Welcoming our littlest visitors

Sure, toddlers love dinosaurs and things that they can climb on. But did you know they also love history? When parents want to take their preschoolers to a museum, they often think they’ll only be welcome at a children’s museum. Many assume that history is for older kids, and that a museum like ours won’t have anything to offer the very young. But we love little kids here, and little kids love our hands-on activities, our interesting collections, and, of course, our trains.

Children participating in an activity with Mary Pickersgill as part of the Star-Spangled Banner exhibition.

Young children don’t “get” history the way a 4th grader would; you shouldn’t feel pressured to try and explain the Civil War to your three year old. But little kids are beginning to understand that things change over time, and are developing a rudimentary sense of now, the past, and long long ago. Looking at artifacts in the museum and comparing them with the objects around them can help toddlers develop this sense of time while nurturing their critical thinking skills.

As a mom to two kids under five, I know that no matter how educational the experience, the first thing we harried parents are looking for in an outing is convenience. So I’ll start with a few logistical tips:

-We’re free, so don’t feel like you need to stay all day. An hour or two is about the most little ones can handle. Come in, see a few things, grab a bite to eat, and you can be back home (or to your hotel room) in time for nap.

-You can enter the building from the National Mall or from Constitution Avenue. Both entrances are stroller-friendly and close to the Metro.

-Bringing one large diaper bag will be easier than several small bags. You will have to go through a bag check when you arrive.

-Lockers are available near the Constitution Avenue entrance if you want to stash coats, backpacks, etc. They cost only a quarter (and you get your coin back when you return the key).

-We now have a huge family restroom on each floor. All of our women’s restrooms have benches where you can nurse, though you’re of course welcome to nurse anywhere in the building!

-The Stars and Stripes Cafe offers a variety of kids meals.Make sure to use one of the elevators on the west side of the museum to get to the Lower Level.

So once you’re here, and settled, what to do? You can start by picking up an Under-5 Discover! Guide at the welcome desks near each of the front doors (or download one ahead of time). This tour will introduce you to some of the faces of American history, and get your little ones moving their bodies. Make sure to stop on the first floor of the museum to visit the Spark!Lab’s Under-5 Zone, and our Invention at Play exhibition, both brimming with opportunities for your little ones to touch, create, and explore.

Or, make up your own tour of the museum. Go on a hunt to see how many animals you can find (hint: there’s a buffalo on the second floor…) Or see if you can count all of the wheels in America on the Move, our exhibition that’s jam-packed with trains, cars, buses, and even a subway car you can ride on.

If you’re really on top of things, bring along a book from the library. Children learn history best through stories, and a great book can give your kids a new perspective on an amazing object. There are plenty of benches, but if you prefer, feel free to sit down on the floor! For some great reading ideas, check out our OurStory website, which includes a bibliography of recommended kids’ books about history.

Whatever you do, remember to have fun, and don’t try to do too much. In future posts, we’ll recommend specific books, activities, and exhibitions for this age group. In the meantime, tell us if you’ve had a great time at the museum with your little kids. What did you do? What did they like?

Megan Smith is an Education Specialist at the National Museum of American History. Her preschool daughters love the ruby slippers.