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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.

Early Risers?

Zoo grounds open daily at 8am, which might be too early for a lot of tourists, but not for families whose young children like to rise at the crack of dawn. If you find yourselves trapped and restless in the hotel room, hop on the Red Line Metro, which opens at 5am weekdays, 7am Saturday, and 8am Sunday (or drive—the zoo parking lot opens at 8am, too), get off at the Woodley Park–Zoo station, and walk up the hill to the zoo. A Starbucks, which opens at 5:30am weekdays, 6am Saturday and Sunday, is directly across from the zoo’s entrance on Connecticut Avenue. Good morning.

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Favorite Children's Attractions

Check for special children’s events at museum information desks when you enter. I especially recommend a visit to the International Spy Museum for tweens and teens (and adults), for the fun interactive spy adventures; and to the National Building Museum, for kids ages 3 to 11, for the assortment of hands-on building-related activities. Here’s a rundown of overall kid-pleasers in town: 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:

  • Discovery Theater, inside the S. Dillon Ripley Center: Right next to the Smithsonian Castle, this underground children’s theater puts on about 30 productions each season—puppet shows, storytelling, dances, and plays.

  • Lincoln Memorial: Kids know a lot about Lincoln and enjoy visiting his memorial and peering up at his 19-foot statue. A special treat: visiting after dark.
  • 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.
  • National Air and Space Museum: Spectacular IMAX films (don’t miss), planetarium shows, missiles, rockets, and a walk-through orbital workshop.
  • National Museum of American History: This museum’s got all your kids covered: the fabulous Wegmans Wonderplace is a playground for infants to 6-year-olds; the Lemelson Center introduces visitors of all ages to the stories of inventors and inventions (Places of Invention), and invites kids ages 6 to 12, especially, to experiment and test their curiosity with plenty of hands-on activities (Spark!Lab). The museum has also gotten into simulators, offering rides that simulate driving a racecar or riding 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: This is a no-brainer: A Q?rius Jr.  Discovery Room for youngsters, a Butterfly Pavilion, an insect zoo, shrunken heads, tarantula feedings, dinosaurs...
  • National Zoological Park: Pandas! Cheetahs! Kids love zoos, and this is an especially good one.
  • Newseum (closing January of 2020): 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 get the chance to play an on-camera reporter—or to the New Media Gallery for similar activities.
  • Old Post Office Clock Tower: Spectacular 360-degree views from 315 feet up, from the Capitol to the White House, and much of downtown—unbeatable, until the Washington Monument reopens in spring 2019.

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.