Experiencing the magic of Washington, D.C., with kids

  • Written by Deborah Stone
"Why do some presidents get their own monuments and not others?" "How does a draft work?" "Why did people let the Holocaust happen and not do anything to stop it?" "How come everyone thinks George Washington and Thomas Jefferson are such good men? They owned lots of slaves and never did anything to stop slavery." "What was the Korean War about?" "What is so bad about communism?"
   These difficult and often hard to answer questions bubbled forth from the mouths of my children at each stop along the way during our family's recent trip to the nation's capital. Everywhere we went, history confronted us, drew us in and caused us to think, question and puzzle over the events of the past.
   A trip to D.C. will have that effect on most people who take the time to explore the many fascinating facets of this city. It is an especially amazing journey for families to make together, and I was determined to make it with my family over spring break.
   Having been to D.C. several times before, I felt it my patriotic duty to show my husband and children the sights and let them experience the magic of this great city.
   It truly is an incredible place, with its splendid architecture, famous monuments, prestigious museums and impressive parks and waterways.
   D.C. has the ability to stimulate minds and stir up patriotic fervor within people. Children, in particular, are provided with many opportunities to have a total sensory connection with history. Those who have recently studied or are studying U.S. history and government in their schools will particularly find it to be a powerful experience because they are easily able to connect the words and images from their books to reality.
   Our trip made history come alive for my kids and awoke within them a deep interest, curiosity and appreciation for our country's past.
   Doing D.C. with kids, however, involves much planning and it is a trip that works best if the children are over 10, due to the complexities of the historical themes involved.
   In addition, there is much reading, concentrated listening, waiting in lines, walking from one place to another and patience involved in such an experience.
   My kids are 12 and 14, and in my opinion they were at good ages to take such a trip because they were able to process what they saw (through continued dialogue and discussion) and had the necessary stamina to last through each full day. The days were busy and we packed them to the max to get the most from our short time in this city.
   Pacing is the key for a successful experience with children because they can only handle so much at one time before their eyes glaze over and they become walking zombies. We made sure to take plenty of rest and refueling breaks along the way to keep us energized and fresh.
   Unfortunately, a freak heat wave hit the area during the time we visited and provided some discomfort, but we combated this with lots of liquids and periodic trips inside one of the many air-conditioned museums.
   It helps to secure tickets in advance to some of the more popular attractions, including the Washington Monument, the Holocaust Museum the Bureau of Engraving and Printing and the Capitol in order avoid long waits in lines or disappointment due to sold out situations (admission is free to most everything in D.C., but a finite number of tickets are issued per day and when they're gone, you're out of luck for that day).
   To obtain same day tickets, it is necessary to wake up at the crack of dawn and get to your destination by 8 a.m. to secure a place in an often lengthy line.
   Even with tickets in hand for a specific entry time, be prepared to wait, as there are post 9/11 strict security procedures in place that can cause delays.
   We were able to reserve timed tickets for certain places, such as the Washington Monument and the Holocaust Museum in advance of our trip via the phone. There is a small service charge to do this, but it was worth it to avoid exceedingly early starts to our mornings.
   One day we spent walking along the Potomac, seeing all of the monuments and visiting the Holocaust Museum (a particularly deeply moving experience).
   On another day, we toured the Capitol and the Supreme Court, visited the White House Visitor Center and viewed the White House from the outside (tours are only open to large school groups scheduled in advance).
   A third day was spent in several of the Smithsonian Museums, including the Air and Space and the American History. We were also able to visit Mt. Vernon (George Washington's home) and Arlington National Cemetery.
   To make our stay in the area more interesting, we booked a hotel outside of D.C. in Old Town Alexandria, Virginia, about a 25 minute ride from the city via the Metro (the area's clean, efficient light rail transportation system).
   One doesn't need a car in D.C. because it's best and easiest to explore on foot, plus parking is a nightmare. The Metro conveniently connects you from one end of the city to another and it is a simple system to navigate.
   My kids loved figuring out the fares each day and checking to see which line to use and the number of stops involved in reaching our destinations. After just two days, they were savvy users.
   Staying outside of the city provided us with a needed break from the constant go-go feeling we had when we were touring the sights. Old Town Alexandria is a charming, historical area with many colorful shops and excellent restaurants. In the evenings, we enjoyed meandering down the streets and taking in the quaint ambiance.
   One evening, however, we chose to stay in D.C. to catch a performance at the Kennedy Center. "Sheer Madness," the longest running play in D.C., was on one of the several stages at the Center and provided a fun dose of comedic entertainment for the whole family.
   It also gave us an opportunity to get a look at the Center's unique architecture and expansive interiors.
   After being in D.C. for several days, we rented a car to travel south to visit Jefferson's home at Monticello and also experience Colonial Williamsburg.
   Monticello is impressive and the tour captivated my kids with its interesting details about Jefferson's life-style and his creative intellect.
   Spending a day in Colonial Williamsburg provided a true taste of colonial times and was a rewarding way for my children to experience America's past.
   There are 88 original and hundreds of reconstructed buildings on site filled with working tradespeople and noted figures of the past (actors dressed in period costume who portray such individuals as George Washington, Patrick Henry and Ben Franklin).
   We sat in on several trials at the old Courthouse, listened to "Patrick Henry" give his famous speech about liberty, sampled colonial specialties as peanut soup, yams, pickled relishes, ginger cakes and rice pudding at a historical tavern, heard colonial music played on a spinet and felt transported back to the time of our country's prelude to independence.
   In one week, we managed to see many wonderful sights, but there were still others that eluded us due to lack of time. Ideally, it would have been wonderful to have spent another week in the area, but I feel confident that we will return on another trip to continue our explorations.
   My kids are already asking when they can go back, which I will take as a sign that the experience made a significant impression on themÑ or perhaps it was getting to order room service that affected them so deeply?
   For up-to-date information on D.C. and all its attractions, visit

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