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The Playbook

By John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
From the book "Kid-O-Rama"
Copyright 1998


    Balloons Susan Davis
Hello. If you're reading this, you probably have a child, either a recent or somewhat older model. Maybe you have several. Or perhaps you're a grandparent, an aunt or uncle, a teacher or someone else who is responsible at times for shepherding other people's children. Regardless, you're probably hoping to find worthwhile things to do in the Washington area that will excite and engage the kids yet leave your sanity intact or — who knows? — perhaps even enhanced.

You've come to the right place. The two of us — John Kelly is the former editor of The Washington Post's Weekend section and father of two girls, and Craig Stoltz is editor of The Post's Travel section and father of two boys — have spent the last several years checking out hundreds of area attractions with our own and others' children. We've toured the town on solo missions, with spouses and with day care, school and other merry groups. We've done it with infants and teenagers, occasionally at the same time. We present the results of our labors here — the best of things to do with kids, along with the information we suspect you'll find most useful in preparing for visits of your own.

For example, we've concentrated on providing:

Attractions based on kids' interests, not geography.
Why? So you can easily tailor outings around things your charges enjoy: animals or trains, art or science, go-karts or ballet. You'll find them all here, and much, much more, arranged kid-like in alphabetically reversed chapters, from Z to A. In a metropolitan area like ours, we believe that where an attraction is located is less important than what you get once you arrive. So our primary method of organization is What, not Where. But we're not zealots. We know that commuting time and location can be important factors when planning an outing. So you'll also find all the attractions organized by jurisdiction in Where They Are, in the back of the book. If you're determined to work through the entire list of kid-friendly things in, say, Prince George's County, hey, we're here for you.

Planning-friendly categories.
We've also included Cross-Preferences that let you choose places by a wide array of criteria: Free, Good for Rainy Days, for Toddlers, for Teens, for Birthday Parties, for Groups with Strollers or Wheelchairs, for Grandparent Outings, for Pre-Readers, for All-Family Exercise and more. We hope you'll find these a valuable addition to the book.

Kid-specific advice.
Many entries include "Words to the Wise," or nuggets we wish someone had told us before we went — unusual time or age restrictions, annoying entry policies, hidden costs, poor parking, etc. Our write-ups don't mimic brochure copy or tour guide scripts; they describe how to approach a place with kids of different ages and interests. We also provide numerous notes about nearby attractions, restaurants and other family-friendly amenities. This is in addition to phone numbers, prices, hours, addresses, World Wide Web sites and a symbol to indicate establishments that identify their main facilities as handicapped-accessible.

Wide area coverage.
We've assumed that folks using this guide live somewhere in the sprawling area known as Metropolitan Washington (though we suspect that those in Baltimore or Richmond also will find it useful). To create a target territory for attractions to include, we've drawn a rough circle reaching about 40 miles beyond the Capital Beltway in all directions. Because in practice this can mean 90 minutes or more in the car (for outside-the-Beltway Marylanders contemplating Virginia forays, and vice-versa), we've added this guiding principle: The farther outside the Beltway an attraction is, the more unusual and kid-friendly it has to be to make the cut. In a few cases we've reached outside the 40-mile range to include, for instance, Gettysburg, Pa., and several caves in the Shenandoah Valley. When we list a place outside our range, you can be confident that it'll be worth the trip.

User-friendly exclusions.
As a public service, we've left a lot of stuff out. We've omitted some tourist attractions and guidebook staples that, in our view, aren't that well suited to family touring. So you'll find a narrower-than-usual selection of, say, historic houses — but you can be sure those we do list are welcoming and engaging to children. Government agencies are listed only if their presentations are unusually well suited for children. As for museums, we direct you to the areas and features kids are most likely to enjoy. Also, for the most part we don't list attractions that require you to make reservations. Some do (and we tell you which ones those are), but most allow you simply to show up.

Grief Savers

In the spirit of our "Words to the Wise," we've also collected advice about outings with children generally, gathered over our numerous kid trips. Think of them as Grief Savers. Ignore them at your option — and peril.

Expect Less, Enjoy More
If there's anything about which we feel strongly, it's our refusal to romanticize outings with children. It's not all gumdrops and puppies out there. Kids can be grumpy. They can demand drinks of water and bathroom breaks at the most inconvenient times. Virtually from birth, the most precocious of them engage in what professionals call "limit-testing" — determining what excesses their parents will abide before punishment kicks in. When your son or daughter is belligerent, whiny or otherwise unimpressed with your loving and wise ways, you may wonder not only why you bought tickets to "The Nutcracker" or decided to check out the art museum, but why you wanted to be a parent in the first place.

We're here to tell you that such feelings are absolutely normal. Frustrating incidents happened to us, and to many other parents we observed, nearly every time we ventured out. Did we have some Kodak moments? Sure. Did we have some Maalox moments? You betcha. Did most of our moments fall somewhere along that all-too-familiar continuum? Of course. Yours will, too. In other words, when things go badly, first of all don't blame us. But don't blame yourself, either.

Don't Let Your Child Grow Up to Be . . . Anything, Yet
Babyhood takes forever, toddlerdom even longer. By the time your child is 3, you're likely to have a serious case of cabin fever. As soon as your son or daughter is toilet trained, you may be tempted to plunge into all sorts of extracurricular activities — especially those you've been deprived of yourself for over three years now. Our advice: Start slowly. You and your junior partner can take in the Dutch Masters at the National Gallery later. Better to begin with a sock puppet. You will have a much better time if you keep in mind the age appropriateness of the activity you hope to undertake (which we've tried to point out in our entries). This runs counter to a parent's natural inclination to believe that his or her 4-year-old is ready for whatever other peoples' 6-year-olds are doing, or that even though Melissa is only 7, she's so mature and "musical" that she'd love a three-hour evening at the symphony. Resist. You will have plenty of time later to explore ever more complicated and grown-up things. Ride the carousel before checking out the Bill of Rights.

High Culture, Low Doses
Hard and painful experience has taught us this: Expose tiny kids to museums and other repositories of high culture in tiny doses. An early trip to the Mall might consist of little more than a session watching the Foucault pendulum in the lobby of the National Museum of American History, followed by a walk across the way to the carousel. Next time out, swing through the Hirshhorn's outdoor sculpture garden and, maybe, take a lap around the second-floor galleries, followed by another visit to the carousel. Some rainy day, push the stroller through the National Museum of American Art, and then take lunch in a Chinatown restaurant. Walk through the East Building of the National Gallery, primarily to get a snack at the cafe and watch the waterfall. Ideally, these small doses of the sights and smells and sensations of art and culture will leave a child intrigued and wanting more. When you find your child asking to go to a museum — or choosing a visit from a list of diverse possibilities — that's the cue that you've succeeded and that the dosage can be increased. Subjecting young kids to a forced march through a crowded museum full of objects aimed way over their noggins is likely to breed precisely what you dread — a child who rejects museums before he or she knows anything about them.

Tours: Proceed With Caution
The guided tour is the bane of young kids everywhere. The George Washington Masonic National Memorial in Alexandria, Va., for example, is a neat-looking building. It'd be perfect for rambling through with your family at your own pace. Problem is, you can't. No offense to the Masons. It's their building, after all. But the only way to take it in is by tour. Surrounded by tall people listening to historical minutiae for 30 minutes or more, unable to break away or linger over something that interests them, children become like milk bottles microwaved with the cap on: primed to explode in an ugly mess. Our suggestion: Until your child is old enough to sit agreeably through a 30-minute presentation — we're guessing that's somewhere between 8 and 10 — avoid guided tours (except those aimed specifically at kids' groups).

Get There Early – or Beware
Re-reading our write-ups for this book, we were struck by how often we found ourselves warning parents to get to a place early and avoid crowds. But, darn it, it's true. For all the places we've visited, we can't think of a single one that was better taken in later in the afternoon — when it was inevitably more crowded — than first thing in the morning (okay, there is one: the FBI Building tour). Even the most consistently overpopulated spots (the National Air and Space Museum, the National Aquarium in Baltimore) are possible to enjoy if you're among the first wave of folks at the door. Besides, early in the day kids' minds (and often their parents') are sharper, their moods higher, their baggage lighter. And kids will enjoy just about anything, from a display of old-time dolls to a dinosaur bone, if they have it nearly to themselves.

In retrospect, our best outings have been those when we made it out of the house before 9, enjoyed a full morning of unbothered play, exploration or demonstration and were first in line for lunch at 11:30, before the restaurant/snack cart/cafeteria got packed. We feel sure that our maker intended afternoons for naps, errands and peaceful winding down — not for standing in lines and fighting off fatigue, crowds and foul moods. The choice, of course, is yours. But we are unambivalent fans of early entry/early exit. This book will help you if that's your chosen path. Note the opening and closing times we publish with each entry. And if you find yourself out the door mid-day, try to aim your brood at one of our Least Crowded places. Save more popular places for days when you can arrive early and bright.

Pack a Survival Kit
Having spent several years mastering the field-tripping process, we offer the Kid-O-Rama Survival Kit: a pad of blank paper, coloring books and colored pencils or mark ers (crayons melt in car seats); a few picture books; dolls or action figures; Ziploc baggies of pretzels, fruit roll-ups, mini-cookies or Pringles; box juices and/or bottled water; a few kid-wipes; a traveling pack of facial tissue. Have a bag full of this stuff packed and by the front door, or hanging in the hall closet, at all times. This makes the out-the-door process a lot easier. Later, when you're stuck in traffic, waiting for the Metro or on line to take your seat at the puppet show, it may save your child's life. Disburse its contents slowly. And if your child does go ballistic in public, the bag is handy for slipping over your head so you are not recognized.

It's the Journey, Not the Destination
We all have heard the story about the expensive present ignored in favor of the box it came in. The same principle applies to field trips. Despite a parent's best intentions, kids enjoy and remember what they do, not where they go or what they see. We can almost promise you that kids under 8 will enjoy the staircase at the Corcoran more than any of the masterworks on display there; you may think you're taking your 5-year-old to the Hirshhorn's sculpture garden, but your child sees it only as a chance to chase pigeons. The paddleboats in the Tidal Basin will make much more of an impression than the quotations by Thomas Jefferson inscribed on the nearby monument's walls. This is not failure. This is childhood. Let it happen.

Though we have made every effort to make this book darn near perfect, we can guarantee that it isn't. Attractions may close. Phone numbers may change. Hours may be altered. Try to call and confirm details before you set out on an expedition. Also, use Kid-O-Rama in conjunction with The Washington Post Weekend section. Every Friday Weekend's Saturday's Child column explores a different family activity, and its Carousel listings outline special activities that week.

We wish you many wonderful and memorable adventures with the kids.

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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