Wednesday, August 21, 2013

Sampling Smithsonians (with young kids, pre-schooler and baby)

Last week we decided to focus our weekly day-in-the-city on checking out some of the museums and areas around the National Mall.  Now, I've been to the National Mall several times with various configurations of people:  in 8th grade as a student by charter bus, with Brian several times as a couple, with my girlfriends and our moms, with my family and newborn Theo, with my family and a two-year old nephew, and finally twice as a teacher with 8th grade students.  I have arrived by bus, van, car, or metro.  The choice of museums and speed of the visit really depends on who you are with.

So yesterday, while taking the two boys by myself on a mild end of summer day, I chose to just sample a couple of the specific exhibits in two of the museums, and in the middle of that take in some of the outside activities.

Nothing opens until 10am around the National Mall.  I had planned to visit the botanical gardens nearby earlier, since we were there by 9 after dropping Brian off for work, but even this wasn't open yet.  So, once we finally found a metered parking spot, we took our time finishing up breakfast and waiting for the museums to open.  I'd like to give some tips about parking here, but I still haven't figured out the best way.  There are parking spots all around the perimeter of the National Mall.  The signs around them say no parking from 1-10am, and then 3 hour limits after that.   However, these were almost completely packed by 9:30am, and I was too chicken to park there before 10 (in the future I will chance it), so I took a metered spot on 7th St (where most of the food trucks park, fyi), and then moved spots around noon.  The shorter streets that go through the mall have different amount of hourly parking, ranging from 1-3 hours.  It really is best to just take the metro in, but I wasn't sure how Theo would do with all the walking and I didn't want to chance it.  He ended up doing pretty well.

So, without further background, some activities for 4-5 good hours on the National Mall with a three year old and an almost one year old on their level.

1st Stop:  The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum for their Flights of Fancy story time.
Walking there, we took some time to walk the outside scale model of the solar system (since we were early) and talk about the planets.  Theo was very interested in learning about other places.  Then we back tracked to the ramp entrance on the west of the building, since we had the single stroller.

Once inside, we grabbed a map, and Theo selected some exhibits based on the pictures.  We went through the open-air "America by Air" exhibit, touching and touring an airplane model and talking about flying on them.  

Then, we headed up the elevator to the "Apollo to the Moon" exhibit, where Theodore could have spent all day just at the Lunar Roving Module display, where they had the actual devices and tools used on the missions to the moon, as well as diagrams of these items.  Theodore was very interested in "what" and "how" and "why" everything was used for.  He is still saying he wants to build a plane to take his dog (and now his brother) to the moon, so tools are a big obsession right now.

Finally, we headed to the "Pioneers of Flight" gallery, checked out the airplanes, learned about Amelia Earhart, and talked about why someone would use an air balloon.  As story time approached (11:00), we headed to the carpet to play with some toy airplanes for a while and settle in.  The book today was "Moon Plane," so Miss Ann of the museum used her models to discuss the difference between airplanes and spaceships, and then started in on the story.  Theo was enthralled with this, and enjoyed the book as well.  Afterwards, he did a rubbing of a boot print on mars, and some rubbings of planes from some plates she had.  He also got to check out more tools in her display case, ones that would be used to fix planes.  He loved this of course.

Other exhibits to try:  "How Things Fly" is a hands-on type of exhibit for kids to learn about lift, drag, and thrust.  The planetarium show:  One World, One Sky:  Big Bird's Big Adventure is free every Friday, Sunday, and the first Saturday of each month at 10:30 am.  (Theo saw this at age 1 1/2 and loved it.)

2nd Stop:  The National Gallery of Arts Sculpture Garden for the funky house sculpture.
On our way to the next exhibit, we decided to walk through the National Gallery of Arts Sculpture Garden.  It is a beautiful place (with just a few stairs), with a cafe and fountain (ice skating rink in the winter) in the middle.  Some kids did slip off their shoes and wade in the fountain, but we just threw a lucky penny in and moved on.

3rd Stop:  Riding the Carousel
We decided to try out this carousel, and delighted to find that it actually gives you a nice long ride at a quick pace.  Tickets were $3.50 (yes, parent helpers must have a ticket for kids under 42 inches), except for anyone under 1 year, which meant Eli was free.  I was able to stand between the two and was surprised how well Eli held on.  He really loved it.  After this, we found a spot on the lawn under one of the many trees and had our late picnic lunch and I nursed Eli.  It was very relaxing, other than the sparrows that Theo had to keep chasing off. 

4th Stop:  Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History for its discovery room
I wanted to take a look at the hands-on discovery room I had read about in this museum, so we headed in here.  Like the other museums on the mall, we had to go through a bag-check at the door.  This one was done by hand, while the Air and Space one uses a machine.  Both say no food or drinks, but they didn't say anything about the kids snacks and drinks that I had in mine.  This one also did not have a ramp entrance on the mall side, but does have one if you go around the back of the building.  Theo chose the ocean exhibit, and almost immediately asked where Nemo was, and we then found some clownfish in their aquarium tank.  Through the back of this exhibit is the discovery room we came for.  It is a really neat place, though of course it was a little overcrowded as many of the areas on the mall were on a nice summer day.  Theo jumped between inspecting the items with a magnifying glass, microscope, and binoculoars.  Eli liked the feeling the different shells in the texture bags, and we even slowed down and read a story in their reading nook area.  All in all, a nice room for this age kids, but not much more than a 30-45 minute stop.  We then headed upstairs to the Insect Zoo, to check out the real insect exhibit they had there.  Theo said "eww" a lot.  I think he has picked that up from me.

And since our second parking meter was about to expire, we called it a day on the mall and headed out to wait on Brian to be done with work.  Definitely an enjoyable, cheap, educational day with my two little ones in the middle of the hustle and bustle of one of the countries biggest tourist attractions.

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