1. Be willing to leave when it stops being fun. Two hours is almost always the right amount of time. If you go for longer, the little ones tend to get overstimulated and cranky. Actually, I think all the kids (and maybe the adults) get overstimulated and cranky. There is definitely a point of diminishing returns there and it's so nice to leave happy.
2. Do the math for memberships. We just did free stuff with the Adventurers, but I bought 4 museum memberships this past year. It's better to go more often, but only for 2 hours, and, of course, at our family size, family memberships are cheaper than going twice. We actually tend to go 4 times a year to places where we buy the membership. As a bonus, it turns out those memberships tend to be tax deductible!
3. The more you go the easier it is. Going frequently down town has made me (finally!) comfortable driving in DC. I now know where to park cheaply and easily without having to parallel park Blue Streak. Now it's not a big deal to hop downtown for a half day field trip. Bonus: the parking meters are for two hours!
4. Give the kids a mission. Having kids draw three things is the best way to get them to look closely at things and get more out of the trip. Second best is telling them up front that I'm going to ask them to describe three things on the car ride back.
5. Pick the target carefully. Neither the Adventurers nor the Zoomlians seem to do well with art museums (unless I could be available to help them connect with the art). This can probably be trained into them in advance, but I couldn't do it with Choclo and Oob along. Also, art museums with large rooms that small children are not allowed to run in are very high maintenance. Also, small children make the security guards nervous. Also, some art museums (I won't name the National Gallery here), have lots of difficult rules about kids, some of which make sense (no backpacks, especially no carrying babies in backpacks), and some of which don't (you have to be thirteen to push even an empty stroller, which means your older kids can't help you wrangle the younger). Bottom line: I'm skipping the art museums for a while.
6. It's worth doing the touristy stuff. I've now lived just outside of of DC for nearly 10 years, but I never made the effort to go down and tour the monuments. It seemed like it was such a hassle to get in, find parking and what not, so I never got around to it. Now that I've done it, I realize that the touristy stuff is what we show tourists because it's the most worth seeing. I don't mean shell out an arm and a leg for a tour bus, but going to see the local sights is worthwhile. A surprise benefit has been seeing the tourists. A few weeks ago we were touring the Lincoln Memorial (OK, my Shotgun Buddy was touring the memorial with the Adventurers while I sat in the shade with a Choclo and Oob who had HAD ENOUGH, if you know what I mean). A tour bus pulled up and out poured a large group of WWII and Korean War veterans from Colorado. I ended up sitting and chatting a bit with one and another gave me a band aid for Oob's skinned knee (thus giving me a peaceful rest of the trip, may they be rewarded a hundred fold!). They enjoyed watching Choclo and Oob pretend to be ducks and I enjoyed the memorials from the point of view of those who sacrificed so much to defend them.
7. Go online before you go. The Smithsonian and National Park service have websites with pages titled "Plan Your Visit" and "What to Know Before You Go." It was really helpful to know that you can't bring bottled water into the Capitol Building, for example, so we had the kids leave their lunches in the car.
Bonus DC parking tips:
- Go mid week.
- Get there as close to 10 AM as you can.
- Check the far side of the Mall (the far side of Air and Space and the Castle).
- Get rolls of quarters!
Most museums have hours designed to make you eat lunch at the museum (unless you do the afternoon when parking is difficult). We get around this by having the kids eat half their lunch in the car on the way there, and half on the way back. Yes, the van gets messy, but we can put a lot of quarters into the big vacuum for the amount we save in lunches!
More with Jen!