As far as I know, Pierre L'Enfant and his successors were not thinking of children when they incorporated the long, open stretch of the Mall into their design for the city. But they may as well have. This two-mile expanse of lawn running from the Lincoln Memorial to the Capitol is a playground, really, a backyard to the Smithsonian museums, National Gallery and memorials that border it. You can visit any of these sites assured that if one of your little darlings starts to misbehave, you'll be able to head right out the door to the National Mall, where numerous distractions await. The Mall is always busy with walkers, joggers, and bikers. Vendors sell ice cream, soft pretzels, and sodas. Festivals of all sorts take place on a regular basis, whether it's the grand National Folklife Festival for 10 days at the end of June into July, or the Kite Festival in spring. Weather permitting, a 19th-century carousel operates in front of the Arts and Industries Building on the south side of the Mall. Right across the Mall from the carousel is the children-friendly National Gallery Sculpture Garden, whose shallow pool is good for splashing one's feet in summer and for ice skating in winter, when it turns into an ice rink.
You don't need the excuse of recalcitrant children to enjoy the Mall, of course, though it's always good to have an escape route. The truth is, many of Washington's attractions hold various enchantments for children of all ages. It might be easier to point out which ones are not recommended for your youngest: the Supreme Court, the chambers of Congress, the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum, and the Marian Koshland Science Museum. Generally speaking, the bigger and busier the museum, the better it is for kids. On the Mall, these would be the three top draws: the National Museums of American History, Natural History, and Air and Space, each of which has special areas and exhibits aimed specifically at children.
I have two daughters, age 13 and 18; their favorite Washington activities over the years have included paddle-boating on the Tidal Basin, shopping in Georgetown; attending plays at the Folger Theatre, the National Theatre, and the Kennedy Center (FYI: In 2006, the Kennedy Center opens a new theater devoted exclusively to family productions), and Wizards and Mystics basketball games at the MCI Center; ice skating at the National Gallery; and visiting the National Zoo, the International Spy Museum, the National Postal Museum, and the Albert Einstein Memorial, and special exhibits at the National Gallery of Art, as long as we had something to eat at one of the cafés. (Parents, you will be happy to note that many of the museums offer food of some sort, or vendor carts at the curb.)
For more ideas, consult the Friday "Weekend" section of the Washington Post, which lists numerous activities (mostly free) for kids: special museum events, children's theater, storytelling programs, puppet shows, video-game competitions, and so forth. Call the Kennedy Center and the National Theatre to find out about children's shows.
Favorite Children's Attractions
Check for special children's events at museum information desks when you enter. As noted within the listings for individual museums, some children's programs are also great fun for adults. I recommend the programs at the Corcoran Gallery of Art, the Folger Shakespeare Library, the Phillips, and the Sackler Gallery in particular. (The gift shops in most of these museums have wonderful toys and children's books.) Call ahead to find out which programs are running. Here's a rundown of big kid-pleasers in town.
Ford's Theatre & Lincoln Museum and The House Where Lincoln Died: Booth's gun and diary, the clothes Lincoln was wearing the night he was assassinated, and other such grisly artifacts. Kids adore the whole business.
International Spy Museum: Both kids and adults enjoy pretending to be spies, testing their powers of observation, and trying to figure out how the Enigma machine works.
Lincoln Memorial: Kids know a lot about Lincoln and enjoy visiting his memorial. A special treat is visiting after dark.
National Air and Space Museum: Spectacular IMAX films (don't miss), planetarium shows, missiles, rockets, a walk-through orbital workshop, and flight simulators.
National Museum of Natural History: A Discovery Room just for youngsters, the butterfly garden, an insect zoo, shrunken heads, and dinosaurs, and the IMAX theater showing 2-D and 3-D films.
National Zoological Park: Pandas! Kids always love a zoo, and this is an especially good one, with a Kids Farm added in 2005.
For more on what to see and do in Washington, D.C., visit our complete guide online at http://www.frommers.com/destinations/washingtondc/.
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