Anytime you travel with kids, the endless walking, getting to and fro, adult interaction, and unfamiliar scenery can wear them down. Sometimes they just need to be a kid; it’s amazing how a spin on a carousel, brush with nature, or simple games can turn a tired, grumpy child into a revived and engaged one. Washington, D.C. is brimming with family-friendly things to see, do, and visit, and many of them are free or nearly free. Here is a list of the best activities the whole family will enjoy.
Sometimes the simplest, low-tech toy or activity can turn a frown into a smile, and whether you’re five or 55, the sight of a colorful carousel can elicit squeals of delight. Since 1967, the beautiful old Carousel on the National Mall and its 58 horses and two chariots have entertained kids. Originally built in 1947, this perfectly preserved carousel’s breathy organ plays military music while kids laugh and jostle for the coveted seat on the bright teal blue sea dragon, and it’s still just $3.50 a ride. This carousel features horses that are four abreast, and riding one of the beautifully painted animals is still a wonderful way to revive and refresh after a long day of sightseeing.
Hours: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. daily
Let the little ones go all aflutter
Children have a natural sense of wonder and curiosity about nature, and at Brookside Gardens in Wheaton, Maryland, you can make a short detour from the District and let your child explore the natural world. Depending on the time of year, they can stand among the butterflies at the live butterfly exhibit called Wings of Fancy or marvel at the light display in winter at the “Garden of Lights” winter garden walk.
Hours: Gardens, sunrise–sunset; Visitors Center, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Conservatories, 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.
Brookside Gardens, 1800 Glenallan Ave, Wheaton, MD, USA, +1 301 962 1400
Take the stage on Saturday morning
Don’t let your kids sit glued to the TV on Saturday morning; take them out for a few hours and let their imaginations bloom. The National Theatre’s Saturday at the National includes programs – puppet shows, dance, music, magic shows, and other interactive activities – for children four to 10 years old. All programs are in the stunning Helen Hayes Gallery, and the cost is free, but you must reserve tickets one week before your chosen performance.
Hours: Every Saturday during performance season, 9:30 and 11:00 a.m.
National Theatre, 1321 Pennsylvania Ave NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 628 6161
Have a museum sleepover and discover the Secret Ocean in 3D
For most kids, museums are a huge snore fest with stuff they either find boring or don’t understand, but they always get excited when they know they’re heading to the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. This museum is by far the most popular museum in the city for kids and their families, and it’s busy year-round. It’s where dinosaurs come to life, and boys and girls can be part of a museum sleepover like in the book From the Mixed-Up Files of Mrs. Basil E. Frankweiler. They can also feel like they’re swimming beneath the waves with Jean-Michel Cousteau’s Secret Ocean 3D film shown in the IMAX® Theater.
Hours: Every day except December 25, 10:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. For extended museum hours, click here.
Do a little espionage
Call it nosiness, natural curiosity, or too many Spy Kids and Agent Cody Banks movies, but kids love being a spy, even if it’s just “pretend.” A day, or night, at the International Spy Museum in D.C.’s Penn Quarter is one of the most popular activities for kids. The museum’s Kidspy Zone has loads of sleuthing programs, games, disguises, secret codes, gadgets, and missions for every age group. Children can take spy tradecraft workshops, do a bit of spying at sleepovers, attend summer spy camps, and celebrate birthdays at the museum.
Hours: Open every day from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.
International Spy Museum, 800 F Street NW, Washington, D.C., USA, +1 202 393 7798
There’s a stage just for kids
What kid wouldn’t like a theater and acting classes just for them? If your small ones can’t take another minute of big people’s activities, then it’s time for pure entertainment with custom-designed plays, dance and music performances, and activities that let them be a kid. Imagination Stage is just a short Metro ride across the D.C. line to the suburb of Bethesda, Maryland, and this acclaimed theater and arts center has something fun and entertaining for every age. The center includes professionally performed plays for kids, but they can also take acting classes or perform on stage. An on-going, full calendar of shows, classes, and other programs ensure your child will find something entertaining to see or do.
Hours: Variable depending on show times, class schedules, and special program dates.
Imagination Stage, 4908 Auburn Ave, Bethesda, MD, USA, +1 301 961 6060