Washington D.C. is known for its museums. From art museums to science museums to natural history museums, there’s something for everyone in D.C.—and something for kids of every age. If you’re thinking about a family vacation this summer, D.C. is great destination. Many museums are free of charge and offer children opportunities to explore their interests in an exciting and dramatic setting.

“Children’s museums embody a belief in the importance of education, learning, personal growth, and discovery,” says Ariel Moyer, Director of Communications at the National Children’s Museum in D.C. “They are an important resource for parents and caregivers because they create learning environments and experiences for children that broaden their horizons, enrich their lives, and open their minds to new opportunities and experiences.”

Stacy DeBroff, bestselling author and founder and president of Mom Central , says taking children to museums is also a good way to reinforce school learning. “The best of museums,” DeBroff says, “create a fascinating environment to bring alive on a grand scale those subjects that children are studying in school.”

DeBroff suggests taking minitrips within a museum, pacing the learning to appropriate timeframes. “You want to make the experience fun, and you don’t want to push the limits of tediousness,” she says.

One way to make the museum experience meaningful for children is to visit the gift shop first. Consider buying a children’s book that highlights specifics of the exhibits you are about to see. Previewing the exhibits is a great way to facilitate discussion and generate excitement about the contents of the exhibits. Young children enjoy treasure hunts—holding the gift-shop book in hand as they search for the treasure in the museum.

The Washington D.C. museums featured below range in subject matter and age-appropriateness. For more information, visit the Web sites included below or call the museums directly.


National Children’s Museum

The National Children’s Museum, scheduled to open in D.C. in 2013, will be a vibrant children-centered museum that will build on the 30 years of experience of the Capital Children’s Museum, which closed in 2004. Until the National Children’s Museum opens its doors, the museum will continue to function as a “museum without walls.” Through school and community outreach programs, traveling exhibits, and programs in partnership with other organizations, the National Children’s Museum provides families and students with regular learning opportunities, ranging from understanding family fitness to appreciating deafness. Don’t miss the family-friendly performances and activities for children each Saturday this summer at National Harbor’s American Market. For a complete programming schedule and additional information about these hands-on activities, contact the National Children’s Museum directly at (202) 675-4120.

National Geographic Museum at Explorers Hall

This small, high-tech museum is located on the first floor of the National Geographic Society’s headquarters. Admission is free, and the museum brings to life past and current National Geographic expeditions, adventures, and scientific research. The museum appeals to all ages and takes only an hour to visit. Visitors enjoy a wide variety of changing exhibitions, as well as permanent and interactive displays that reflect the richness and diversity of the world. National Geographic Live! includes films, concerts, and family events presented in the Grosvenor Auditorium, a 385-seat state-of-the-art theater. Events are led by explorers, scientists, photographers, and performing artists. For schedules and to purchase tickets, see www.nationalgeographic.com/nglive or call (202) 857-7700.

Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History is part of the Smithsonian Institution and houses a national collection of more than 125 million natural science specimens and cultural artifacts. There are several educational facilities/exhibits available to the public. Dig It! The Secrets of Soil allows children to explore the hidden and complex environment that is home to millions of living organisms. This exhibit will open July 19, 2008. The Insect Zoo offers tarantula feedings, demonstrations, and touchable insects. Ocean Hall is a new permanent exhibition that will open in September 2008. This exhibit explores the ancient, diverse, and constantly changing nature of the ocean, the long historical connections humans have had with it, and ways in which people are impacting the ocean today. This museum is free of charge. For more information, call (202) 633-1000.

Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum

The Smithsonian Institution’s National Air and Space Museum has the largest collection of historic air and spacecraft in the world. The National Mall Building has hundreds of artifacts on display, including the original Wright 1903 Flyer, the Spirit of St. Louis, the Apollo 11 command module, and a lunar rock sample that children can touch. The museum has many ongoing educational programs for children, including Discovery Stations—portable interactive carts that encourage informal learning through active looking, discussion, and hands-on activities related to aviation, space exploration, astronomy, and planetary geology. Presented by volunteers or museum staff, the carts provide interactive fun for all ages. Discovery Stations are presented during regular museum hours throughout the week and on weekends. This museum is free of charge. For more information, call 202.633.1000.


International Spy Museum

The International Spy Museum is solely dedicated to espionage, providing a global perspective on this all-but-invisible profession. It features a large collection of international spy-related artifacts, including spy gadgets, weapons, bugs, cameras, vehicles, and technologies. Children learn about spies through hands-on exploration, film, interactives, and state-of-the-art exhibits, all in a dynamic context that fosters an understanding of espionage and its impact on current and historic events. Microdots and invisible ink, buttonhole cameras and submarine recording systems, bugs of all sizes and kinds, and ingenious disguise techniques developed by Hollywood for the CIA are all featured in this museum. Stacy Debroff says, “It’s so tactile and interesting. You cannot go to this museum without being intrigued about history.” For more information, contact (866) 779-6873.

Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian’s National Portrait Gallery tells the stories of America through the individuals who have shaped U.S. culture. Through the visual arts, performing arts, and new media, the Portrait Gallery portrays poets and presidents, visionaries and villains, and actors and activists who left (and are leaving) a mark on American history. The museum offers object-based learning programs for families and youth to guide discoveries into the cultural, social, political, and personal contexts of their subjects and time periods. DeBroff says this museum is “filled with opportunities to encourage discussion about leading figures in history.” She says, “You can pick an area of history and really talk about who was in this portrait.” To learn more about the museum’s education programs or to schedule a tour, call (202) 633-8300.

United States Holocaust Memorial Museum

A living memorial to the Holocaust, the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum offers visitors opportunities to learn about the Holocaust in an overwhelming and dramatic setting. By transporting visitors into the environment of the Holocaust, this museum gives teenagers and their parents a framework for the monstrosity of the event, providing a powerful lesson in the fragility of freedom, the myth of progress, and the need for vigilance in preserving democratic values. With unique power and authenticity, the museum teaches millions of people each year about the dangers of unchecked hatred and the need to prevent genocide. This museum facilitates discussion and future learning—an important teaching opportunity for parents of teenagers. The museum is busiest from April through the end of July. For more information about free timed passes, contact (800) 400-9373.