If good things come to those who wait, D.C. area kids certainly deserve the National Children’s Museum, a learn-through-play space that opened Monday in Washington.
The museum, which focuses on science, technology, engineering, arts and math (STEAM), is a big step up from two earlier versions.
Adults may have visited the charming Capital Children’s Museum, open from 1974 to 2003 near Union Station in Washington. After years of struggle to find a new home, the renamed National Children’s Museum left the city and opened in National Harbor, Maryland, in 2012. Most of the exhibits — dress-up, ride-on and pretend shopping — appealed to preschoolers, and the hoped-for large crowds didn’t show up. It closed three years later.
The new museum, which is a few blocks north of the Mall in Washington, aims to attract kids through elementary school.
“We wanted this to be more than a play-based experience,” said Crystal Bowyer, the museum’s president. “We’re focusing on all the way up to [age] 12 because we’re a science center, too.”
The vibe is cool kid, not cute kid, with gray floors, few walls and exposed ducts overhead. The 10 permanent installations include elements of play and learning.
Kids enjoying the space Monday afternoon stuffed colorful pompoms into air-filled tubes, laughing as they watched the soft balls shoot out onto the floor. The other side of the installation, however, was about data — using the pompoms to vote for a favorite animal and see how the votes are tallied.
At a baseball-focused area, visitors hit a ball off a tee into a virtual Nationals Park, but the digital display also calculates how far the ball would go depending on the material of the bat.
The “Weather Worlds” area lets kids become weather superheroes, with a sweep of an arm causing images of clouds or lightning to appear on a projected scenic backdrop. On the other side of the wall, there’s a real-world tie-in, a mazelike quiz that encourages kids to take action on climate change.
“We wanted this to be the playful introduction and then once you’re hooked . . . what does that look like in real life. And that’s where the quiz comes in,” said Elise Lemle, the museum’s vice president of exhibits and education.
By answering questions and following a path painted on the floor, kids discover they fit the profile of a “Water Warrior,” “Arbor Avenger” or other type of environmentalist. They get a suggested mission to carry out at home, with more information available at this museum website: climate-heroes.org.
That installation requires more reading than the other areas, some of which could use additional printed instructions or resources. Lemle said museum staff members are testing how much reading material visitors want.
The showpiece of the museum, called the Dream Machine, needs little explanation. The climbing structure features a 42-foot slide and three stories of mesh tubes and cloudlike pods lit with colored LED lights. Shooting down the curved metal slide will be kids’ first experience after walking through the museum’s plaza-level front door.
“We wanted to create this magical moment of entry,” Bowyer said.
That moment isn’t happening this week, as the museum finishes work on the plaza level, which will include a cafe and an area for programs, such as librarian-led story times. But the kids didn’t seem to care how they entered as long as at least one of the museum’s doors was open.
Correction: An earlier version of this story misstated the job title for Elise Lemle. She is the museum’s vice president of exhibits and education. The story has been updated.
IF YOU GO
What: The National Children’s Museum
Where: 1300 Pennsylvania Avenue in Northwest Washington (Federal Triangle Metro).
When: 9:30 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily. Closed some holidays.
For ages: Up to 12.
How much: $10.95 for ages 1 and older. Tickets are timed entry. Advance purchase is recommended.
For more information: Call 202-844-2486 or visit nationalchildrensmuseum.org.