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Saturday
Nov212009

National Museum of Natural History - for kids

Sure, we all love letting our imaginations go wild in the land of dinosaurs, but what if you wish to bring your kids with you?

Just about the only drawback I find visiting the Natural History Museum with kids is, of course, the crowds. A few years ago, a little noticed seismic shift took place along the Mall. Long the reining king of attendance, the Air and Space Museum has been bumped from the top of the list. While Air and Space focused energy and resources on the excellent, if inaccessible Udvar-Hazy Annex, the Natural History Museum has steadily and creatively reworked it's offerings and is now securely on top.

Kudos to them, but the 800,000 more visitors Natural History receives each year will all be in front of you when you're trying to snap a picture of the Hope Diamond. Even my beloved and deserted Western Cultures exhibit has its share of visitors tramping through nowadays disturbing my rest. So it's critical for all of us, and especially those of us with kids, to have a bit of a plan before visiting the Museum, especially if you've blown me off and come in the Spring and Summer.

Let's acquaint ourselves with the physical layout of the place. Assuming you're coming in from the Mall entrance, you will find yourself in the Rotunda. If you are confused about whether the room you are in is the Rotunda or not, look around for an African Elephant. No elephant, it's not the Rotunda. While not exhaustive, I break the main floor into three groups: the Dinosaurs and Early Mammals towards your right, the Mammals towards your left, and the brand spanking new Ocean exhibit directly ahead. These exhibits will draw most visitors and be prepared to be jostled and crowded in them during peak times, especially the Dinosaurs. These exhibits are great, and worthy of a visit, but the following are the places I find give me the most bang for my buck with my kids:

  1. The Discovery Room: It probably goes without saying you'll want to visit here. It's chock full of things to explore, items to try out, artifacts to play with, and outstanding docent and staff members to pull it all together. The only catch is hitting it at the right time. Open time for families is Tuesday-Thursday from noon to 2:30 pm, Friday from 10:30 am to 2:30 pm , and 10:30 am to 3:30 pm on the weekends. They can only handle so many folks at a time, so be prepared for a wait on weekends. Go to the end of the Ocean exhibit and hang a right.
  2. O. Orkin Insect Zoo: On the second floor is the ironically named Orkin Insect Zoo, which is great fun for kids with a, shall we say, adventurous point of view. Not a huge hit with my wife though. I've had fun grossing my daughter out at giant cockroaches and stuff and try to make it for the Tarantula feedings at 10:30 am, 11:30 am, and 1:30 pm, Tuesday through Friday. I presume they simply go hungry on the weekends.
  3. Butterfly Pavilion: If you'd like to explore the more picturesque side of bug life, the Butterfly exhibit is adjacent to the Insect Zoo. While a portion of the exhibit is free (and all of it is on Tuesdays), I'd recommend blowing $6 ($5 for kids), and visiting the live butterfly room, where you might just get a chance to have a butterfly land on you. You may also want to book the ticket in advance on line, especially if it's the busy time of the year.
  4. Written in Bone: I've discussed this exhibit more fully earlier, but I've got to say that the Forensic Anthropology Lab is great for kids of all ages. Some parents might not think that helping a four year old put together a skeleton is developmentally appropriate, but give it a shot. The Lab is closed Wednesdays, open other weekdays from 1:00 to 5:00 pm, and weekends 11:00 am to 4:00 pm.

No kidding, you could probably spend the better part of the day in this Museum alone, but, as always, I'm a fan of exploring until just before your blow out. And while these may be what I think are the best kid's exhibit at Natural History, they may not be my favorite. My favorite is whichever has the least amount of people there.

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