National Children’s Museum opens in downtown DC

Christina Barron

THE WASHINGTON POST – If good things come to those who wait, DC-area kids certainly deserve the National Children’s Museum, a learn-through-play space that opened recently.

The museum, which focusses on science, technology, engineering, arts and math, is a big step up from two earlier versions.

Adults may have visited the charming but low-tech Capital Children’s Museum, open from 1974 to 2003 near Union Station in Washington.

After years of struggle to find a new home, the renamed National Children’s Museum left the city and opened in National Harbor, Maryland, in 2012.

Most of the exhibits – dress-up, ride-on and pretend shopping – appealed to preschoolers, and the hoped-for large crowds didn’t show up. It closed three years later.

Kids watch pompoms shoot through air-filled tubes as part of the museum’s ‘Data Alley’ area. PHOTOS: THE WASHINGTON POST
A child explores the Dream Machine climber at the National Children’s Museum

The new museum, which is a few blocks north of the National Mall in Washington, aims to attract kids through elementary school.

“We wanted this to be more than a play-based experience,” said the President of the museum Crystal Bowyer.

“We’re focussing on all the way up to (age) 12 because we’re a science centre, too.”

The vibe is cool kid, not cute kid, with grey floors, few walls and exposed ducts overhead. The 10 permanent installations include elements of play and learning.

Kids enjoying the space on Monday afternoon stuffed colourful pompoms into air-filled tubes, laughing as they watched the soft balls shoot out onto the floor.

The other side of the installation, however, was about data – using the pompoms to vote for a favourite animal and see how the votes are tallied.

At a baseball-focussed area, visitors hit a ball off a tee into a virtual Nationals Park, but the digital display also calculates how far the ball would go depending on the material of the bat.

The ‘Weather Worlds’ area lets kids become weather superheroes, with a sweep of an arm causing images of clouds or lightning to appear on a projected scenic backdrop. On the other side of the wall, there’s a real-world tie-in, a maze-like quiz that encourages kids to take action on climate change.

“We wanted this to be the playful introduction and then once you’re hooked… what does that look like in real life. And that’s where the quiz comes in,” said Vice President of Exhibits and Education Elise Lemle.

By answering questions and following a path painted on the floor, kids discover they fit the profile of a ‘Water Warrior’, ‘Arbor Avenger’ or other type of environmentalist.

They get a suggested mission to carry out at home, with more information available at this museum website: climate-heroes.org. That installation requires more reading than the other areas, some of which could use additional printed instructions or resources. Lemle said museum staff members are testing how much reading material visitors want.

The showpiece of the museum, called the Dream Machine, needs little explanation.

The climbing structure features a 42-foot slide and three stories of mesh tubes and cloudlike pods lit with coloured LED lights.

Shooting down the curved metal slide will be kids’ first experience after walking through the museum’s plaza-level front door.

“We wanted to create this magical moment of entry,” Bowyer said.

That moment isn’t happening this week, as the museum finishes work on the plaza level, which will include a cafe and an area for programmes, such as librarian-led story times. But the kids didn’t seem to care how they entered as long as at least one of the museum’s doors was open.