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Kid-O-Rama Live

With authors John Kelly and Craig Stoltz
Tuesday, May 25, 1999

Kid-O-Rama book cover
Washington Post staff writers John F. Kelly and Craig Stoltz, the authors of the "Kid-O-Rama" guide book, were recently online to direct you to the best, fun-filled places to take the young ones, from the littlest ones in backpacks, to wiggly toddlers to been-there-done-that pre-teens.

"Kid-O-Rama" has parent-specific information that's missing from most D.C. guidebooks. It doesn't just list the exhibits at the Museum of Natural History it points you to specific areas of the museum that will most appeal to kids, like the insect zoo. The book also lists plenty of activities that most parents hadn't thought of or even been aware of. Sure, you've heard of Luray Caverns, but what about the aptly-named Endless Caverns?

Kelly and Stoltz, each the father of two children, have spent several years exploring Washington and its suburban environs to find attractions, parks and events that will appeal to children of various age groups and interests. Whether your kids enjoy pretending to be astronauts, seeing a two-headed baby floating in a bottle, making their own pottery or simply running around a giant playground, there's plenty in "Kid-O-Rama" that will help prepare you for the "I'm bored" days of the year.


Send in your questions and comments.

Vienna, VA: How did you determine which facilities were listed in your book? For example, you have about a dozen bowling alleys in Maryland - including one all the way out in Linthicum - but only one in all of Northern VA. Why is that?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Greetings, parents, care-givers and other interested parties. A reasonable question to start:

Our aim was to include attractions with a 40-mile radius of the Beltway. We include places that are further afield, but they have to be unusually kid-friendly and worthwhile.

In the specific case of bowling alleys, though, there's no regional bias. We only listed *duckpin* alleys, since those are most forgiving to tiny fingers (and tiny flingers). There's only one in Virginia-a great opportunity for
an investor--or a cultural anthropologist.

Washington: The book says that Craig has two boys and John has two girls. Did you ever take mixed-sex groups out to the locations you reviewed? And did you take girls to the public works museum and boys to the doll museum? Did they call it "icky"?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Wow. That's a great question.

Some of the groups we took out were mixed-sex school groups. While the girls didn't go to the public works nor the boys to the doll museum, the former did go to batting cages and canoeing and the latter to Rose Hill Farm in
Frederick, where they have "dress up." It really depends on the kid. John says there's no place that he WOULDN'T take his girls for fear that it would be too masculine. But he has no experience with little boys--except for having been one once.

Craig here: I took in a lot of places with mixed-gender school or day care groups, and I can report that girls were just as enthusiastic (and talented) at wall-climbing and batting cages as the boys.

Any folks out there have thoughts to share about the classic boys are from mars/girls are from venus/we're all from the same solar system debate?

Columbia, MD: I can't imagine the summer without camp for kids - even though I'll be home for the first time from work - part-time, I believe it's crucial for the kids to go to camp. Please provide your thoughts.

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Craig here: The norm among my boys' peers--they're finishing 3rd and First grades at Christ Episcopal School in Rockville--is to cobble together a summer of various day campettes: two weeks of soccer camp sponsored by a school, three weeks of outdoor adventure handled by the city, and so on, leaving a few weeks free for family vacation and that all important creative vegetation time. Few of my kids' peers do overnight residential camp so far, though a few of them do two- or three-week stints at sleepaway.

I agree (if this is what you're saying) that structured activities that let kids build skills, do things they like and let them make (or deepen) relationships is really important, perhaps making the 10 weeks of summer in some ways as important as any 10 weeks of school. I look back on my own summers--largely spent playing catch in the street, riding bikes around the neighborhood, building a succession of below-code forts in the woods and trying to stay clear of schoolyard bullies--and see how much time was wasted. I wish I'd had the developmental and recreational opportunities my kids have.

But I do know they love their down-time too. I think that's important to schedule in.

Any clicksters want to weigh in on camps, day or residential?

Vienna, VA: My four-year-old and I love your book! So far we have had several special outings, yellow paperback in hand. If you ever do a revised edition, please check the bathroom situation to see if the facilities are closed seasonally, as at Teddy Roosevelt Island -we took your advice and went early, then regretted that morning coffee-. Also, please add more playgrounds -- my little guy loves to visit new playgrounds. Finally, how about a special index for places that are 100% free -not even a parking fee-?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: John: Those are good points and we'll do that for the second edition. One point about the bathroom: It really does assume massive proportions in a parent's life. I remember something that a newspaper war correspondent
once told me about covering a war zone: Whenever you have a chance to go to the bathroom, take it. You never know when you'll get another one. I think the same applies to family outings.

Craig: And of course, as long as you've packed the Kid-O-Rama Survival Kit (which includes a handful of tissues) a creative solution to urgent problems is more readily at hand.

As for playgrounds: One of my great disappointments was when the wonderful wooden structures at Bullis, on Falls Road in Potomac, were declared for use only for students of the school. We do mention Tuckahoe Playground in Arlington in the book--it's a little-known blast, and aestetically ambitious too. And on Falls Road in Potomac, not far from Bullis, there'a a very ambitious playground under construction devoted to disabled and non-disabled kids playing together; it should be done and operating by fall. My boys still love the massive structures at Wheaton and Cabin John parks.

Anybody out there have favorite playground to recommend?

Washington, DC: Any ideas on summer-residential camps for say eight to 12 year olds in the Washington-Maryland areas?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: No specific suggestions, but I'd recommend taking a look at It has a great search engine which lets you tell it what kind of camp you'd like--where, what kind of activities, day or residential, etc.--then it spits out a list of alternatives. It considers Maryland and Virginia camps part of the "Southern US" for database purposes, so you get suburban Atlanta choices too. But it's a decent place to start.

Any clicksters out there recommend a camp for this parent (or, more accurately, this parent's kid)?

Fairfax, VA: My sons - 4 and 7 - like to look at cars and trucks. I didn't see any automobile-centric places in the book, besides race tracks. Where should I take them to indulge their passions for heavy machinery?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Craig: Boy, you got this one right: This is not a good area for car stuff, as we discovered while doing the book. There is a GMC van plant in Baltimore County, but you have to be 12 and must tour as part of a group (so we didn't include it in the book). There is an antique carriage museum in Cumberland (outside our geographic limits, but worth looking up; buzz the Web site, or the Cumberland Visitors bureau, for details). It has a few autos in the collection, but is stronger in horse-drawn conveyances (you'll also learn where the term "landau" roof came from).

In our book we do group together cars with planes, trains, and so on, so there is plenty of big metal stuff that moves, if your kids can be satisfied by that. My kids loved touring the S.S. Barry, docked at the Washington Navy Yard in Southeast.

Anyone in the audience today know of good auto collections around here?

Laurel, Md.: As you can see, I live in the Maryland suburbs. We've done the National Zoo and belong to the Baltimore Zoo and the Aquarium in Baltimore. What are some of the best places in my region to take girls ages 4 and 6?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: John: My girls were the same ages when I was researching the book. The National Wildlife Visitors Center in Laurel was perfect for them. There's a large building with neat exhibits, including lots of stuffed animals. There are observation stands where you can look through telescopes at the waterbirds who land nearby. Best of all is a tram that goes on a very gentle 30-minute loop through the forest. It's short enough for the shortest attention span. Hiking with kids can be tough, but the center has several very SHORT trails if it seems like they have enough energy to do
some walking.

Patuxent River Park and Jug Bay in Upper Marlboro is another place to go for natural recreation. Planked walkways take you over a marsh. Again, the most sedentary kids might rebel, but even then there's a dusty old log
cabin that they might enjoy playing in and a museum of old farming tools (its hours are spotty, though, so call ahead). Merkle wildlife sanctuary is near Patuxent Park and it has a nature center with crafts, objects to hold, etc. It also overlooks a nice field where migrating birds often

Mt. Rainier MD: Oh,dear Craig, please please don't knock 'downtime' as a waste. I look at the poor kids we have scheduled up the ying-yang -just like their parents are!- and wonder when they will ever have time just to explore their own solitude and their own imagination. Would that I could go back to those unscheduled days, at least for a few weeks!

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Thanks, Mt. Rainier--I think we agree. I was attempting to say that it's important to give kids some time off from their scheduled summer activities; my reference to "vegetative" time was a *fond* one. It think down time is important and good. When I was a kid, I had too much--I suppose what we'd all hope is the find the right mix for our kids.

Damascus, MD: I have a 2 year old daughter. Where can I take her, in the area, during evenings and weekends, that will be fun and appropriate for her, and me and my husband will also enjoy?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Craig here: My experience is that kids around two love to be in unusual, stimulating environments, and that to attempt to "expose" them to something specific is, as Gary Shandling likes to say, bad for everybody.

My favorites for tiny kids: the National Cathedral (something about the space and light, and the spookiness of the chapels underground, that kids find deeply affecting--and, happily, quieting). Meadowlark Gardens in N. Va. is absolutely beautiful and great for kids (paved path amidst all sorts of plantings, ponds and even a couple cute outbuildings; great for early walkers). Reston Animal Park gets kids up and personal with a whole fleet (fleet?) of tiny goats and sheep and other animals that will do them no harm; it's a great choice for the very young.

Other ideas out there?

Bowie, MD: Regarding autos and things that move:
Parents who love antiquing will undoubtedly head for Lancaster, PA. They should NOT miss the Strasburg Railroad, a gorgeous steam-driven train, the Pennsylvania Train museum, AND the classic car museum - can't remember the name, but it's just outside downtown Strasburg. Everything from Edsels to Lambroghinis. There's also an excellent ice cream store there.

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Craig here: Great stuff, Bowie, thanks. We did indeed consider putting in the Strasburg auto museum, but it has very few and unusual hours that it's open. So yes, go for it, but do call ahead and check to make sure it's open.

Reston: Fairfax: try taking your kids downtown and looking at the numerous construction sites that dot the "Golden Triangle." My kids loved watching the MCI Center being built. Dump trucks, cranes, cement mixers, oh my!

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Good tip, Reston. And thanks to the booming economy, there are plenty of sites under construction again (three on Wisconsin Avenue in Bethesda, for the more suburbanly inclined).

Alexandria: Relatives are coming from Pennsylvania for Memorial Day. You have one day -Friday- to spend downtown. Which Smithsonian museums will provide the most bang with the fewest amount of line-crowd-induced headaches?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: John: First of all, any museum is bearable if you get there early enough. We mean really early: You're in line BEFORE the doors open. Go see the things you want then eat lunch at 11:30, before the restaurants themselves start to clog up with humanity. Then you can dip into another museum
around 12:30 when everyone else (hopefully) is eating lunch.

But there are some Smithsonian museums that aren't that crowded: the Sackler, the Freer, the Renwick. Of course, they have limited appeal to most kids or mixed-age groups. Arts & Industries often isn't too crowded and it has weird old machinery from the 19th century that might appeal to
some youngsters. But if you really want to do the best kid-pleasers--Hands-On history, Hands-on Science, an IMAX film at Air & Space-- go to bed early the night before, set the alarm, and hightail it downtown. You won't regret it.

dc: Have either of you been to the new Six Flags in MD ? My daughter won 2 kid tickets recently, and now we HAVE to GO, although I have always hated CROWDS and HEAT. Am I in for a miserable time ?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: John: I went when it was Adventure World but haven't been to the new improved Six Flags.

But there've been some horror stories about Six Flags and crowds since it opened three weeks ago. The opening weekend was awful, the second wasn't too bad, last weekend was traffic from hell. They need to get the bugs worked out (time the lights better, rejigger the parking lots, build/open more access roads).

Amusement parks are real investments for families-of time and money. A 20-year-old might put up with long lines
and overheating cars but a besieged Dad with a screaming 8-year-old in the back seat shouldn't.

Kings Dominion is down I-95. HersheyPark is up in Pennsylvania. Our book (and now the Web site) is loaded with much saner alternatives.

All that said: Anybody out there have a good first-hand report on Six Flags?

Bethesda MD: Any suggestions on places that would appeal to a history-loving 11 year old -we've already been to the Lincoln-related sites in the area- and his 7 year-old brother who's not quite so enamoured of historical sites?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Craig here: If your kid has done the Lincoln stuff, that's a great opening into the Civil War. Gettysburg (it's in the book) is ideal if one kid is more enthusiastic than the other, since for the less historically inclined there is great hiking, a huge tower and plenty of monumental distraction, and your enthusiast can dig into the history, battle strategy, etc. Harper's Ferry (sounds far away, but really 45 minutes from the Beltway when traffic's not bad) is similar, in that it offers beautiful river walks, town strolls and climbing to the heights in addition to the musuems, which are nicely decentralized.

More locally, Manassas is OK for kids, but most of the historic value comes from the ranger talks, which will probably send your 7-year-old over the edge. And don't overlook one of my favorite little-known parks, Balls Bluff in Leesburg, which offers a little bit of human-scale Civil War and a wonderful hike in the woods.

Any suggestions from others?

Rockville, Md: Two working parents, two preschool-kindergarten-aged children. As a result, we have to take our children out on weekends and, often, in the evenings. I don't want to start with the symphony yet. Where are some of the best evening places to take young children?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: John: Your fellow audience members will appreciate your not taking the kids to the National Symphony just yet. But that doesn't mean you can't take them to the Kennedy Center. The Millennium Stage is where you want to head. Every single night, starting around 6 or so, they have FREE concerts in the vast, red-carpeted lobby. The fare can range from gospel
groups to jazz combos to rock bands. When the kids get bored, they can run around the lobby or go out back onto the deck overlooking the Potomac and watch the airplanes thread their way to National Airport.

This is also the season when lots of suburban parks start offering evening concerts. An upcoming issue of Weekend will have a complete schedule. They're free too, and since they're outside you can pack some munchies, some bubble soap, a blanket and kick back and relax.

Farragut Square: Hi Guys:

I haven't read the book yet but am looking forward to new adventures. With respect to car collections, Rose Hill manor in Frederick which was already mentioned has a great quonset hut full of old cars and horse-drawn carriages.

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Thanks, Farragut. Good tip. When we did Rose Hill, the car collection was not avialable. Good to know.

Mt. Rainier MD : Re the gender question: All the generalizations and statistics in the world about what boys like and what girls like are really useless when it comes to YOUR boy and YOUR girl. The parent should be first open-minded and then observant to find out what his particular kid likes!

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Indeed. Thanks for the words to the wise, Mt. Rainier. . .

Arlington: Hey guys, thanks for this service. What kinds of free stuff is out there for the little guys. I've got two god daughters, 6 & 9, who are smart as whips and have insatiable curiosity. Thoughts for budget-minded fairy godmother?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Craig: First, a shameless plug for our new Web site. You should be able to feed the choices "free" and topics like science or history into the search engine and get a good list of possibilities. (The ink-and-paper book has the stuff cross-referenced the same way in the back pages.)

But, since you asked: I love the Smithsonian's hands-on rooms (one Science, one History, in, respectively, the American and Natural History Museums). The program is free, and each features short projects guided by scientists. BUT: You have to get there right at opening and get timed tickets (if you're among the first, admission is immediate to the first sessions). Later in the afternoon the tickets are gone.

Other smartkid freebies: The National Wildlife Center in Laurel (but you do have to pay a modest fee to ride the tram), the U.S. Geologic Survey in Reston (they have really neat annual open houses), Goddard Space Flight Center in Greenbelt.

Anybody out there have suggestions? To answer two common questions: Kid-O-Rama is available online (as of this morning) and fully searchable at

You can also buy hard copies of the book at Borders and Crown bookstores, Giant supermarkets and some area Starbucks.

Fairfax, VA: I have a 2 1-2 year old who is all over the place and a 14 month old who is just starting to walk. Any advice on good places in Northern VA where they will both have fun and be safe?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Craig: I'd try (again!) to Meadowlark Gardens or Huntley Meadows. On a weekday, the National Zoo is great for early walkers (but it's treacherous for them on weekends). The National Building Museum has massive open wandering spaces which my boys loved to explore when they were between walking and running (though the museum, which has some nice hands-on stuff, will be more intersting to 8 and up). And, believe it or not, the Kennedy Center's hallways--colorful and dramatic and carpeted--is very accommodating to new walkers.

Washington DC: You just mentioned "the Web site" -- does that mean there is a Kid-O-Rama page or did you just mean

Kid-O-Rama Authors: now has a Kid-O-Rama database in the Style Live area (I think there's a link on this very discussion page); it essentially puts the contents of our book online, in searchable form.

Arlington, VA: I'd like to weigh in on the camp question. As a former camp counselor, I can't understand why parents would send children as young as six to an 8-week sleep-away camp. Allow I still have some reservations myself, I do think that children 10 and older can handle it. The 6,7,8 and some 9-year-olds, however, were obviously too young to be away from home for that period of time.

Kid-O-Rama Authors: Thanks, Arlington.

Kensington: There really aren't any factories closer than Pennsylvania where I can take my children? Is it a lack of factories in general or just a lack of kid-friendly factory tours?

Kid-O-Rama Authors: John: Well, there's a factory right in downtown Washington: the Bureau of Engraving and Printing. No free samples, though.

Yes, the best factory tours seem to be further away, a function, no doubt, of Washington not being that industrial. (I wonder when all those tech companies will open up for tours: Steve Case, are you listening?)

But that doesn't mean you can't get behind the scenes and show kids How Things Work. We mention in the book that most grocery stores are open to tours. Visitors will see the front, and back-behind those mysterious swinging rubber doors. And while we don't mention it in the book (too diverse and sprawling to contain) we once did a story in Weekend on neighborhood bakeries that invite kids to take a look.

While it's not actually a factory (and let's not get into a discussion of whether news is a "product") the Newseum in Rosslyn does a good job of showing how the media works, the sort of thing that the best factory tours do.

Reston, VA: Hi

One of my FAVORITE childhood field trips was to the National Children's Museum. What is the status of the NCM these days? I remember all of the exhibits were so "touchable" and hands-on I had a great day and the taste of the hot chocolata has remained in my memory for twenty years! Is this still a good day trip?


Kid-O-Rama Authors: Craig: Yes, kids love the NCM, though compared to other kid museums nationally, it's no great shakes (and can be awfully crowded and not as clean as some of us would like). As other cities have built "next generation" kid museums, ours in Washington has not aged well.

The big story regionally is Port Discovery in Baltimore, which opened too late for inclusion in our book. I haven't been yet, but I'm told it delivers on the promise of being fun, interactive, potentially educational, and creative. Check out its Web page (

for more information.

And with that note, we sign off. Thanks for the questions, and be sure to check out the Kid-O-Rama Web site. And, if you like, the book. If you can't find it locally, impress your children and order it online.

Happy summer to all. . . .

Craig and John

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company

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