When it's "too nice out" to take the kids to a museum

By Fellow Sarah Erdman
Fall at the museum, exterior view

Enjoying pumpkin spice season? Museum Educator Sarah Erdman recommends bringing little ones to museums' grounds and gardens this time of year.

My son spends as much time as possible outside. At two years old, he has definite opinions, and when he carries over his shoes and shoves them in my lap... I know what that means. I can't say I blame him, it has been a beautiful summer in Washington, D.C., and we are moving into those crisp fall days that make you want to stay out as long as possible.

Hanging out on the grass outside the museum
Hanging out on the grass outside the museum

When the "great outdoors" beckons on a day like that, it can be hard to justify spending any time indoors, even at a place as amazing as the National Museum of American History! Sometimes, people will tell me they "save" museums for bad weather, and it is just too nice out right now to go.

I COMPLETELY understand this feeling, and, in fact, I support it. My son starts to climb the walls (almost literally) if I keep him cooped up for too long. Luckily, you don't actually have to choose between your museum trip and outdoor adventure; you just spend your time around the museum, as well as in it!

A lot of museums take as much care with how the outside of their space looks as their inside, and the National Museum of American History is no exception. Walking up to either entrance, you'll see the terrace, lined with flower beds. Most people make a beeline right for the door, but take a few minutes and break off to the right or left.

Fall is a beautiful time to explore the museum's outdoor spaces
Fall is a beautiful time to explore the museum's outdoor spaces

The wide slabs of the terrace are ideal for letting the kids stretch their legs. The preschoolers I worked with would step or jump from stone to stone or walk on the lines in between. Just be careful, they are doing some construction on the terrace and it can get slippery on rainy days. On hot days, if you are lucky, the sprinklers might be watering the flower beds and you can get a bit of a misting as you walk by.

There are some wide benches that you can rest on while the kids are exploring and it will give you a chance to look at the flower beds along the museum. The Smithsonian Gardens team is out there every day working on the plantings and they are all meticulously labeled. So, if you see something you like you can look for it at your local garden center! All around the terrace are flags from every state and territory in the U.S. (complete with handy label). You can look for you state or just pick a favorite and figure out where it is from.

"Long Island Cheese" heirloom pumpkin in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History
Long Island Cheese heirloom pumpkin in the Victory Garden at the National Museum of American History. Photo by Smithsonian Gardens. Learn more about this pumpkin on their blog.

From the east side of the terrace, you get a sweeping view of the Washington Monument and the construction happening in the garden at American History and at the National Museum of African-American History and Culture. Your construction-obsessed little one may be lucky enough to see some cranes in action.

Down on the west lawn, you'll spot big leafy trees, plenty of benches, and a curving path. It's all set back a little from Constitution Avenue and you can take a breather, let the kids run around and plan the next stop for the day while watching the local squirrel population perform their daily Olympics. Don't forget to explore the Victory Garden—the gardening team has done an incredible amount of work on it and it looks amazing.

The lush Victory Garden is located on the east side of the museum
The lush Victory Garden is located on the east side of the museum

Even though the things I'm describing are specific to this museum, a lot of local museums have as much to discover around them as in them! A historic house may have gardens and paths that you are allowed to explore. An art museum may liven up their space with sculptures, and other museums have interesting architectural features on the building itself or maybe some parkland that will give you a little slice of nature. You and your kids can play I Spy, go on a color hunt, stretch your legs (jump, skip, and hop even if you shouldn't run) and even do some measuring by using your bodies as a yardstick!

So, you are right, it IS too beautiful of a day to be inside. That's why you should head down and see what is going on outside the museum today.

Sarah Erdman is the Goldman Sachs Fellow for Early Learning at the museum and the founder of Cabinet of Curiosities. She has also blogged about hands-off strategies for exploring museum objects, why your baby belongs in a museum, and what you should bring to the museum in addition to your kids.