With so much to do and see, Washington D.C. is a city worthy of many visits and a fun place to experience as a family. Here are some ideas for families visiting our nation’s capital with plenty of fun things to do with kids.
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Before You Leave for Washington, D.C.:
If your kids still in elementary school, they may not have a great frame of reference in to US history or government yet. So, unless you want to be that family on the steps of the Lincoln memorial with your kids melting down from boredom, follow these tips to prepare your kids ahead of time and get them ready.
Prep Your Young Historians
Reading about Washington, D.C. and U.S. history ahead of time can help make the trip more exciting. Prep ahead! Refer to tips in “Travel Prep for Kids” here.
Below are some great books to read ahead together. These are at your local library (or can be ordered).
Just the right amount of information for kids about everything in Washington, D.C.. My daughter and I learned here that there is a candy desk in the Senate and she even stumped our Capitol tour guide with that info!
The whole collection is brilliant, presenting difficult topics in a most age appropriate way. Having an understanding these books and follow up discussions provide will make visiting the monuments much more meaningful. Make sure to read together to answer questions! Great ones to read before visiting Washington, D.C.:
- I am George Washington
- I am Abraham Lincoln
- I am Harriet Tubman (piggy back with Lincoln on topic of slavery)
- I am Anne Frank (opens the door to WWII)
- I am Martin Luther King, Jr
Schedule your White House and Capitol Tours
Planning tours and activities ahead of time is a good way to get your kids involved in the planning process and give them some control over the trip.
White House and Capitol tours require passes from your representative. Request these as far in advance as possible. As of this writing, tours are not at full capacity and each representative has a very limited number of tours to award. Contact your Member of Congress and Congressional Tour Coordinator by calling the United States House of Representatives Switchboard at 202-225-3121, the United States Senate Switchboard at 202-224-3121, or visiting www.congress.gov/members.The current representative for the 33rd District covering the South Bay and much of the westside is Ted Lieu. You’ll find a section for “Helping with your DC visit” here.
Public tours are held on Fridays and Saturdays from 8:00 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., excluding federal holidays and unless otherwise specified. All tours of the White House are free of charge.
During Your Visit to Washington, D.C.:
Follow these simple tips to make your trip as kid-friendly as possible.
Pick up the perfect tourist map available at the kiosks or bookstore around every monument.
Washington, D.C. is a walking city so make sure everyone has comfortable shoes. The metro/ bus system is easy if you need to go a distance. Easily buy your tickets at the kiosk and plan your trip here (be careful to note if they are recommending a bus or metro): https://www.wmata.com
Keep your kids (and yourself) from wilting by bring snacks and water! There’s a lot of walking and not many options for to find food and drinks.
There are cafes in museums and many food trucks along 17th Street at Constitution Ave (on the Mall, down from the Washington Monument). The food trucks have many options and you can picnic on the grass. They aren’t cheap though. Manage expectations with your kids and find out prices ahead of promising dessert – I unknowingly agreed to a $9 slushie!
The Junior Ranger Program
The National Mall and all its monuments are run by the National Park Service. There are several opportunities for Jr Ranger in Washington, D.C.. We did the National Mall, which includes a page in back to collect your stamps (same as NPS passport), available at all gift shops and kiosks. The activities are fun and keep kids engaged. We enjoyed working on the booklet at breakfast and dinner. Make sure to bring your NPS Passport (or start it there) too.
Pro tip: There is an exclusive stamp (passport sticker) at the little bookshop inside the Lincoln Memorial.
Renting Scooters (includes prep ahead of time, if possible)
Your kids are going to want to do this so be prepared! We used Lime and Spin, but there are several other rental companies with their scooters around the mall. These are especially popular around the reflection pool in front of the Lincoln Monument. Download the apps and set up your account in advance so you are prepared.
My friend and I rented scooters and rode double with our 8 year olds when we were using them for transportation. The kids also wanted to ride solo for fun.
Make sure to check the pricing options. Lime was $10.99 for an hour and .39 per minute after, but they have a 24-hour pass that is $17.99 (which, after 90 minutes with a scooter is the better deal). Your time surprisingly adds up, especially since there is high demand and you may want to park your scooter, but keep it for later so consider the 24-hour pass. (My bill ended up being $39 dollars which Lime graciously credited but it wasn’t easy and clearly isn’t their policy so know before you go!)
Note that scooters are programed to slow down around the monuments and tidal basin where there is no guard rail. Therefore, our idea of riding to all the monuments was a bit futile as we had to walk the scooter through the Roosevelt, racking up time but not being able to use the scooter. Another reason to get the 24-hour pass!
Museums and Attractions for Kids In Washington D.C.
There are so many Washington D.C. museums to chose from! Find out where the kids want to go ahead of time and plan one per day and be flexible. They can get very crowded, easily extending your expected visit time.
The cemetery is easy to access by the metro. Check their website for educational activities as well as expectations while visiting. Talk to your kids about these expectations ahead – especially if they’ve never been to a cemetery. You can download their app to get around, but they will also give you a nice map at the visitor center which is easier for kids to use.
Prepare a scavenger hunt to keep the kids engaged while there. This is the one I made – you can edit depending on your family’s interests / history. For example, the friend I was with is a nurse so we included the Nurse’s Memorial. Arlington National Cemetery Scavenger Hunt
Look up the symbols on the gravestones ahead of time and bookmark it. Our kids were very curious what each meant and we didn’t know.
If you are fortunate enough to witness a funeral procession and / or service (we were!), take it in as photos are not permitted out of respect. Also remember to warn your kids that there will be a 21-gun salute and it’s loud!
Although this is inside the cemetery, it is separate. It’s run by the NPS, which means there’s a Junior Ranger opportunity! There isn’t a formal activity book so kids should be able to answer some questions from the Rangers about what they learned. You can use some of the questions on my scavenger hunt to help if they are interested in the Junior Ranger activity.
Pro Tip: The Arlington House closes a half hour before the cemetery so don’t save this till the end. Get your NPS Passport stamp at the gift shop there.
With 21 museums and the National Zoo, the Smithsonian Institution is the world’s biggest museum, education, and research complex, impacting the future by preserving heritage, discovering new knowledge, and sharing our resources with the world. You’ll definitely want to check these out, so be sure to research before you visit and have the kids decided which museums are at the top of their list.
Admission is free of charge at all museums and the zoo. Timed-entry passes are only required at the National Museum of African American History and Culture and the National Zoo. All Smithsonian museums and the zoo are closed on December 25.
You may think a zoo is just a zoo, but the National Zoo is a truly unique experience. Situated on 163 acres in the middle of Rock Creek Park in Washington, D.C., the National Zoo is home to almost 1,800 animals from more than 360 species. With approximately 2 million people from all over the world each year, the Smithsonian’s National Zoo is one of Washington D.C.’s and the Smithsonian’s most popular tourist destinations. Through engaging experiences with animals the Zoo instills a lifelong dedication to conservation.
The National Children’s Museum is a unique hybrid organization that combines science center study with children’s museum experiences. The Museum awakens curiosity and ignites creativity for all learners via science, technology, engineering, arts, and math (STEAM) centered exhibitions and entertaining, in-person and virtual program offerings.