I am working on a list of the best museum exhibits in DC for toddlers and preschoolers. Please feel free to add suggestions in the comments!
Great museum exhibits include:
ImagiNations at the Museum of the American Indian is great for small kids starting when they are a bit mobile. The exhibit shows a variety of American Indian homes from stilt houses to a Tipi to an Igloo. Lots of great hands on exhibits. Be sure to check if the music room is open. http://nmai.si.edu/visit/washington/imaginations/
Check out the Turquoise Mountain exhibit at the Sackler Gallery. It lets kids touch and create along with Afghan artists (in videos) including carpet weaving, pottery, design, wooden lattices and more. There are activity kits in the beautiful carved gazebo in the center of the exhibit. http://www.si.edu/Exhibitions/Details/Turquoise-Mountain-Artists-Transforming-Afghanistan-5975
Wegmans has sponsored a hands on exhibit and indoor playground in the American History museum called Wegmans Wonderplace. It includes a climbing structure, building materials, a play kitchen, and a farm and market. The kitchen is a miniature version of Julia Childs’ kitchen which is housed in the museum. The farm and market are cute with lots of hands on components. Please note this exhibit is closed on Tuesdays. http://www.si.edu/Exhibitions/Details/Wegmans-Wonderplace-5688
Q?rius Junior in the Natural History museum is another great hands on exhibit. Kids can learn about skeletons, reptiles, sounds, use puppets, play with magnets and microscopes and more. It is located behind the Oceans hall (head towards the tail of the giant whale on the ceiling, and head right). Hours vary, so check ahead. http://qrius.si.edu/visit/qrius-jr-discovery-room
The Insect Zoo at the Natural History museum is great! They often have docents on hand with real creepy crawlies to look at and hold. There is also a butterfly enclosure which requires tickets (free admission on Tuesdays). http://naturalhistory.si.edu/education/exhibitions/insectzoo.html
During the warmer months the Children’s Garden at the US Botanic Garden is wonderful with a tiny bamboo forest, water features, and plants to dig up, replant, and water. There is even some nice shade! Bring a change of clothes for smaller kids, they are pretty likely to get wet. The rest of the Botanic Garden is a great destination with kids too, both inside and out. The interior is divided into climate zones and functions (jungle, desert, medicinal plants etc). The outdoor garden has a fountain and stream and winding paths which make you feel like you are somewhere far away from the Capitol and national Mall. https://m.usbg.gov/kids-are-welcome-us-botanic-garden
The Building Museum has the Building Zone for smaller kids and Work Play Build for bigger kids. You can get tickets for the Building Zone only for $3/pp. For part of the summer the great hall of the building museum is transformed into a limited time exhibit, past exhibits include a giant wooden labyrinth and a ball pit big enough for adults to get lost. This year they will feature icebergs…I think it will be amazing! http://www.nbm.org
Check out the Kogod Courtyard for a beautiful indoor space which feels airy and light. The courtyard is between the American Art museum and the National Portrait Gallery near the Verizon Center. The Courtyard has a cool water feature which is very shallow and great for little kids. I recommend rubber soled shoes or water shoes to avoid slipping, and don’t forget to bring a change of clothes. Check the events calendar in the link below for festivals and events. The folk art exhibit at the American Art museum is really fun for smaller kids. http://npg.si.edu/visit/kogod-courtyard
The National Postal Museum next to Union Station is great for hands on activities. There’s a “tunnel” showing the first postal route on the east coast. It (loosely) simulates being in the woods in winter, little kids find it to be just thrilling enough. There is also the cab of a big truck which kids can climb into and push lots of buttons. An old postal coach is fun, but there are some figures of passengers which some kids find scary. There is a sorting exercise (throwing boxes into bins by state or region) which is fun even for kids who can’t read yet. I’ve never seen the museum very full, so this is a good one when other museums are overrun or for kids who don’t do well in crowds.
The Smithsonian Castle is iconic and great for a visit if you’re nearby (or you live here). There are some dioramas of the National Mall which are fun to compare, and an exhibit spanning various parts of the collection (taxidermy, art, artifacts, memorabilia etc) in a two room segment of the building. The Enid A. Haupt garden behind the castle is beautiful and has a few tucked away spots for a picnic as well as some fountains in warmer weather. http://gardens.si.edu/our-gardens/haupt-garden.html
The Air and Space museum is a perennial favorite. Don’t miss How Things Fly for some fun hands on demonstrations on the principles of flight. Check the schedule for details on the weekly story hour. There is just somethings so cool about hearing a book about Amelia Earhart while sitting next to one of her planes. The story hour also features some toys and crafts. https://airandspace.si.edu/exhibitions/how-things-fly/
The Library of Congress may not seem like an obvious destination for little pre-readers, but it is fun and beautiful. Be sure to stop by the information desk and ask for a map and the activity sheet for kids (it says age 8 and up, but younger kids can look at the pictures of the animals too). We went upstairs first and looked at the Minerva Mosaic, checked out the overlook of th Main Reading Room, and some of the exhibits. Then we headed to the Young Readers Center on the Ground floor. The Young Readers Center has a weekly story hour (check the schedule), a fun collection of puppets, and lots of books. We went through to the third room where the littler kid books are housed, picked up a bunch of pop up books and read for a long time. Any kid who likes looking at books will enjoy the Young Readers Center. https://www.loc.gov