Dusty old books begone! There’s nothing to spark a kid’s imagination like rocket ships, secret codes, homemade forts and splash rides. You’ll find all of these and more at these five kid-pleasing Washington, D.C. attractions.

History’s Mysteries

From the charging elephant in the Rotunda to the glittering Hope Diamond in the Gems and Minerals collection, from ancient dino fossils to fascinating ocean creatures, there are thousands of exhibits to explore at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History. Remember to look up – you might find a leopard in a tree or a giant whale floating overhead. Like all Smithsonian museums, entrance is free, but many institutions have additional exhibitions and attractions that come at a small extra cost.  Online reservations are a good idea.  For instance, the live Butterfly Pavilion is free on Tuesdays, but you’ll need a timed ticket to enter (available at the Butterfly Pavilion Box Office). All other days admission to the Pavilion is $6/Adult; $5/child.  The IMAX Theatre presentation is $9/Adult; $8/Senior; $7.50/Youth.

Washington DC - The 12 ton African elephant at the National Museum of Natural History looks ready to charge - photo Debra Smith

The 12-ton African elephant at the National Museum of Natural History looks ready to charge – photo Debra Smith

Most of the Smithsonian museums open around 11:00 a.m. and close about 5 p.m., and they are always busy. Museum restaurants vary widely by selection and cost. To keep costs down bring snacks and drinks. You can check your coats and backpacks for free at most of the museums. Confirm this option online before you go. Here’s a list of all the free museums and the National Zoo!

To Infinity and Beyond

Budding space explorers will love the National Air and Space Museum. This huge hangar-shaped building guides visitors through the history of flight from the Wright brothers, to early aeroplane design, jet aviation, and space flight.  Many of the planes are suspended overhead which makes it easy to imagine them in flight.  Highlights include Charles Lindbergh’s Spirit of St. Louis, Amelia Earhart’s Lockheed Vega and of course the 1903 Wright Flyer that started it all.  You can also walk through the Skylab Orbital Workshop or into the nose of a Boeing 747, touch a moon rock and learn how things fly. There are free guided tours twice a day. Flight simulators, IMAX films and Planetarium shows are offered at an additional charge. Note: there are no storage lockers for coats or backpacks at this museum.

Washington DC - Lindbergh's Spirit of St Louis at the National Air and Space Museum - photo Debra Smith

Washington DC – Lindbergh’s Spirit of St Louis at the National Air and Space Museum – photo Debra Smith

Building in a Building

Just four blocks from the National Mall sits an impressive red brick building, built in 1887 to honour the Union soldiers of the Civil War. Modeled after an Italian palazzo by Michelangelo, its awe-inspiring Great Hall soars 15 stories up. The roof is supported by enormous 22.8 metre (75 foot) Corinthian columns that are among the tallest in the world. Free historical building tours take you up to the private fourth floor for a dizzying view from the balcony.

Back on the main floor, in the Building Zone, kids ages 2 to 6 can dress up like Bob the Builder with a hard hat, safety vest and toolbox and get hands-on in a “working” playhouse. There are lots of building themed toys and books to choose from too. On the second floor, the Play Work Build area is chock full of foam shapes of everything from tiny Legos to giant building blocks.  Kids can build castles, forts and bridges to their heart’s content while parents rediscover their inner child and favourite building games from the museum’s historical collection. Other galleries have exhibits of paper models from around the world; photographs, films and objects that explore houses and homes past and present; and cutting-edge building techniques.

Washington DC - The only limit is your imagination at the National Building Museum - photo Debra Smith

The only limit is your imagination at the National Building Museum – photo Debra Smith

Take a peek in the museum shop before you leave.  It is one of the best in the city with a great collection of quality games, toys and souvenirs for children and adults. This is a not-for-profit museum but not a Smithsonian museum. There is no charge to enter the Great Hall, but there is an entrance fee for the exhibition and play areas. Adults admission is $10, children and seniors $7 and children under two are free.

The Spy’s the Limit

Washington, D.C. has more spies per capita than any other city in the world, according to the Washingtonian. Take a deep dive into the shadowy world of espionage at the International Spy Museum. Your indoctrination begins with a meeting in a dark room where real spies will give you the lowdown on the challenges of playing the spy game. After the short movie, check out the extensive collection of authentic spy gadgets including an actual lipstick pistol and a shoe phone, and hear about the capers in which they featured. Learn how spy technology has been used in code-breaking and surveillance and how it’s being used today in cyber attacks.

Washington DC - James Bond's ride at the International Spy Museum - photo Debra Smith

James Bond’s ride at the International Spy Museum – photo Debra Smith

There’s nothing like a great spy movie, and you’ll see over a hundred artefacts from the James Bond series in the 50 Years of Bond Villains exhibit, including Bond’s Aston Martin DB5 complete with machine guns. It’s easy to spend hours in the detailed and informative displays, but if you want to get outdoors, you can add an alternate mission. Spy in the City provides you with a GPS based interactive device with video and audio clues that guide you on a one-hour tour through the streets of Washington.

The International Spy Museum is not playing around.  Their advisory board of directors is made up of veteran CIA and KGB operatives, cryptology experts, intelligence officers and FBI officials who make sure that all the information in the exhibits can be trusted.

Off the Mall

Museums can be very quiet.  Blow off some steam at Six Flags America amusement park for a change of pace. This huge playground has eight theme areas including Hurricane Harbour. This massive water park has giant slides galore, a lazy river, and one of the largest wave pools in the world. Want to go faster? The park’s eight roller coasters range from Apocalypse, a stand-up coaster with inversions, explosions and a ten-story drop, a classic 1917 wooden roller coaster called The Wild One.

Washington DC - There's more than rides at Six Flags America - photo Debra Smith

There’s more than rides at Six Flags America – photo Debra Smith

The newest attraction, and the tallest one in the park at 24 stories, is the open-air swing ride Wonder Woman Lasso of Truth. It has a great view if you dare to check it out. Younger kids will enjoy gentle rides in Whistlestop Park and Movie Town with Looney Tunes theme rides like Pepe LePew’s twirling teacups and Foghorn Leghorn’s Tinsel Town Train. There are over 100 total attractions including rides, slides and shows.  Don’t miss the tasty southern fried chicken at the Crazy Horse Saloon.

Located just fifteen minutes from Washington by car, the park is open from April to December, all day during the summer, and on weekends the rest of the year. Check the website for details.