It wasn't always the case; we once had a perfectly serviceable National Children's Museum located on H St Northeast. Unfortunately, the Museum closed; ironically, just as H St started becoming a destination in it's own right, albeit more for its excellent collection of bars and less for visiting families. And please, don't anyone bother to tell me it's reopening in 2013. Not here, it ain't. It'll be in some ridiculous place called "National Harbor", a development that is to urban design what McMansions are to home building and virtually inaccessible without a car.
But I digress. With the abandonment of Washington by the Children's Museum, those of us looking to entertain our kids need a little guidance. As one of our readers, Stacie, asks:
We are visiting DC for 3 days with our children. Wondering about the appropriateness of the museums for that age group (5-10 yrs old). Obviously the Natural History and Air and Space will be great for them...but the others?
Stacie has mentioned two of the kid-friendly museums out there. I'd throw American History, Postal Museum, Portrait Gallery, and the Archives (if the line isn't too long) in to the mix, as well. But my hands down favorite for kids has got to be the National Building Museum. Frankly, National Harbor can keep the Children's Museum; I'll take the Building Museum any day of the week.
The building itself, as befits a museum about buildings, is spectacular. Savvy visitors to my blog will recognize the frieze as you enter. Built as the Pension Bureau following the civil war, its wide open Great Hall is a favorite place for local families to escape the heat (or the cold). Even if you don't look at a single exhibit, the Great Hall is worth stopping in for a comfortable place to relax in a city all too often concerned with propriety and grandeur.
Young kids will enjoy the Building Zone area, with it's ample building toys and play area. Giant legos! But pay close attention to their work. Sometimes my daughter doesn't do it right and I have to "help" her here. How else is the tower going to be six feet tall if I don't assist her! She's generally pretty understanding with me. On weekends, it can get a little crowded and there might be a short wait to enter Building Zone, but the staff normally brings blocks out into the Great Hall. We often have so much fun with that, we never make it into the play room proper. And for us older kids, the giant arch in the Great Hall is my personal white whale. If anyone manages to complete it, please send me a picture with them standing under it to post here. I've come close, but small children are less help than you might think in engineering projects.
If you know when you're going to be in town, a little planning can add quite a bit more to your experience. The Museum rents out "tool kits" to families for five bucks that help explore kids up to 11 explore the building. And besides putting on it's own excellent events, the Museum plays host to a great deal of fascinating outside programs. Later this month the 28th to be precise, Target will be sponsoring the National Cherry Blossom Festival's Family Day and Opening Ceremony here. Lot's of kid friendly activities and Target puts on a good party. I went to their sponsored opening of the Portrait Gallery's courtyard a few years ago and it was a blast.
The exhibits are quite well-done as well. The Museum's permanent exhibit, Washington, Symbol and City, is possibly the best comprehensive discussion of the growth of Washington, DC as a City I've seen. Visitors looking to engage the city beyond the National Mall should come here to start. And I try to make a point to stop in to their rotating exhibits. They can be quite clever, even those I would normally dismiss. Case in point, the current one, Detour, discusses tourist routes in Norway. And it's not at all the snooze-fest I anticipated.
As far as amenities go, there is a small cafe inside but we usually just bring a picnic lunch. The Museum is conveniently located on the Red Line at Judiciary Square and the exit is directly across the street. Be sure to spend a minute at the National Law Enforcement Memorial. It doesn't get much attention, but it is one of the worthier memorials in town. But that'll be the subject of another post...