Many parents reserve museum trips for older children but preschool is a perfect time to instill a love of culture in your child. (My son, now almost three years old, has been a regular visitor at the Los Angeles County Museum of Art since he was fourteen months old. He now considers the museum a second home and has made many friends among the staff.) When you’re ready to do museums, there’s no destination better than Washington D.C. Although the significance of many of D.C.’s sights will be missed by young children, the Smithsonian can be a wondrous place for preschoolers and toddlers—best of all, our national museum system is free of charge.

Smithsonian Air & Space MuseumThe favorite Smithsonian museum of youngsters would have to be the Air & Space museum. Plan to spend the most time here. Although the museum’s name implies that it’s a center of science, the Air & Space Museum is sure to spark creativity and imagination in your child.

In addition to boasting a marvelous collection of aircraft and astronaut gear, the Air & Space Museum is probably the most interactive of all the Smithsonian galleries. One child favorite is the flight simulators. (Please note that these do require the purchase of a ticket.) However, free discovery stations can keep them entertained for hours. The How Things Fly exhibit will help kids discover gravity without ever even realizing that they’re learning. There’s also a story hour during which a volunteer reads stories about famous aviators for the little ones. Check the daily schedule for times.

A second Air & Space museum is located outside the city. The Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, VA, opened in 2003, is a companion museum to the one in the city.. Located near Dulles International Airport, the museum stretches through two hangers and includes artifacts that document America’s space program from the Apollo 11 command module to the Space Shuttle Discovery—an aircraft the mere sight of which will elicit awe from both the young and old.

natural history museum exteriorAnother museum geared toward the interests of the pre-K set is the Museum of Natural History. A fan of Peppa Pig, my son insisted on going straight to the dinosaurs, then off to the café for ice creams. (Those of you with little Peppa Pig enthusiasts are sure to understand…) Whether or not they completely grasp what a dinosaur is, youngsters will be awestruck by the sheer size and regal stature of these creatures. The dinosaur exhibit also offers interactive displays that are educationally geared toward older kids but offer the kinds of graphics and buttons that keep a little one entertained.

My son was also thrilled to see the skeletons of some of the most beloved animals from his board books—and I noted that he was not alone in his delight. The room was full of youngsters dashing from display to display on chubby legs or exclaiming from their strollers as they recognized animals by their shapes—and got their first understanding of these animals true scale. The insect zoo and butterfly pavilion (which requires a ticket), will also light up the faces of youngsters. And, of course, what little (or big) girl can resist catching a glimpse of the Hope Diamond?

National ZooProbably the most popular Smithsonian property for children below school age is the National Zoo. That’s right, Washington’s zoo is a part of the Smithsonian system and, as such, is free. In addition to the world famous panda exhibit, the National Zoo offers exhibits by region and climate. Although your toddler may not grasp that the clouded leopard hails from Asia, they will be charmed and thrilled by the sizes, shapes and behaviors of all the gorgeous creatures on view. (The National Zoo is an incredibly popular attraction. You’ll probably want to bring your stroller both for convenience as well as to make it easier to keep your little one close.)

Be sure not to miss the Kids’ Farm. Designed for children between three and eight, the farm affords children a hands-on experience with a variety of farm animals. The other essential is to check the schedule of daily programs for special demonstrations that may help make your little one’s visit an unforgettable day. Daily offerings include interactions with animals, feeding times, elephant training demonstrations and story time at the Kids’ Farm.

It’s true that not all the Smithsonian museums will capture your child’s attention as well as these three. But young children, with their developing creativity, can find joy and intrigue in almost any activity.

In my experience, it’s all in the presentation. So if a visit to the American History Museum to view Fonzie’s jacket or Julia Child’s kitchen is on your must list, find an exhibit or two on the way that will peek your little one’s interest. For example, my little guy loves music so we would look to point out anything musical along our way, from drums to violins to the soundtrack of an informational video. And if we failed to find anything in his personal interests, we’d start playing a color game, trying to see who could find the most blue or red or pink things. I find this strategy also works well in art museums. Since my boy was eighteen months old, we’ve been visiting art exhibits to search for cats or bananas or the moon or whatever object happens to appear frequently in the art on view. (I haven’t figured out how to make this work in a Jackson Pollock exhibit but with abstract exhibits, we fall back on the color game.) Whether or not they love the art, your little one will be thrilled to embark on this adventure with you.

Smithsonian Carousel The Smithsonian also offers a couple of great outdoor experiences. The little ones will enjoy the old fashioned carousel, located on the Mall in front of the Arts & Industries building. There is a fee for the carousel, however it is a generously long ride on one of the most beautiful, well-preserved carousels you could ever hope to find. (The Smithsonian’s carousel was build in 1947 and moved from Baltimore’s Gwynn Oak Amusement Park.)

Many young kids will also enjoy a romp through the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden. Although not technically part of the Smithsonian, the garden is located on the mall adjacent to the Natural History Museum. The garden is centered around a fountain which, from December to March, becomes an ice skating rink. Like the Smithsonian, the garden is free with entrances at six different points on Constitution Ave., 7th St., and the Mall.


Where To Stay

Embassy Suites Convention Center Washington D.C.Although the Smithsonian is free, staying in D.C. with a family can get expensive. The Embassy Suites Convention Center is a 15-minute walk straight down 10th Street to the National Museum of Natural History. It is walking distance from all the museums on the Mall. However, if you want to save your legs for the museums, it’s a 2-block walk to Metro Center, from which you can catch a train to the Smithsonian stop. It is also a single train ride (red line) to the National Zoo.

In addition to offering a convenient location and an affordable price, the Embassy Suites gives families room to stretch out with essentially two rooms for the price of one. Each suite offers a living room with a sofa bed, (cribs are also available on request). The hotel boasts free made-to-order breakfasts, an indoor pool, room service and a free Happy Hour that includes snacks, drinks and games for kids and some of the friendliest hotel staff you could hope to find. They also offer packages for families that can be found on their website,

In addition to the Embassy Suites’ family-friendly restaurant, Finn & Porter, several restaurants in the neighborhood cater to the needs of families, including Clyde’s at Gallery Place, legendary Old Ebbitt Grill and a Shake Shack.

Getting There

If you’re driving to Washington D.C., please note that parking can be pricey. The Embassy Suites charges $41/night.

For flyers, the closest airport is Regan National. Three miles from the city, it’s an easy taxi ride. Or, for more adventurous travelers, just jump on the Metro’s Blue Line right at the airport and take it to Metro Center. The Embassy Suites is just a short stroll from there.

However, from many cities, direct flights aren’t available to National. As a parent who has traveled frequently with a youngster, I can’t stress how key direct flights are to the success of a travel day. It is possible to find direct flights from most cities to Dulles International Airport. Unfortunately, there’s no Metro stop at Dulles. The easiest way to get from the airport to the hotel is taxi, just be prepared for about a $70 fare (one way)–more at rush hour. However, once you get into the heart of D.C., you’ll likely find little need for a car or taxi, so the high-priced ride will likely seem worth it in the long run.

The Little Details

If you, like us, forget any of those essentials for travelling with youngsters—so easy to do when you’re trying to race to catch a flight with a child on his own agenda—there’s a Walmart about ¾ of a mile from the Embassy Suites, (a 20 minute walk). Whatever your opinion of the retailer, it offers all the essentials, like a replacement for the stroller we left sitting in our living room back home.

For more information on the Smithsonian, including hours, maps and information on special events, visit their website.

For more information on Embassy Suites Convention Center visit the Embassy Suites website.

Photo credits:

Air & Space Museum: Eric Long / National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian

Panda: Eric Long / National Air and Space Museum, Smithsonian