmarks.
Smithsonian American Art Museum (8th and F St. NW; tel. 202/633-1000; www.americanart.si.edu) Metro: Gallery Place; free admission. Open: Daily 11:30am-7pm
At the Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM), the Normal Rockwell paintings and drawings in "Telling Stories" are hung so kids can appreciate them. The exhibition connects everyday American life with the movies -- not surprising since the works are from the collections of Steven Spielberg and George Lucas. A Rockwell activity cart, (with hands-on activities) will be manned for the duration of the show, which runs through Sept. 4, 2011. Note: Unlike other Smithsonian museums, this one opens at 11:30am.
National Aquarium (in Department of Commerce building, lower level; 14th St. at Pennsylvania Ave.; tel. 202/482-2825; www.nationalaquarium.com) Admission: $9 for adults, $4 for kids ages 3-11. Metro: Federal Triangle. Open: Daily 9am-5pm; closed major holidays.
The National Aquarium, the nation's oldest aquarium, had an extreme makeover a few years ago. Three cheers for the aquarium's new-and-improved face. Children can inspect assorted tanks filled with 200 species of fresh- and- saltwater inhabitants, including an American Alligator, Longsnout Seahorse, Spotted Moray Eel, Freshwater Stingray, Giant Pacific Octopus (homely but a master at camouflage), and piranha. Observe them at lunch, served fashionably late at 2pm daily. (See the website for the schedule).
National Museum of Natural History (10th St. and Constitution Ave. NW; 2nd entrance at Madison Dr.; tel. 202/633-1000; www.nmnh.si.edu) Metro: Smithsonian or Federal Triangle; free admission. Open daily 10am-5:30pm; closed Dec. 25.
The National Museum of Natural History garners high -- and well-deserved -- marks from kids of all ages. Start by saying hello to the eight-ton African Bush Elephant in the rotunda (a longtime symbol of this museum), then check out the Right Whale (there is no left), suspended from the ceiling in the Sant Ocean Hall. In the wild, this mammal can weigh in at 100 tons; that's a lot of blubber. In Dinosaur Hall, children can go eye to eye with stegosaurus and triceratops skeletons and look up at Quetzalcoatlus, the huge flying reptile suspended from the ceiling. Nearby they can meet the tarantulas and hissing cockroaches, and crawl through a replica of a termites' mound in the O. Orkin Insect Zoo. Discover Stations, set up mid-day throughout the museum, invite kids to touch, ask and experience.
National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden (Constitution Ave. and 7th St. NW; tel. 202/737-4215; www.nga.gov). Free admission. Open daily (Memorial Day to Labor Day, Mon.-Sat. 10am to dusk, Sun. 11am-7pm. Call or check website for Sept.-May hours)
The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden is an ideal place to stop between museums. It's also where kids can exercise their creativity. Most youngsters gravitate to the 17 larger-than-life, colorful, whimsical (and sometimes inscrutable) objects by some of the world's best-known sculptors. Take Claes Oldenburg's giant Typewriter Eraser which my granddaughter Jaymie, at 3, described as a "bagel with hair." I'll bet Calder's Red Horse and the Louise Bourgeois Spider set their tongues to wagging. Refuel at the Pavilion Café (tel. 202-289-3360; www.pavilioncafe.com) set in greenery and overlooking a large reflecting pool.
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