Smithsonian Folklife Festival Celebrates World Cultures
Brendan Smialowski  /  Getty Images file
Children practice uncovering fossils at an exhibit on paleontology during the 2006 Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the National Mall July 2, 2006 in Washington, DC. The yearly event, which started in 1967, presents contemporary culture and encourages visitors to learn through participation in song, dance, conversation and eating.
updated 12/11/2006 12:58:02 PM ET 2006-12-11T17:58:02

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/.

Frommer’s is America’s bestselling travel guide series. Visit Frommers.com to find great deals, get information on over 3,500 destinations, and book your trip. © 2006 Wiley Publishing, Inc. Republication or redistribution of Frommer's content is expressly prohibited without the prior written consent of Wiley.

Photos: Dreaming of D.C.

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  1. A view from the top

    The Washington Monument sits on one end of the National Mall, with the Capitol on the other end in Washington D.C. The monument, one of the city's earliest attractions, was built to honor George Washington, the first U.S. president, and was finished in 1884. (Andy Dunaway / USAF via Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  2. A model of Freedom

    The plaster model of the Statue of Freedom, which was used to cast the statue atop the U.S. Capitol Dome, and other statues are on display in the Emancipation Hall of the Capitol Visitor Center, which opened in 2008.

    American sculptor Thomas Crawford created the model in 1858. It was shipped in five separate pieces from Crawford's Rome studio. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  3. A contemporary canopy

    The Robert and Arlene Kogod Courtyard, with its elegant glass canopy designed by world renowned architect Norman Foster, is at the historic Patent Office Building that houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery.

    Foster worked with the Smithsonian to create an innovative enclosure for the 28,000-square-foot space at the center of the building that is sensitive to the historic structure. The "floating" roof does not rest on the original building, which was built in phases between 1836 and 1868. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  4. Monumental blossoms

    In the spring, blooming cherry trees frame the front of the Thomas Jefferson Memorial at the Tidal Basin in Washington, D.C. The memorial is modeled after the Pantheon in Rome. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  5. United in honor

    The pillars that represent different states of the U.S. lie at the World War II Memorial. The memorial, which commemorates the sacrifice and celebrates the victory of "the greatest generation," was designed by Friedrich St.Florian and opened to the public in 2004. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  6. Honoring FDR

    The Franklin Delano Roosevelt Memorial near the National Mall traces 12 years of U.S. history with four outdoor rooms, each one devoted to one of FDR's terms of office and feature a sculpture inspired by him. Here, at the beginning of the memorial, is a statue showing Roosevelt seated in a wheelchair like the one he used. (Destination D.C.) Back to slideshow navigation
  7. A spirtual power house

    The National Cathedral is the sixth largest cathedral in the world. It was designed in an English Gothic style and features gargoyles, angels, mosaics and more than 200 stained glass windows. There is even a sculpture of Darth Vader on top of the cathedral's west tower.

    Officially named the Cathedral Church of Saint Peter and Saint Paul, it's a cathedral of the Episcopal Church, but it honors all faiths. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  8. Strolling by the tulips

    Tourists walk among the blooming tulips in Lafayette Park across from the White House. Mild temperatures in the spring often bring tourists out in great numbers. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  9. Just like old times

    U.S. park rangers dressed in period costumes guide "The Georgetown" up the Chesapeake and Ohio Canal using mules for power during the first canal tour of the season in the Georgetown section of D.C. The Georgetown is an 1870s-period replica used by the park service for tours that depict the history of the canal and the families who lived and worked on it. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  10. Hustle and bustle

    When Union Station was completed in 1908, it was one of the largest train stations in the world -- if put on its side, the Washington Monument could lay within the station's concourse. It is considered one of the best examples of Beaux-Arts architecture.

    In the 1980s, the building was redeveloped as a bustling retail center and intermodal transportation facility. It currently houses Amtrak headquarters and more than 130 shops and restaurants. (Jacquelyn Martin / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
  11. Taking flight

    Aircraft are displayed in the James S. McDonnell Space Hangar at the Smithsonian National Air and Space Museum's Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center in Chantilly, Va. The hangar features hundreds of artifacts installed illustrating its four main themes: rocketry and missiles; human spaceflight; application satellites and space science. The centerpiece of the hangar is the Space Shuttle Enterprise. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  12. Museum of remembrance

    A railcar is part of the permanent exhibit at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum. The exhibit features more than 900 artifacts, 70 video monitors and four theaters, and includes eyewitness testimonies and historic film footage. (Holocaust Museum) Back to slideshow navigation
  13. Carved in stone

    Some of the more than 53,000 names of U.S. casualities carved into the Vietnam Veterans Memorial are shown here. The memorial is made up of two black granite walls that are almost 247 feet long; each wall consists of 72 panels. The design by Maya Lin initially sparked controversy but is now recognized for its simple and reflective beauty. (Win McNamee / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  14. A somber watch

    A sentinel from the elite 3rd U.S. Infantry marches as the sun rises above the Tomb of the Unknowns on Aug. 26, 2009, at the Arlington National Cemetery in Arlington, Va. More than 300,000 veterans from all of the nation's wars are buried on the grounds.

    The Tomb of the Unknowns, where three unknown servicemen are buried, is one of the most visited sites at the cemetery. (Tim Sloan / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  15. National art display

    An untitled aluminum-and-steel mobile by Alexander Calder hangs in the National Gallery of Art. The gallery got its start when industrialist and philanthropist Andrew W. Mellon donated his vast art collection to the nation upon his death in 1937. Mellon's gift also attracted others to donate art to the museum, whose mission is to serve the United States by preserving, collecting, exhibiting and fostering an understanding of art. (Lee Ewing / National Gallery of Art) Back to slideshow navigation
  16. Spy this

    The International Spy Museum is the only public museum in the U.S. dedicated to espionage. It includes the work of famous spies and pivotal espionage actions that shaped history.

    At left is a glove shapeed pistol. On the right, is a replica of Cher Ami, the U.S. Signal Corps photo pigeon that was awarded the "Croix de Guerre" by the French government in World War I for heroic service after flying wounded over France for 25 miles in 25 minutes. Cher Ami was equipped with an automatic camera that was taking battlefield photos. (Mark Wilson, Paul J. Richards / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  17. Reflections of the Americas

    The Smithsonian National Museum of the American Indian is the first national museum dedicated to the perservation, study, culture and history of Native Americans. The museum's massive collections include more than 800,000 works of aesthetic, religious and historical significance and span all major culture areas of the Americas. (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  18. History in print

    Visitors tour the 9/11 Gallery, which includes a piece of the radio tower from the top of the North Tower of the World Trade Center and front pages of newspapers from around the world, at the Newseum, a 250,000 square-foot museum dedicated to news. The gallery also includes first-person accounts from reporters and photographers who covered the story. (Saul Loeb / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  19. A symbol of democracy

    People look at the U.S. Capitol at sunset. Around the world, the building, which houses the U.S. Congress, is a symbol of America's democracy. It also includes an important collection of American art and has important architectural significance. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  20. A eye for art

    Sunlight illiminates the dome of the U.S. Capitol. In the eye of the dome is a fresco by Constantino Brumidi called "Apotheosis of Washington," which sits 180 feet above the Rotunda floor. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  21. Retelling history

    Park ranger Jeff Leary tells the story of the assassination of Abraham Lincoln at the Ford's Theatre. President Lincoln, who ended slavery in the U.S., was assassinated in the box, seen in the background, by John Wilkes Booth at the theatre on April 14, 1865, while he was watching the play, "Our American Cousin." (Alex Wong / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  22. This American life

    The Smithsonian Museum of American History is a treasure trove of artifacts from American life, history and pop culture. The ruby slippers worn by Dorothy in the 1939 movie "The Wizard of Oz," left, and President Lincoln's top hat he was wearing when he was shot are included in the display. (Smithsonian Institution) Back to slideshow navigation
  23. It came from outer space

    People walk around the Apollo 11 Command Module "Columbia" on display at the National Air and Space Museum on July 16, 2009. The museum has the world's largest collection of historic aircraft and spacecraft among some 50,000 artifacts, ranging from Saturn V rockets to jetliners to gliders to space helmets to microchips. (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  24. A display of freshness

    A vendor puts out fruit samples on Aug 1, 2009, at Eastern Market, where consumers can find a large variety of fresh local fruits and vegetables, flowers, delicatessen, meat, cheese, poultry, bakery and dairy products. Eastern Market, established in 1873, is one of the few public markets left in Washington and the only one retaining its original public market function. (Karen Bleier / AFP - Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  25. 'We the people ...'

    A middle-school student views the original U.S. Constitution at the National Archives, billed as the "nation's record keeper." The archives not only house the Bill of Rights and the Declaration of Independence, but it also includes military records and naturalization papers. (Brendan Smialowski / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  26. Fit for a president

    Thousands of tourists visit the Lincoln Memorial each year. The memorial, which honors President Abraham Lincoln, sits prominently on the western part of the National Mall and offers great views of the other presidential sites. It includes a large sculpture of Lincoln and inscriptions of two of his speeches, "The Gettysburg Address" and his "Second Inaugural Address." (Mark Wilson / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  27. Play ball!

    Nationals Park is home field for the Washington Nationals major leauge baseball team. The park, which opened in 2008, is the first major U.S. stadium that is certified "green." It also has 4,500-square-foot high-def scoreboard and more than 600 linear feet of LED ribbon board along the inner bowl fascia. (Joe Robbins / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  28. Lighting the way

    A candle sits in a lamp lighting the way for guests arriving to George Washington's Mount Vernon estate as Ben Schulz, left, and Steve Stuart wait for the gates to open Dec. 4, 2004, in Mount Vernon, Va.

    The estate, Washington's former home, is 16 miles south of D.C. on the banks of the Potomac River. Visitors can see 20 structures and 50 acres of gardens as they existed in 1799, a museum, the tombs of George and Martha Washington, and his greenhouse. (Joe Raedle / Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  29. The rise of America

    The U.S. Marine Memorial, left, and the Washington Monument, center, are silhouetted against the sky as the sun rises over D.C. (Karen Bleier / AFP/Getty Images) Back to slideshow navigation
  30. Happy 4th of July

    Fireworks explode over Washington as the United States celebrates its 234th birthday, July 4, 2010. Seen from left is the U.S. Capitol, Washington Monument and Lincoln Memorial. (Cliff Owen / AP) Back to slideshow navigation
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