Bringing Kids to the National Gallery, Washington DC | Kids Out and About Minneapolis/St. Paul

Bringing Kids to the National Gallery, Washington DC


by June Santini

If your kids have seen the Night at the Museum movies and have been trying to convince you to take them to the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History because they think it is probably one of the coolest places on earth, do it. Do it anyway, even if they haven’t seen the movie; you won’t regret it. Once you have finished at Natural History, you will still have so much more to see and do within a five block radius than you could ever imagine. The Smithsonian Institution comprises seventeen different museums, with nine of those museums clustered on the National Mall. The National Gallery is not part of the Smithsonian, but is situated on the Mall between Natural History and the Capitol. It is a must-see with your kids. NationalGalleryFountainArtbanner.jpg Washington DC is my husband’s hometown. We have been visiting there at least once a year for the last 27 years, 26 of which we have had kids. We have been to every Smithsonian multiple times. Our kids love going there, and because we intersperse the museums that are seemingly more appealing to children with the museums that are a little more esoteric, they love them all. The trick is to find ways of looking at art and artifacts in a way that your kids can appreciate.

Strategies for enjoying the Smithsonian

You could literally spend weeks at the Smithsonian and not see everything it has to offer; most families don’t have more than a few days to cram it all in, so how is a parent supposed to cram the most culture into little Jane and Johnny’s heads within the shortest amount of time? Well, there are a couple of different strategies that can work, depending on the temperament of your kids, how hectic of a pace you want to keep up and how much walking you want to do. Most families want to see the Air and Space Museum and the Natural History Museum. They are by far the most popular spots on the Mall, but to really get a taste of all the Smithsonian has to offer you need to see some of the rest of it, too. The place to start: the National Gallery of Art. The National Gallery has three distinct pieces to it: the original building, opened in 1941, the East Wing, opened in 1978, and the sculpture garden, opened in 1999. The National Gallery was a gift to the nation from Paul Mellon; he built it to house his extensive art collection. Mellon’s hope was that the Gallery would attract gifts from other major art collectors; it has certainly succeeded in that regard. It is home to a vast collection representing every major art movement since the twelfth century.NationalGalleryFountain.jpg

Main Gallery

    • Tip 1: Respect your kids' limits. While some children may be able to spend hours wandering through the galleries, most kids should be able to stay engaged and happy for an hour or two at the most.
    • Tip 2: Don’t try to see everything in a room. Pick out one or two pieces at which to look and then move on to the next gallery.
    • Tip 3: Talk to them about what they’re seeing in a way they can relate. For example, The National Gallery has a great collection of American Naïve paintings. These depict people and places of the colonial period in a simple, childlike way. Point out to your children details they might not see on first glance, such as a toy or object that a depicted child may be holding, the type of clothes they wear, etc. Ask them how these differ from what they have or what they wear. Ask them to put themselves in the place of this child. What would it be like?

Calder Mobile

  • Tip 4: The NGA has a great kids’ section on their website; take time to explore it before you go. It will spark their interest get them excited to see the actual paintings and sculptures they saw on the internet.
  • Point out features of the paintings which they may not notice otherwise. Ask them how they think the painter made some things look far away and some things close up. What are the people in the painting doing? Where are they looking?

East Wing

Once you have seen a few things in the main Gallery, head over to the East Wing. Even if you don’t go into any other galleries, show the kids the Calder mobile hanging in the atrium. Look at it from below as well and then climb the stairs to look at it from a different perspective. The kids will enjoy the walk between the buildings in the underground tunnel, too. There is a beautiful fountain which cascades along the windows from above. Lichtenstein's House I

Sculpture Garden

No visit to NGA would be complete without going through the sculpture garden. There you will find lots of art which appeals to children. Lichtenstein’s House I will fascinate children with its optical illusion; as you walk past the house seems to change size. My kids always want to walk back and forth in front of it for at least ten minutes. By this time, you’re probably hot and tired (if you visit in summer). It is the perfect time to stop by the fountain, sit on the side and put your toes in to cool off. (You're allowed to do this, but not to wade.) Here is a one-minute Try It Before You Buy It tour of the National Gallery Sculpture Garden by Madison, age 12.

The National Gallery of Art and its Sculpture Garden are at all times free to the public. They are located on the National Mall between 3rd and 9th Streets at Constitution Avenue NW, and are open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The Gallery is closed on December 25 and January 1. For information call (202) 737-4215 or the Telecommunications Device for the Deaf (TDD) at (202) 842-6176, or visit the Gallery’s Web site


© 2011, June Santini