D.C. By Stroller: What To Do With A Toddler In The Nation’s Capital

It’s a funny thing—you think you know a place well, then you have a child and you see the place through completely fresh eyes. At least this is how I feel about D.C. now. I spent six years studying here as a graduate student and felt that I had seen and done a lot. But my activities included things like long brunches at coffee shops, window shopping in Georgetown, and visiting open mic nights at local dive bars.

Now, several years later, I am back and reacquainting myself with my old stomping grounds, toddler in tow. Obviously very different activities are in order! And riding the metro suddenly got a lot more complicated with a stroller…hello, elevators! But traveling around D.C. with a toddler has also introduced me to new places that I had never visited before and it has been a great experience.

As we were planning for our time in D.C., I asked several of my friends for advice on what to do with toddler-aged kids in the nation’s capital. I received lots of good tips and made some new discoveries on my own, so I thought I would share them here.

    1. The National Building Museum. I had actually never visited this museum before, so this was a first for both my son and me! This museum has two areas that are especially fun for toddlers: the Building Zone and Play Work Build. The Building Zone is an area designed for the tiniest of builders and has all kinds of materials for stacking, constructing and crafting. You have to get tickets for a designated time slot—this can be tricky on weekends and holidays, but we had no problems getting tickets first thing on a weekday morning. Playtime lasts 50 minutes here. Play Work Build is a play area designed for all ages, really. The main attraction is the space with huge blue foam blocks and tubes that you can assemble using your own creativity and imagination.
      Play Work Build exhibit at the National Building Museum
    2. Wonderplace at the National Museum for American History. The best thing about this exhibit is the mini-replica of Julia Child’s kitchen (see below)! My 20-month old son loved playing here and there is plenty to do to keep small children engaged. The space (which is relatively small given the overall size of the museum) fills up relatively quickly and I would recommend going here on a weekday morning as soon as the museum opens.
Mini replica of Julia Child’s kitchen in Wonderplace
  1. Children’s Garden at the U.S. Botanic Garden. No matter what time of year, the Botanic Garden is a beautiful place to visit. We were lucky to visit on a sunny Saturday morning early this fall and had a wonderful time. Our son loved exploring the Children’s Garden and quickly became obsessed with using the miniature watering cans to water the plants. They can also plant small herbs, sweep the floor (what is with kids’ obsession with brooms?), compost and walk through a sensory climbing structure. Afterward we had fun exploring the other rooms of the conservatory—the Tropics reminded us a lot of our time in Brazil! Finally, the National Garden is a nice area for tiny legs to take a short walk.
    Watering plants at the Children’s Garden
  2. Visit one of the many playgrounds in Arlington! After living abroad for the past two years, I was truly amazed by the playgrounds in Arlington. Our favorites in Arlington were Quincy Park and Rocky Run Park.
    Quincy Park
  3. Story-Time at Central Library in Arlington. I know this is probably a no-brainer for most folks, but I was so excited to take my son to a story-time here in the U.S. I am an avid reader and hope to instill my passion for books in my son, too. We visited story-time at the Central Library a couple of times and had a great time singing, dancing and listening to stories. Also–given the diverse neighborhood in Arlington, each session starts off with a “Hello” song sung in multiple languages!
  4. Take a class and play at nook. After spending a few weeks in D.C., I had visited several museums with my son, played at lots of neighborhood playgrounds and was looking for something new to do. Another Foreign Service parent had recommended nook indoor playspace, so I decided to check it out. If you’re willing to splurge (it is quite pricey!), this is an awesome place to spend the morning or afternoon and your toddler will love it. nook promotes play-based learning and offers a clutter-free environment for play and creativity. As soon as we stepped in, I was impressed by the calm and chill atmosphere—something unusual for a toddler playspace. They have rotating thematic play areas, an art corner, ball pit, play house and a “tinker room” with random everyday items that can be manipulated (think cardboard paper towel rolls, coin wrappers, etc.). There were no annoying blinking toys that play incessant music, no plastic toys, no toys that looked like a rainbow threw up on them… 🙂  It was a truly unique experience. We also partook in a music class, which was a lot of fun.
  5. imagiNATIONS Activity Center at the National Museum of the American Indian. So, I am certain that this place is amazing and I had fully intended to visit it, but we made the mistake of visiting the museum on a Monday, the one day of the week that this exhibit is closed! It was my fault for not reading the fine print online, but once I checked the opening hours of the museum, I thought we were good to go (yes, that is correct–the museum was open, but this section wasn’t). It was a true shame though, because many, many other families had the same idea as we did–and we were left wondering what to do with their bouncy toddlers for the rest of the Columbus Day morning. Nevertheless, we did have fun watching the 13-minute “Who We Are” film upstairs in the Lelawi theater. The next time we’re in D.C., I am definitely checking this place out!
  6. Be creative! Ride the metro, play on the National Mall, go to the zoo, visit Eastern Market… There are tons of other things to do in D.C. and this is by no means an exhaustive list. Make sure to check out the seasonal things to do (right now at this time of year, for example, there are lots of Halloween activities and Fall Festivals going on). Another great resource is the blog Kid-Friendly DC. I found a lot of great resources there!

What are your favorite places to visit or things to do in D.C. with a toddler or young child?

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