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Best Smithsonian Exhibits for Kids (Beyond the Air and Space Museum)

Nov. 30, 2018
10 min read
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The Smithsonian Institution is known for being a family-friendly, educational, fun and affordable destination. There's always something new (and old) to see or do. When families think of the Smithsonian, images of the massive planes and rockets at the Air and Space Museum may come to mind, and they are very cool. But — there are other delightful Smithsonian exhibits for kids beyond the Air and Space Museum. For example, there are special age-specific attractions and activities, such as buzzing through a child-sized beehive at the National Zoo in Washington, DC, or building an igloo at the Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian in New York City.

In total, the Smithsonian Institution is comprised of 19 museums (17 in Washington; two in New York) and the National Zoo. All the museums are free and open 364 days a year (closed Dec. 25), although some special activities have a fee or require reservations.

Image courtesy of Smithsonian

Not only potentially the most iconic, but also the most popular complex is the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall, which receives about 7 million visitors a year. However, many of the Smithsonian Museums receive significantly fewer visitors, making them a bit less crowded and frenetic.

Twelve of the DC museums are located along the National Mall, from 3rd to 14th streets, between Constitution and Independence Avenues, a distance of about a mile from end to end. Believe us, you don’t want to walk from Air and Space to Natural History to American Indian and back again on a hot summer day! Parking can be tough along the Mall in Washington, so use the Metro or the DC Circulator bus if you can.

National Air and Space Museum
National Air and Space Museum (Photo by Dane Penland / National Air and Space Museum)

There's no question that the National Air and Space Museum is a great match for children and adults of all ages, but there are other worthy Smithsonian destinations that are appropriate for families looking to branch out a bit. Here are a few of our favorites.

National Museum of Natural History

The National Museum of Natural History is a tried-and-true destination and is usually one of the first Smithsonian facilities families check out in DC. Next to the Air and Space Museum, it is the second most popular Smithsonian with 6 million visitors per year. The famed Hope diamond is on display here as well as many other gems and minerals. However, your kids may be more interested in the insect zoo that includes a for-fee Butterfly Pavilion ($7.50 for adults and $6.50 for children 2–12).

The Sant Ocean Hall — home to nearly 700 marine specimens and models, high-definition video displays and interactive exhibits — is also popular with children interested in our oceans and marine life. The museum provides some terrific educational resources to pair with a visit. Kids may love the African elephant displays and Hall of Mammals, plus there's a terrific exhibit devoted to the origin of humans.

Smithsonian Museum of Natural History
The elephant display at the National Museum of Natural History. (Photo by James Di Loreto / Smithsonian)

The National Zoo

Lions and tigers and giant panda bears, oh, my! The National Zoo, founded in 1889, has some 2,700 animals from 390 species, all living in the 163 wooded acres in Rock Creek Park. To get there, you can take the Metro to the Cleveland Park stop.The zoo is hilly, so be sure to wear comfortable shoes and clothing.

For some fun zoo moments, stop by the ADA-accessible Me and the Bee Playground with huge flowers and larger-than-life non-stinging bees. When you’re preparing for your visit, tune into any or all of the four webcams peeking in on the giant pandas (Tian Tian, Mei Xiang and Bei Bei) as they chomp on bamboo, climb trees and tumble through the grass; elephants grazing; lions stalking; and the naked mole-rat (that pretty much sits around eating vegetables all day).

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One of three giant pandas at the National Zoo (Photo by Adam Mason / Smithsonian's National Zoo)

The National Museum of American History

There are a ton of family-friendly exhibits at The National Museum of American History, making it another popular spot. If you've got a budding Edison in your family, visit the Draper Spark!Lab, where kids ages 6 to 12 can use their imagination to invent, experiment and explore. Museum staff help children identify a problem or need, conduct research, sketch possible solutions, build prototypes, test the invention and even brainstorm ideas to market it. It's a fun program that combines creativity with business, technology and science. If your kids are younger than 6, head to Wonderplace instead. This 1,700-square-foot exhibit offers age-appropriate activities for the Smithsonian's youngest guests, including a play ship, fun slide and blocks.

National Museum of American History
The Smithsonian's National Museum of American History, Kenneth E. Behring Center, with the Washington Monument and National Mall in the background. (Photo by Jeff Tinsley / Smithsonian)

Smithsonian American Art Museum and National Portrait Gallery

The Smithsonian American Art Museum (SAAM) and the National Portrait Gallery are co-located in one building that covers two city blocks. The Throne of the Third Heaven of the Nations’ Millennium General Assembly (a mixed-media art installation) is on the American Art side, as are works by Nam June Paik, who lets you see TV monitors as art components instead of things that display art. In the National Portrait Gallery are the new portraits of President Barack Obama (by Kehinde Wiley), Michelle Obama (by Amy Sherald) and the Four Justices (a tribute to the four female justices of the US Supreme Court, by Nelson Shanks).

Those items are certainly worth a look, but there is also programming geared toward children 18 months to 8 years at the Explore!space story time center at the National Portrait Gallery. Your kids can learn about portraiture at 2pm Tuesday–Friday. Check the online schedule for specific programs and events designed for families, but the SAAM website also has some great ongoing suggestions such as "Walk on water” in the courtyard. If your kids need a calm minute or two, the Kogod Courtyard is a spectacular setting for a quiet rest.

American Art Courtyard
American Art Courtyard (Photo by Judy Colbert)

If you live in the DC area, and your daughter is a Girl Scout, look at the schedule for the exciting interactive programs for Brownies, Juniors and Cadettes, where they can earn points toward Legacy badges and Journey completions.

Postal Museum

A visit to the Postal Museum (across the street from Union Station with Amtrak, MARC and Metro trains) will help explain the history and evolution of our postal system, along with plenty of planes on display so you won’t feel you have to hit the Air and Space Museum in the same day. Here you can introduce youngsters to the fascination of stamp collecting and see a railway service car where employees sorted mail.

What’s in the Mail for You! is an interactive computer option if your children are groaning about being disconnected. A sheet of 10 activities for children is available and ranges from finding the 12 stone lions in the lobby, to writing a postcard to send to a friend and watching how stamps were made on the Spider Press over 100 years ago. There’s also a scavenger hunt to make sure everyone is paying attention to details while still having fun.

Postal Museum
Postal Museum (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian)

Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian

As mentioned, the Smithsonian has two collections in New York, one of which is the George Gustav Heye Center of the National Museum of the American Indian. Located at the Alexander Hamilton US Custom House in Lower Manhattan, they have permanent and temporary exhibits and numerous programs geared toward families. The programs explore the diversity of the Native people from the earliest times to today.

Explore the imagiNATIONS Activity Center, a family-friendly interactive area of interest where you can see how Mesoamericans created the first chewing gum and how the crops that they grew and cultivated are still among the most common crops eaten today. Learn about Native scientific discoveries and inventions while you are solving puzzles, performing experiments and playing state-of-the-art computer simulations.

National Museum of the American Indian
National Museum of the American Indian (Photo by Jason DeCrow / AP Images for Smithsonian’s National Museum of the American Indian)

Udvar-Hazy Center

The Udvar-Hazy Center, near Dulles International Airport in Virginia, is the companion to the National Air and Space Museum on the National Mall and is not to be missed. This facility has two large hangars showcasing thousands of aviation and space artifacts, including a Concorde and the Space Shuttle Discovery.

Shuttle Discovery (Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian)

There’s also the Donald D. Engen Observation Tower, where you can watch planes take off and land, almost next door at the airport. With so much to see, you might want a guide, so rent the museum’s digital guide (fee) with adult and youth versions. The youth guide has interactive stops and an opportunity to earn an Expedition Patch. Also for a fee, you can take to the skies in flight simulators. There is a $15 parking fee (before 4pm) and the line for parking spaces can be long during high season (March to August).

Image courtesy of the Smithsonian

Mommy Points has tips for visiting Washington, DC during peak times like the Fourth of July weekend.

Bottom Line

Everyone loves the Smithsonian Museums. You can see Dorothy's ruby red shoes from the Wizard of Oz, the Spirit of St. Louis and sculpture by Rodin. Yes, visit the Air and Space Museum with your kids, but don't stop there. There are lots of treasures waiting to be discovered by your family across the Smithsonian network.

If your family is headed to the Smithsonian in the nation's capital, check out TPG's points and miles guide to Washington, DC. And, if you don't stay at a points hotel, consider a DC Airbnb. When checking out the Smithsonian Museums in the Big Apple, see TPG's favorite family-friendly points hotels in NYC.

What's your favorite family-friendly activity or display at the Smithsonian?

Featured image by The National Museum of Natural History. JAMES DI LORETO/SMITHSONIAN