History | Culture | Science | Adventure | Art | and of course the National Zoo

By Eileen Ogintz
Tribune Content Agency
Taking the Kids

The next time you visit Washington, D.C., say a big thank you to James Smithson.

Who? The British scientist never even visited the United States, but when he died in 1829, he left a huge pot of gold to establish a museum here to increase knowledge. It took Congress 15 years to accept the gift.

Today, of course the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s largest museum, education and research complex, including 19 museums and the National Zoo and Conservation Biology Institute where even though the pandas have gone home to China, there are some 2,200 animals to see.

Smithsonian Castle Washington DC
The Smithsonian Castle in Washington DC

One of the best parts: All the museums are free, though you may need timed- entry passes. Plan your visit at the Virtual Visitor Center. (Check the Washington, D.C., official tourist site for 100+ free activities while visiting.)

The Smithsonian museums include the National Museum of African American History and Culture (fondly known as the Blacksonian), the National Air and Space Museum (the world’s premier collection of air and space artifacts), the National Museum of American History (the original Star Spangled Banner and the Muppets!) and the National Museum of Natural History (mummies and the Orkin Insect Zoo).

Let’s not forget the National Portrait Gallery where you can see the nation’s only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House, including the Obama portraits and portrait discovery kits for kids.

The National Postal Museum boasts three vintage mail planes, a stagecoach, a replica of a railway car and the world’s largest stamp gallery where kids can create a virtual stamp collection and design their own stamps.

Families love the outdoor sculpture garden at the Hirshhorn Museum, which features modern and contemporary art. Check out the guide for visiting with kids and the Hirshhorn Kids Programs.

National Museum of African American History and Culture.
National Museum of African American History and Culture.

Every museum has terrific in-person and online programs for kids, including Discovery Stations at the Air and Space Museum, American History Museum, Spark! Lab with hands-on activities that connect to the museum’s collections, and the Wegmans Wonderplace for the youngest visitors.

There are also a lot of online activities. Download the National Museum of African American History and Culture’s Joyful ABC activity booklets for young children. Make your own art-making robot with ArtBots! Put together digital jigsaw puzzles or download Inspiration Nation, a 40- page activity guide that includes experiments and activities. Make a summer road trip guide.

It’s always wise to take a digital tour before visiting to help the family decide their “must sees.” And if you have different-aged kids (and enough adults) don’t be afraid to divide and conquer. When the kids get tired, take a break. The National Mall is right outside and there are typically plenty of food trucks. (My Kid’s Guide to Washington, DC, now in its third edition, can help you plan.)

Kids Guide DC 3e Cover
The Kids Guide to Washington DC by Eileen Ogintz

Listen to the Smithsonian’s flagship podcast on your way to learn the stories you won’t find anywhere else.

If the kids are captivated by an exhibit, take the time to explore, even if it means limiting time elsewhere. You want them to be engaged. You’ll invariably learn something new too!

Be forewarned that the museums have big souvenir shops packed with tempting choices. Your purchase helps support the museums. Still, have a conversation with the kids before you visit – do they want a big souvenir or something small (say a keychain, patch, or sticker). How much money can they spend? Do they want to spend their souvenir money in one place? Do they want you to buy something for the family? Perhaps a puzzle, a game, or a holiday ornament?

Check what special festivals and programs will be ongoing when you visit and download special family guides. For example, the 2024 Smithsonian Folklife Festival will take place on the National Mall June 26 to July 1 with the program Indigenous Voices of the Americas: Celebrating the National Museum of the American Indian. There will be indigenous artists, professional chefs, home cooks, dancers, athletes, and storytellers. Learn stories that underlie indigenous sports and games and how indigenous youth are reclaiming their languages through hip-hop. Have you ever tried Three Sisters, a dish of beans, corn, and squash?

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.
Smithsonian Museum of Natural History.

There are more Smithsonian museums in the works including the Smithsonian American Women’s History Museum and the National Museum of the American Latino. Two more Smithsonian museums, the National Museum of the American Indian and the Cooper Hewitt, Smithsonian Design Museum are located in New York City; and the Steven F. Udar-Hazy Center aviation museum, an annex to the National Air and Space Museum, is located in Chantilly, Virginia, south of Washington Dulles International Airport.

According to the Smithsonian experts, kids especially like Really BIG Money at the American History Museum which displays money that is large in size, quantity, and denomination. Think German billion-mark banknotes or the long tail feathers of the quetzal bird. There are also interactive activities.

Another popular exhibit is Sports: Leveling the Playing Field at the National Museum of African American History and Culture. This is the place to learn about the contributions of African American athletes on and off the field and their struggles to be accepted. There are trophies, sports equipment, playbooks, even a robe worn by Muhammad Ali and the track shoes and gold medals of Carl Lewis.

Dino aficionados will love the David H. Koch Hall of Fossils-Deep Time at the Natural History Museum. The museum has a collection of 46 million fossils and explains the most current scientific research on how life on Earth has evolved and how dinosaurs and other extinct creatures lived in changing environments. This is a great place to discuss global warming and what we can do to be stewards of the environment. While at the National History Museum, don’t miss the giant (52-foot-long mega-toothed shark, another kids’ favorite.

Young artists (ages 18 months to 8) won’t want to leave Explore! At the National Portrait Gallery. Here’s the place for them to pose for a video art piece, build faces out of illustrated blocks or trace a silhouette.

Also, for the youngest museum goers visiting Wegmans Wonderplace at the National Museum of American History, kids can “cook” their way through a kid-sized Julia Child’s kitchen, find owls hiding in the Smithsonian Castle or captain a tugboat based on one in the museum collections. It’s as much fun for parents as kids.

The key: Let kids lead the way!

(For more Taking the Kids, visit www.takingthekids.com and also follow TakingTheKids on Twitter, Facebook and Instagram where Eileen Ogintz welcomes your questions and comments. The fourth edition of The Kid’s Guide to New York City and the third edition of The Kid’s Guide to Washington D.C. are the latest in a series of 14 books for kid travelers published by Eileen.)

©2024 Eileen Ogintz. Distributed by Tribune Content Agency, LLC