Having so many museums at our doorstep means many an impromptu visit. But there’s only so many times you can go before you’re like, “been there…done that.” If you’re itching for a fresh take on D.C.’s Smithsonian scene, check out these cool ways to explore exhibits and make memories.

Photo: 190.arch (aka bymamma190 via flickr

Go in character
What little kid doesn’t love dinosaurs (or tigers…or bears…oh my!)? Before a visit to the National Museum of Natural History (a kid and family favorite), pull out those animal costumes and let your kid roam around in his natural habitat roaring at his friends. Going in character as your favorite dino/lion/bear/etc. will make an already fun museum visit pretty magical.

National Museum of Natural History
10th St. and Constitution Ave., NW
Online: mnh.si.edu

Tap into your inner artist
There are many ways to make the art at the National Gallery come alive. One fun way is to let Junior step into the shoes of the artist. Let the kids bring sketchbooks to the museum, so that the can create their own interpretation of their favorite works. Or you can try your hand at abstract expressionism with your own little Jackson Pollock.

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Bonus: One way to make a piece of art or an exhibit more memorable is when seeing it feels like meeting an old friend. Prior to going to the museum, you can show your kid pictures of artwork that they will be seeing on the visit. You can tell the story behind the art and make it real for them. One series we love that tells this story is the You Can’t Take a Balloon series by Jacqueline Preiss Weitzman and Robin Preiss Glasser. One of the books is set in Washington, D.C. The little girl’s balloon gets loose and has an adventure around the city. Meanwhile, the girl and her grandmother make their way through the art at the National Gallery. The adventures that the balloon has mirrors the storyline behind the artwork that the little girl uncovers.

National Gallery of Art
6th and Constitution Aves., NW
Online: nga.gov

Go to a museum you know your kid will dig
Don’t make your family hit up a museum just for the sake of saying “been there, done that”—if you are local, there will be plenty of time for those kinds of visits through school field trips. Instead, hit up the institutions you know will captivate your kid. If they are obsessed with airplanes, fly by the National Air and Space Museum. If they can’t get enough of LEGOS or Roblox, you’ll want to plan a day at the National Building Museum, stat!

Organize a scavenger hunt
Scavenger hunts are a great way to engage your kid in problem solving, learn some fun facts and burn some energy. The National Museum of American History is full of tiny treasures to discover, and the internet is a great place to go for scavenger hunt ideas. You could pick a theme like “What does it mean to be American? What objects symbolize America?” or just make it a hunt to find fun exhibits such as the Crash Test Dummies or the original Kermit the Frog. You can even play Eye Spy and try to find certain colors, figures or words throughout the museum.

National Museum of American History
14th St. and Constitution Ave.
Online: americanhistory.si.edu

Have a sleepover
Did you know you could spend the night at your favorite museum? The American History Museum, Natural History Museum and National Portrait Gallery all have sleepover programs. These museums are all yours (plus a gaggle of parents’ and new friends’) during a night of fun that features tours, games, crafts and more.

Online: smithsoniansleepovers.org

What is your favorite way to explore museums with the littles? Tell us in the comments section below. 

—Monica Nelson an Ayren Jackson-Cannady