From parks to playgrounds to an entire Mall full of museums, there are enough activities for kids in D.C. that you could basically find something to do every weekend from infancy to elementary school. But there are some only-in-Washington experiences that will definitely make it into the childhood highlight memory reel. We talked to locals who work with children to identify 10 things that kids should do in the District before they turn 10 years old. The best part about this list? Most of these suggestions are free.
1. Listen to story time at the largest library in the world.
Encourage a lifelong reading habit in the most awe-inspiring setting: The Library of Congress hosts story time for babies and toddlers on Fridays at 10:30 a.m. in its cozy Young Readers Center. The free weekly program for kids 5 and younger includes a reading of such books as “The Little Engine That Could,” along with special guests and music. If you can’t make it during the week for story time, the center is also open to the public on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. 10 First St. SE. Free.
2. Walk across a bridge to an island.
“D.C. is a wonderfully walkable city, and one thing that sets us apart is our bridges,” says Elana Mintz, founder of the nonprofit Urban Adventure Squad, which hosts hands-on, outdoors-focused programs throughout the city. She suggests this two-bridge itinerary for family adventures: Start out in Georgetown and look down at the Potomac River while crossing the Key Bridge, then keep walking until you reach the pedestrian bridge that leads to the wooded Theodore Roosevelt Island. There, kids can “spy water birds and quick moving lizards called skinks,” Mintz says. Free.
3. Play the drums with Baba Ras D.
The beat is infectious at Baba Ras D’s concerts at BloomBars in Columbia Heights, as the 6-foot-6 Rastafarian leads kids 7 and younger in a drum circle. Baba Ras D plays four to five shows a week, and more than 700 shows to date — which means a significant chunk of D.C. kids have grown up with him. The playlist veers from Bob Marley to “The Wheels on The Bus,” but Baba Ras D’s compassionate message of “Harambee” (which translates to “all pull together” in Swahili) is always the same. 3222 11th St. NW. $7-$10 donation.
4. Run around the National Arboretum.
With 446 acres of gardens, forest and wide open spaces, the arboretum in Northeast must feel absolutely huge to kids. Start by exploring the Washington Youth Garden and its natural play area outfitted with sandboxes and musical instruments. “You’ll forget you’re still in the city,” says Maria Vogelei, one of the co-founders of Northern Virginia playspace Nook. Plus, she says: “The Capitol Columns make for a great game of hide-and-seek.” 3501 New York Ave. NE. Free.
5. Watch a free performance at the Kennedy Center.
Introduce little ones to the arts at Millennium Stage’s free daily shows, which feature everything from family singalongs to performances by chamber orchestras, dance troupes and comedians. Rather than taking place inside a theater, the 6 p.m. shows are held at one end of the Kennedy Center’s soaring Grand Foyer — which allows you to make a quick escape, if needed. “It’s a low-pressure situation,” says Caitlin Wesaw, who helps run Eastern Market’s weekly Boogie Babes musical performances. “You don’t have to sit there because you’ve paid a huge amount of money.” And the iconic building itself can entertain kids: They can look up at the flags hanging from the Hall of Nations and take in the skyline from the roof terrace. 2700 F St. NW. Free.
6. Eat a pop tart at Ted’s Bulletin.
Kid-friendly food gets fancy at this local restaurant chain, which is famous for its sprinkle-topped gourmet pop tarts in flavors like s’mores and blueberry cheesecake. “It’s one of the most family-friendly [restaurants] in the city,” says Bonnie Lessans, the founder of parent-and-me activity group Petite DC. At the 14th Street location’s pastry counter, kids can look on as bakers prep the treats. Various locations, including 1818 14th St. NW and 505 Eighth St. SE. $3.89-$4.38.
7. Try a family workshop at the Freer-Sackler.
There are so many hands-on activities for kids at Smithsonian museums, such as the interactive play spaces in the American History Museum (which features a mini version of Julia Child’s kitchen) and the National Portrait Gallery (where kids can pose for a projected video art piece). But don’t miss out on the weekend workshops at the Freer-Sackler, where kids ages 6 to 12 get an up-close look at Asian art. Then they get to make their own creations based on what they’ve just learned, with such activities as print making or decorating a glass lamp, or putting together an archaeological tool kit. “It’s really cool,” says Wesaw, whose daughter still talks about the workshop where she learned how to restore tarnished silver. “She came home, and asked ‘Do you have any silver to polish?’ Well, no, of course, I don’t.” 1050 Independence Ave. SW. Free, registration required.
8. Take a picture with Albert Einstein.
One of the most fun memorials for a photo op has to be the memorial to Albert Einstein, located near the Mall at the National Academy of Sciences building. This four-ton bronze sculpture by Robert Berks makes the theoretical physicist look like a friendly giant, seated on a bench holding a paper filled with mathematical equations. Kids can climb onto his lap for a silly picture that’s made for a photo album — or social media. (Don’t forget the #photoswithalbert hashtag.) 2101 Constitution Ave. NW. Free.
9. Ride the carousel on the Mall.
Since 1967, children in Washington have taken a break from educational museum visits by joyriding on the Smithsonian Carousel. Kids can make their pick between the carousel’s painted ponies (and a zebra and a sea dragon), but the surrounding scenery makes this ride one-of-a-kind. Across from the Smithsonian Arts and Industries Building. $3.50.
10. Take in a cool seasonal event.
It seems as though there’s a family-friendly festival taking place nearly every weekend in Washington, but there are a few annual events that stand out and deserve a spot on your planning calendar. Spring brings the Blossom Kite Festival on the grounds of the Washington Monument, one of the highlights of the nearly month-long National Cherry Blossom Festival. In the summer, kids can learn about other countries via interactive craft activities and food demos during the Smithsonian Folklife Festival on the Mall. During the two-week Kids Euro Festival in the fall, children have their own invite to embassies around town for performances and workshops. And in December, see the National Zoo at its holiday cheeriest at ZooLights, which features displays with 500,000 LED lights, train rides and s’mores. Blossom Kite Festival, March 30. Smithsonian Folklife Festival, June 26-30 and July 3-7. Kids Euro Festival, 2019 dates TBD. ZooLights, 2019 dates TBD. Free.
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