When you’re a childless city dweller in your 20s or 30s, you don’t often think about ways to entertain children — there’s always another brunch to attend or happy hour to plan. Then you get an e-mail from your brother, telling you that he, his wife and two kids will be visiting the District during spring break, and they’d love to get together. Or you receive a call from your favorite college roommate, who’ll be in town next week with her toddler, and she can’t wait to introduce you to little Ava. Can you think of something the three of you can do on a Saturday afternoon?
Cue the panic.
The Going Out Guide staff fields lots of how-do-I-entertain-kids questions during our online discussion (every other Thursday at 1 p.m.), especially as school vacations approach. We consulted co-workers, friends and friends-of-friends with kids to create this guide to child-friendly D.C. — a guide that’s intended for people without children. (But parents, you should read on as well — some of the most attuned moms and dads in our office didn’t know all of these spots.)
You might have visited some of these places soon after arriving in Washington, while others are things you’ve never heard of. Either way, we guarantee they’ll keep the little ones occupied — and hopefully you’ll find them interesting, too.
Museums and rainy-day activities
The Smithsonian museums and the National Zoo are great, but you can’t take your guests there every time — especially if they’re repeat visitors.
If working your way up the standard muddy-beige climbing walls at the gym isn’t interesting enough, head for ClimbZone, a Laurel facility that allows families can to race up walls that resemble Mount Rushmore, a rocket and even a curved skateboard ramp. Daredevils will enjoy the automated carabiners, which automatically lower climbers to the ground after they reach the top.
13200 Mid Atlantic Blvd., Laurel, Md. 301- 317-1970. $25 ages six and older; $12 ages 2 to 5. Children under 2 free.
1985 Corporal Frank Scott Dr., College Park, Md. 301-864-6029. $5; $4 seniors; $2 children; free 1 and younger.
For kids who dream of flying, the College Park Aviation Museum is a surefire hit. They can sit in the cockpit of a vintage 1939 plane and play with the controls to make the rudders move; dress up in a pilot costume, complete with helmet and goggles; try their hand at flight simulators; examine planes from the early 20th century; and watch planes take off and land at the College Park Airport, which is the world’s oldest continually operating airport.
3200 Mount Vernon Memorial Hwy., Mount Vernon, Va. 703-780-2000. $20; $19 seniors 62 and older; $12 ages 6 to 11; free for age 5 and younger; $1-$2 discount per ticket if purchased online.
Kids who are bored with history might not have any interest in touring Mount Vernon’s stately bedchambers or looking at the Chinese porcelain in the butler’s pantry. But take them outside the mansion and let them watch as a blacksmith works the bellows and hammers red-hot metal from the forge. Or look at sheep, hogs and chickens in pens. The sprawling Donald W. Reynolds Museum and Education Center shows movies with extra-special effects, such as snow falling inside the theater as you watch scenes of Valley Forge, and has a Hands-on-History Center where children ages 3 to 8 can try on colonial costumes, play games or listen to stories. It’s the perfect way to appease guests who want the family to do something “educational.”
401 F St. NW. 202-272-2448. Admission to Great Hall free. Admission to Building Zone and exhibitions: $10; $7 seniors 60 and older, students and youth (ages 3 to 17); free for age 2 and younger.
The National Building Museum’s iconic Great Hall covers approximately 28,000 square feet and, on a Saturday afternoon it can seem like every inch is covered with families participating in interactive demonstrations or kids chasing each other around the wide, 75-foot-tall columns. Hands-on exhibits include the Building Zone, with blocks, a playhouse and construction vehicles for kids aged 2 to 6 to play with; and Play Work Build, a room filled with large foam blocks that can be turned into forts, or smaller ones that can be turned into model houses or whatever a child can imagine.
22400 Davis Dr., Sterling, Va.
703-433-5867. $20 per person per hour; $17 per person per half-hour. All customers are required to wear safety socks, which cost $3 per pair.
Kids love to jump and that’s what you do at Rebounderz, essentially a large warehouse filled with what seems like acres of trampolines. Kids can bounce while playing dodgeball, carom off the angled trampoline walls, leap into a pit of foam bricks and just jump in circles over and over again, watched by referees. (Parents, you can — and should — jump right alongside.) The website has a list of daily deals: On “Toddler Thursday,” admission is $10 for children 5 and younger, and parents jump free. Be aware that anyone younger than 18 has to have a waiver signed by his or her parent or guardian, not just any adult.
5200 Glover Rd. NW. 202-895-6070. Free.
Rock Creek Park is one of Washington’s treasures, and its Nature Center is the key to helping kids understand the 1,700-acre expanse. There’s an exhibit with native animals, including turtles and snakes (kids can help rangers feed them on Fridays at 4 p.m.), and a planetarium, which hosts regular programs (free tickets can be picked up 30 minutes before each event begins; check the park’s website for the schedule). After visiting the Nature Center, take a short stroll to the Horse Center and visit the barn. (Keep an eye out for signs saying whether a particular horse bites.) You can thrill a young equestrian with a 15-minute pony ride ($21), which is offered on weekends from April through October and on weekdays from June through August, although reservations are required.
Parks, gardens and places to run
Kids love to be outside, and these spots will let them have fun while burning off some energy. We have more suggestions online, including regional parks with miniature trains, huge playgrounds and a farm with llamas and rabbits.
3500 Woodley Rd. NW. Free.
The private Beauvoir school, next to Washington National Cathedral, has one of the most impressive playgrounds in the area, with a zip line, rope bridges, rocks to climb and multilevel slides. When school and camp are not in session — weekends, for instance — the playground is open to the public. It’s easy to pair an afternoon at Beauvoir with a trip to the nearby 2 Amys (see below) or other kid-friendly dining spots.
Union Station, 50 Massachusetts Ave. NE. Ducks depart every hour on the hour from 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. Adults $43; children 12 and under $33. 10 percent discount for pre-purchase online. D.C. residents tour free with a paid out-of-town guest when they sign up online.
After you’ve lived in D.C. for a minute, you’ll swear you’ll never, ever take one of those touristy double-decker buses around the city. But if your visitors request a tour to see the sights, the DC Ducks is the most interesting and kid-friendly option. At Union Station, you board a World War II amphibious vehicle, which trundles past the White House and monuments on the way to the Memorial Bridge. Once in Virginia, the Duck “drives” into the Potomac, and then motors down the river toward Reagan National Airport before returning to dry land. It’s a view of the monuments you won’t get anywhere else. One word of warning: Everyone who boards receives a duckbill-shaped “quacker,” which they’re encouraged to use on the tour. Kids love it, but you may want to make sure it’s “lost” fairly soon after the trip.
Hillwood: Thursdays from 10:30 to 11:15 a.m. 4155 Linnean Ave. NW. 202-686-5807. $12; $10 members.
Tudor Place: Tuesdays from 10 to 10:45 a.m. 1644 31st St. NW. 202-965-0400. $5 per child. Adults free.
Two of D.C.’s grandest estates open their doors to small children each week. Hillwood Estate, home to Marjorie Merriweather Post’s immense collection of fine art, offers a Preschool Series for kids ages 2 to 5. It’s limited to 10 children per session, each with one adult, and reservations are needed, but it’s worth it: Children explore the gardens or mansion with a 45-minute session of songs, storytelling and playing pretend. Children can be signed up for individual sessions, or an entire series.
Tudor Place, which has been a fixture in Georgetown since the early 19th century, welcomes “Growing Gardeners” on Tuesday mornings, with story time, singalongs and play for children 2 to 4 years old. Reservations are suggested.
16th and Euclid streets NW. Free.
The drum circle in Meridian Hill Park has provided a soundtrack to Sunday afternoons in Columbia Heights since the 1960s. Most Washingtonians in their 20s and 30s have experienced it, and it’s a pretty cool — and unique — experience for kids, too. Make drums and shakers out of old coffee cans so the kids can play along while they dance. Bring a picnic lunch and spread out in the park’s upper area; the adults can relax and catch up while the younger ones run around, watch the birds that gather in the terraced fountain, or climb the curving stone steps.
Washington’s suburbs are rich in regional parks. Three that came up repeatedly:
Watkins Regional Park (301 Watkins Park Dr., Upper Marlboro, Md. 301-218-6770.) is home to a miniature train, an antique carousel, a “Wizard of Oz”-themed playground, a nature center and the Old Maryland Farm, where the residents include cows, donkeys, llamas and rabbits.
Bladensburg Waterfront Park (4601 Annapolis Rd., Bladensburg, Md. 301-779-0371.) takes advantage of its location on the Anacostia River to offer pontoon boat tours ($2 per Prince George’s County resident, $3 nonresident) that are suitable for all ages, plus canoe, kayak and paddle boat rentals for older kids. Back on solid ground, there’s a B&O Railroad caboose to explore, playgrounds, a riverside walk and a museum covering the War of 1812’s Battle of Bladensburg.
Wheaton Regional Park (2002 Shorefield Rd., Wheaton, Md. 301-563-7545.) is a sprawling 536-acre reserve. Most of the facilities kids will want to visit are at the Shorefield Road entrance, including a miniature train that travels through the woods, a 1915 carousel with leaping horses and zebras, and an “Adventure Playground” with climbing walls and structures and multiple slides for bigger kids, and a special toddler area with a sandbox and climbing animals.
Hours for attractions at the parks vary seasonally, so check before you make the drive.
3501 New York Ave. NE. 202-245-2726. Admission and most sights free.
An underutilized resource for Washingtonians of all ages, the Arboretum is home to more than 400 acres of woods, trails, ponds and display gardens, plus the captivating National Bonsai Museum and the original columns from the U.S. Capitol. During the spring, self-guided weekend tours take you to 40 different types of flowering cherry trees on the Arboretum grounds.
6060 Wilson Blvd., Arlington, Va. 703-534-3437.
A perfect day out for older and sportier kids, Upton Hill boasts six baseball and three softball batting cages with a variety of pitch speeds. Play the 18-hole miniature golf course and you’ll come across the 140-foot Hole No. 10, which Arlington County says is one of the longest in the world. There are bocce courts, miles of hiking trails, picnic groves and, from Memorial Day to Labor Day, a waterpark that’s fun for the whole family.
If the child in question is a budding Mozart, is entranced by theater or just loves to sing and wiggle, one of these events will be perfect.
Thursdays at 10:30 a.m. Eastern Market, 225 Seventh St. SE. $6 per child older than 6 months.
Founded by two Capitol Hill moms, Boogie Babes brings weekly live music to Eastern Market’s North Hall every Thursday morning. Toddlers go nuts for local performers Mr. Skip, Oh Susannah and a host of others. The Post has described the scene as “chaotic, noisy and gleeful.”
7300 MacArthur Blvd., Glen Echo, Md. 202-634-2222. Ticket prices vary.
The onetime amusement park is a wonderland for kids, from the gorgeous 1921 Dentzel Carousel (open April 28-September 30) to Friday morning story time at the Glen Echo Aquarium to the Saturday Art Explorers program, which offers drop-in art classes for children 10 and younger every Saturday from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. The park is also home to two of the area’s best children’s theater groups. The Puppet Co. has been wowing young audiences with its interpretations of fairy tales, performed with elaborate marionettes and rod puppets, since 1983. Most shows are targeted at children in kindergarten through sixth grade; a separate slate of Tiny Tots events, for children 4 and younger, leave the lights on in the theater and don’t feature scary villains or loud noises. American Sign Language performances are also offered. Adventure Theatre MTC, which will perform “Judy Moody & Stink: The Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad Treasure Hunt” for all ages from April 20 to June 3, includes ASL-interpreted versions, as well as special performances modified for children with autism.
4908 Auburn Ave., Bethesda, Md. 301-961-6060. Prices vary.
Imagination Stage is one of the most innovative theater and musical companies in the area. Its performances might include giant puppets, cast members venturing into the audience or slapstick chase sequences. (“Robin Hood” opens April 14.) Most of the performances in the main theater are designed for children aged 5 and older; a separate My First Imagination Stage program offers interactive theater for children younger than 5, and includes activity guides for parents to continue the fun at home. For teenagers and older children, look for shows by the high school-age students of the Acting Conservatory, Musical Theatre Conservatory and other ensembles, who train with Imagination Stage’s teachers. Most productions include special events with ASL interpretation or performances modified for children on the autism spectrum.
227 Maple Ave. E., Vienna, Va. 703-255-1566.Kids shows take place Thursday through Saturday at 10 a.m. Most events $5-$8.
Jammin’ Java is a cool rock club for adults, but the bands don’t make as much noise as the toddlers and elementary school-aged audiences who pack the place for early-morning shows by the area’s biggest kids entertainers, including Rocknoceros (most Fridays) and the popular Saturday Mornings with the Great Zucchini. For a perfect day, pair the concert with an afternoon trip to the nearby Clemyjontri Park (6317 Georgetown Pike, McLean), a two-acre playground with swings, playhouses and carousel that are fully accessible to all children, including those in wheelchairs.
2700 F St. NW. 202-467-4600. Prices vary.
The Kennedy Center is a multi-use facility for families. The free nightly Millennium Stage events feature musicians, dancers and other performers from around the world. Programs such as the Performances for Young Audiences series bring music, theater and opera to children and teens. And then there’s the building itself, with its long carpeted hallways filled with flags, the enormous Grand Foyer and the terrace overlooking the Potomac River, which offers plenty of opportunities for kids to run and explore.
Next event: April 29 from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. U Street Music Hall, 1115 U St. NW. $10, or $30 for four tickets. Infants and crawling children admitted free. Maximum three children per adult.
On weekends, DJs Stereo Faith and Meistro keep crowds dancing until the wee hours at Wonderland Ballroom or Flash. But when they get home, they’re just “Dad.” Looking for a way to get their kids grooving to good music instead of the usual toddler-friendly fluff, the DJ duo launched Rumpus Room at U Street Music Hall, a daytime party with cool tunes at a family-friendly volume and plenty of kid-friendly distractions, such as hula hoops and beach balls, while the club’s green room, where performers usually hang out before going on stage, is reserved for nursing moms. Children can enjoy snacks, water and juice, and there are brunch drink specials for parents. (The event is designed for children age 8 and younger, but older siblings are welcome.)
Dining for all ages
Just because you’re bringing the kids doesn’t mean you’re stuck in the land of fish fingers and mac and cheese.
3715 Macomb St. NW. 202-885-5700.
On some weekends, it seems like there are more kids than adults inside this noisy, cheery Cathedral Heights pizzeria. 2 Amys pioneered authentic Neapolitan pies in Washington, and they’re still worth the rave reviews. Some childless Washingtonians avoid the place because of all the rugrats, but parents will welcome the chance to enjoy a gourmet pizza or Italian snack in a family-friendly atmosphere.
716 Monroe St. NE. 202-758-2757.
The Brookland neighborhood is home to many young families, and its growing restaurant scene is increasingly welcoming to customers of all ages. Brookland Pint, with its focus on American craft beers, will interest IPA-loving parents and also appeal to their thrifty side: On Tuesdays, kids 12 and younger get any entree on the menu free, including miniburgers or cheese quesadillas.
5037 Connecticut Ave. NW. 202-364-0404.
You’ll find two kinds of people in Comet Ping-Pong on a weekend: Families who come to enjoy the pizzas and let their kids burn off energy on with free-to-play table tennis, and music fans who show up later in the night to catch some of the area’s top punk and indie acts. The Northwest restaurant is equally comfortable for both groups.
1115 East-West Hwy., Silver Spring, Md. 301-557-9818.
Children aren’t allowed to sample Southside rye IPA or Born Bohemian pilsner at Denizens Brewing Company, but everything else about the Silver Spring brewery is family friendly, from the spacious beer garden to the changing tables in the bathrooms. Just be aware that the outdoor area is 21-and-over after 8 p.m. on weekends.
5123 Baltimore Ave., Hyattsville, Md. 301-927-2740.
Now in its third decade in Hyattsville, Franklin’s got its start as an old-fashioned general store selling everything from rubber chickens to plush puppets to gourmet hot sauce. The adjoining restaurant and brewpub offers great sandwiches and stellar beers, but the real fun is letting your kids pick out something from the store before your meal.
750 15th St. NW. 202-489-0140.
You might not expect an expense-account restaurant a stone’s throw from the White House to welcome the tiniest diners, but check out the Kid’s Club menu, which will keep them occupied with word games, mazes and coloring activities. Whether your foodie-in-training needs the $16.95 colossal lump crab cake is an individual decision — other options include mini cheeseburgers or crispy fried shrimp for $8.95 — but this white-table seafood spot is great for parents marking a special occasion.
2446 18th St. NW. 202-232-7663.
Roofers Union is known for its large rooftop bar and its craft beer program, but the good times in Adams Morgan aren’t reserved just for those 21 and over. Continuing a tradition established by the building’s previous occupant, the Reef, Roofers Union sets aside one night a week for families. On Thursdays from 5 to 8 p.m., guests 12 and younger get a free entree from the kids menu with the purchase of an adult meal.
Locations in the District (14th Street and Capitol Hill), Maryland (Gaithersburg) and Virginia (Merrifield and Reston).
The old-school diner atmosphere of Ted’s Bulletin is designed to appeal to families. The all-day breakfast is great, but kids will go nuts for the desserts: house-made Pop-Tarts and a wide variety of milkshakes, including Oreo and s’mores. If your group includes hungry teens, Sunday’s family-style pasta night guarantees “meatballs as big as your head” for $15.29 per person.
This story was originally published March 26, 2015.