By Sharon Wee Fu, Parents League Travel Resources
Our nation’s capital is a treasure trove of educational gems. With its symbolic buildings, important museums, and reminders of the nation’s presidents and soldiers, Washington, DC serves as a distillation of our country’s life story, fascinating and ever-changing. For everyone in your family, frequent trips to DC provide a fun, relaxing and continuing education in politics, science, history and the arts.
DC’s proximity—under two hours by air, or a morning’s ride by car, train or bus—also makes it conveniently accessible to New York families. It is especially family-friendly for other reasons: free admission to national museums; wide, open spaces; short walks between the presidential monuments; and stroller-friendly passageways, as most buildings are designed for easy access.
When to Go
It seems most appropriate to descend on DC for a national holiday such as Memorial Day or the Fourth of July. But summer in this city built on swampland brings with it infamously muggy weather. That is why many families with children find spring break an opportune time to visit. It coincides with the Cherry Blossom Festival, during which one can bask in cool, gentle breezes along the Tidal Basin, walking under a canopy of pink cherry blossoms bursting in full bloom. The National Mall offers a large swath of green space where children can fly kites or have an impromptu picnic of hotdogs.
Before You Go
It can be rewarding to plan your trip around a theme. To acquaint your children with the nation’s presidents, borrow a few books about them. Early readers can find fun facts with Step into Reading titles such as Abe Lincoln’s Hat, George Washington and the General’s Dog or Thomas Jefferson’s Feast.
Alternatively, focus on one president. An in-depth study of Franklin Roosevelt will better prepare you for the FDR Memorial, which is segmented according to his four terms in office. An older child who understands this president in the context of the Great Depression, the New Deal and World War II will find this visit more meaningful.
Another theme might be the discovery of the treasures in major museums. Do your homework beforehand: purposefully identify what you want to see. There are many resources, online and otherwise, to assist you. Research famous artifacts such as the Hope Diamond (which resides in the National Museum of Natural History); read a biography about the Wright Brothers (whose plane is in the National Air and Space Museum); or watch an episode of Julia Child on television or online before you visit her famous kitchen (in the National Museum of American History).
Architecture and history are ever-present themes. Reading about the White House or the Capitol Building provides some perspective the moment you arrive amidst these great buildings. The main landmark buildings are clustered on a close grid around the National Mall and the Tidal Basin. You can equip children with their own map (preferably with landmark icons) so that they can practice their directional skills while learning the footprint of our nation’s capital.
Remembering Great Men
Children are always awed by the imposing statues at the Thomas Jefferson Memorial and the Lincoln Memorial—even more so when these monuments are viewed at night. During the day, however, take advantage of exhibitions mounted in the basements of these buildings to learn about the lives and achievements of these historical figures.
Day or night, the words of both men inscribed on the walls of their memorials are bound to move any visitor. The Jefferson Memorial includes stirring quotes about freedom. Talk to your children about Jefferson’s role as the author of the Declaration of Independence and the impact of his words on American ideals.
The language of the Gettysburg Address etched in the Lincoln Memorial can lead to a discussion about the Battle of Gettysburg, the Civil War and Lincoln’s crucial role in Emancipation. Sitting with your children on the steps of this memorial, looking out across the Reflecting Pool, is the perfect time and place to tell them about that day in 1963 when Martin Luther King stood on this very spot and delivered his “I Have a Dream” speech, a pivotal moment in our Civil Rights Movement.
Honoring True Heroes
In an era of action figures and superheroes, it is worthwhile to instill in children respect and appreciation for the bravery of American soldiers who fight in real battles. In the evening glow, the life-size brass soldiers of the Korean War Memorial provide a haunting tribute to these heroes of a war fought in a distant time and place. The Vietnam Veterans Memorial, with the individual names of fallen soldiers inscribed on its walls, reminds us of the human price of war.
Similarly, the majestic National World War II Memorial is a fitting tribute to “The Greatest Generation.” Situated at the east end of the Reflecting Pool, between the Lincoln Memorial and the Washington Memorial, the newest structure along the National Mall honors the 16 million Armed Forces soldiers who served and the 400,000 who died in World War II. Every American state is honored with its own granite pillar, and the two pavilions —Atlantic and Pacific—commemorate the battles fought across two oceans.
The Holocaust Museum is a sober reminder of the atrocities of genocide and of bigotry gone berserk. The permanent collection is organized chronologically to document the systematic annihilation of Jews under the Nazi regime. It contains 900 exhibits, along with historic film clips and eyewitness accounts. Because of its graphic content, it is recommended that only children aged 11 or older view the permanent collection, but all visitors may visit the multi-media Wexler Learning Center, the Hall of Remembrance, and the Children’s Tile Wall (a display of 3,000 tiles painted by American schoolchildren to commemorate the lives of children who died in the Holocaust). A special exhibition, “Remember the Children: Daniel’s Story,” is tailored for elementary and middle school children and presented in a format they can more easily comprehend.
Smithsonian Museums and Others
We are fortunate in our access to the Smithsonian Institution, the world’s largest museum complex and research organization, composed of nineteen museums, eight research centers and the National Zoo. Admission to Smithsonian museums and the Zoo is free, and that is one of the things that makes a DC visit so appealing.
Many parents consider it a rite of passage to bring their offspring to the National Air and Space Museum, the place that impressed them vividly when they themselves were little. The museum has two locations. The National Mall building displays the original Wright 1903 Flyer, the “Spirit of St. Louis,” the Apollo 11 command module and a lunar rock sample. The Steven F. Udvar-Hazy Center located near Dulles Airport is expansive enough to accommodate more artifacts, including the Lockheed Blackbird (the world’s fastest jet), the “Enola Gay” and the Space Shuttle Enterprise. These models are accompanied by stories that make them come to life. Children can also visit Discovery Stations—interactive carts with hands-on activities related to aviation, astronomy, space exploration and planetary geology.
The National Museum of American History offers something for everyone. It preserves iconic items from a wide range of popular subjects, culled throughout America’s lifetime—from dresses worn by First Ladies, to Stradivarius violins, sports memorabilia and an L train from Chicago. “America on the Move” focuses on the history of transportation from railroads to highways. The interactive exhibition “Invention at Play” highlights the link between how children play and the thinking skills and creative processes used by inventors. “Spark!Lab” is a hands-on lab that allows visitors to play games, conduct science experiments and invent things. Those more inclined to the arts will enjoy the Historic Theater where children can “arrange the stars” on the Star Spangled Banner. There are live performances which showcase famous songwriters, performers and important compositions.
If the weather is not ideal for staying outdoors, young children will be happily entertained in the Hall of Mammals at the National Museum of Natural History. This building also includes noteworthy galleries such as the Ocean Hall, the Hall of Bones and the Hall of Geology, Gems and Minerals (where the Hope Diamond can be found). “FossiLab” is a glass-enclosed lab which allows visitors to watch paleontologists extract fossils from rock and construct fossil casts.
The Reynolds Center, which houses the Smithsonian American Art Museum and the National Portrait Gallery, should not be overlooked. These two museums, neatly woven together, visually convey America’s history and culture. The National Portrait Gallery contains portraits of American war heroes, pop icons, activists and athletes—and the only complete collection of presidential portraits outside the White House.
The Rotunda of the National Archives Building is the permanent home of the “Charters of Freedom”—the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution of the United States and the Bill of Rights. Learning about the protection of these priceless articles is as significant as seeing the documents themselves. The National Archives website provides excellent research materials about these important documents.
Admission to the International Spy Museum (which is not a part of the Smithsonian) may not be free, but if you have older children who are fascinated by the secretive world of espionage, it is well worth the cost. The Spy Museum is the only public museum of its kind in the country. It displays spy gadgets, weapons, bugs and vehicles and elaborates on the development of spy technology over time. Visitors can learn about the history of this profession, revisit some of the most intriguing cases and discover the impact that spies have had on foreign relations and world history. The museum even offers a “Spy City Tour” of DC for the true enthusiast.
Raising Young Politicians
There is no better way to nurture a budding politician’s dreams than to literally climb up Capitol Hill. The Capitol Visitor Center educates visitors about the functions of the House and the Senate and the legislative process. Tours to the historic Capitol are best arranged beforehand which can be done online or through the office of your local Representative or Senator. The latter option is advisable if you wish to watch the House or Senate in session.
The Library of Congress is the largest library in the world and should not be missed. The original library, established in 1800 for the sole purpose of serving as a reference library for Congress, burned down along with the Capitol Building in 1814 when British soldiers set fire to it. Its replacement rose out of the collection of Thomas Jefferson’s books, accumulated over 50 years and considered one of the finest in the country. The Thomas Jefferson Building, the oldest of the three buildings occupied by the Library of Congress, is an architectural beauty. The library contains a copy of the Gutenberg Bible, a display of early American maps, and an exhibition about the drafting of the Declaration of Independence, the Constitution and the Bill of Rights. Furthermore, the exhibition “Thomas Jefferson’s Library” provides a glimpse of Jefferson’s wide interest in several subjects. There are displays of his written recipe for vanilla ice cream as well as a written instruction for creating a macaroni machine, two items Jefferson introduced to America that remain popular today.
Touring the White House takes meticulous planning. A request for a self-guided tour can be submitted to your Member of Congress up to six months before your planned trip; limited availability is granted on a first- come, first-served basis. Nonetheless, you can drop by the White House Visitor Center to explore exhibits about the architecture, furnishings, first families and our relations with world leaders.
A family visit to DC is not solely a laboratory for serious study. Kite-flying, biking and ball-playing are commonly seen along the National Mall. The National Zoo has panda bears, and the Kennedy Center for the Performing Arts is a venue for concerts of the highest caliber. Even more adventures can be discovered further afield and can be enjoyed at a leisurely pace.
Mount Vernon was the beloved home of George Washington for forty years until his death in 1799, and is now the most popular historic estate in the United States. Touring its Mansion house, working farm and several outbuildings that re-create slave quarters, stables, kitchen and a greenhouse, children can learn about life in the 18th century. A distillery and gristmill are operated by guides in colonial attire who talk about how the mill works and its role in Washington’s farming operations. A working blacksmith shop was recently reconstructed based on archaeological research; while there, you can watch a blacksmith forge a plow from iron. The grounds also include forest and scouting trails, in addition to heirloom gardens that display plants from Washington’s day. An education center features gallery and theater installations to illuminate Washington’s military and presidential career.
The National Aquarium in Baltimore features more than fish, with more than 16,000 specimens and 600 animal species that include reptiles, mammals, amphibians and birds. One highlight is the dolphin show titled “Our Ocean Planet” which explores the dolphin’s world and habitats. A new offering is the 4D Immersion Theater which combines 3D films with sensory effects such as wind, scent or mist built into the theater seats and the surroundings.
After You Leave
Our capital’s educational lessons need not end when you and your family leave DC. You will find that each visit provides a buffet offering, whetting your appetite to learn more about what you have just seen. Collect the free handouts given by Park Rangers at the national monuments so that your children can read them once again. Create a travel scrapbook to contain these handouts, photos, tickets and museum guide maps. Treat your children to a souvenir from one of the museum gift shops, perhaps a craft kit or a coloring book. Follow up a museum visit with an online tour of its collection.
Let your children buy or borrow more books or DVD’s to further elaborate on what they have just experienced. Perhaps they are intrigued and want to learn more about World War II, the Holocaust or how government works. Or perhaps they simply want to collect biographies about presidential pets, starting with FDR’s dog, Fala, whose statue sits faithfully beside the president’s at his monument.
Washington, D.C. is close enough and you will no doubt have different reasons to revisit at different times over the course of your children’s school life. Have fun!
U.S. National Park Service: www.nps.gov
United States Holocaust Memorial Museum: www.ushmm.org
The Smithsonian Institution: www.si.edu
National Air and Space Museum: www.nasm.si.edu
National Museum of American History: www.americanhistory.si.edu
National Museum of Natural History: www.mnh.si.edu
The Donald W. Reynolds Center for American Art and Portraiture: www.americanart.si.edu/reynolds_center
Smithsonian American Art Museum: www.americanart.si.edu
National Portrait Gallery: www.npg.si.edu
The National Archives: www.archives.gov
International Spy Museum: www.spymuseum.org
U.S. Capitol Visitor Center: www.visitthecapitol.gov
The Library of Congress: www.loc.gov
The White House: www.whitehouse.gov
Mount Vernon Estate and Gardens: www.mountvernon.org
National Aquarium in Baltimore: www.aqua.org
Sharon Wee Fu serves on the Parents League Council and manages travel resources for The Parents League.