Ever notice how when the outdoor chill factor is off the charts (or it is raining something fierce) is precisely when your kids have the most energy? To help save your sanity, we’ve rounded up some of the best climate-controlled play spaces so that your wee ones can get their game on no matter the forecast.
Scramble’s focus is on unstructured play: physical play (on specially designed equipment) and cognitive play. In unstructured play, kids (not grown-ups) choose what to do and how to do it, they negotiate the rules and agree how the play will proceed. It may take a couple of visits for families to become familiar with the idea of just playing freely, but once the creativity starts flowing, it’s hard to make it stop.
5412 Eisenhower Ave. (Alexandria, VA)
Once Upon a Dream
This play space bills itself as “an indoor children’s entertainment center with a focus on imagination, creativity, and development,” and a peek inside proves that it is just that. Pretend grocery stores, an ice cream cart, castle, “treasure chest” (bursting with costume jewelry), giant pirate ship, and horse-drawn carriage are just a few of the bigger stations/vehicles for childhood escapism. Costumes, arts and crafts, giant foam building blocks and LEGOs, and a climbing wall round out the fun. There are also a host of fun classes (cooking, dancing, music, and more) that are often free with $10 admission to open play.
527 Maple Avenue East, Suite 200, Vienna, VA
Cost: $10/person (free/under nine months; includes 2.5 hours of open play)
Open: Mon, closed; Tues-Thurs, 10 am – 6 pm; Fri, 10 am – 6:30 pm; Sat, 12 pm – 6:30 pm; Sun, 10 am – 6 pm
National Building Museum
You still haven’t been to this capital gem? Hightail it on Metro to Judiciary Square, and pack a picnic while you’re at it. The National Building Museum has turned itself into one of the city’s go-to spots for young families by featuring two perfectly-appointed play spaces for kids (and the huge, high-ceilinged atrium makes for a delightful place to lunch and frolic). The Building Zone caters to children under six years old and features blocks and LEGOs, costumes, a Book Nook, a new “hardware store”, and a custom-built, life-size “green” house. The Play Work Build exhibit lets kids get busy building structures with Tinker Toys, Lincoln Logs, Bumpalow House, and Ringa-Majigs. Kids can also build—and knock down—their own structures virtually using an interactive digital wall. Make sure to swing by the museum’s gift shop after the play is done to check out the cool toys, stationary and home goods; by some accounts it’s the best museum shop in the city!
401 F Street NW, Washington, DC
Cost: admission to museum (including Building Zone and Play Work Build): $10/adults; $7/kids 3-17; free/under 2
Open: Mon - Sat, 10 am - 4 pm; Sun, 11 am - 4 pm
Play N' Learn
With locations in Chantilly, VA and Columbia, MD, this play equipment super store boasts an intimidating 14,000 square feet of combined showroom space filled to the brim with swing sets and jungle gyms, trampolines, and basketball goals. Of course, the play equipment is all for sale, but the stores’ main draw is their free and open play sessions that give kids warehouse-size space to run, jump, and climb. Adults can take a break on the ample patio furniture while the kids have at it!
Hidden Oaks Nature Center
(Live) turtles, snakes, and frogs—oh, my! This Fairfax County-funded nature center is filled to the gills with games, puzzles, costumes, and learning tools for younger children. A wooded and well-marked flat trail that circles the building is perfect for the tiniest of hikers. Photo ops about with a sweet butterfly bench outside and toadstool tables and chairs and hollow logs for crawling in the indoor play space.
Open: Sat-Sun, 12 pm - 5 pm; Mon-Fri, 9 am - 5 pm; closed Tuesdays
Alexandria Soft Playroom
Alexandria's soft playroom in the Chinquapin Recreation Center is stocked with a ball pit and all sorts of other squishy equipment, including a soft slide, ramps, wedges, arches, cylinders, and cubes. Designed for kids five and under, this is the place to take restless tykes (especially those prone to taking a few tumbles!) on a rainy day.
Cost: $5/resident child, $7/non-resident child (includes ½ hour of play)
Open: Mon-Thu, 9 am - 9 pm; Fri, 9 am - 6 pm; Sat-Sun, 9 am - 6 pm
ImagiNATIONS Activity Center at the National Museum of the American Indian
ImagiNATIONS Activity Center at the National Museum of the American Indian
This wide-open space was designed for kids to not only tucker themselves out, but to also organically explore native culture and lifestyle. Little ones can weave a huge basket, surf a virtual river in a tippy kayak, or hunker-down inside a real teepee. A library and kiddie craft center will keep bookish-types engaged. Even crawling babies can get in on the romping good fun—the museum is mostly carpeted, perfect for cruising on hands and knees.
What’s in it for you? The Mitsitam Cafe downstairs in the museum—serving native foods from around the Americas—is well known as one of the best place to eat on the Mall. During play breaks, try the cheesy fry bread or the heirloom bean and corn succotash, and wash it all down with some prickly pear agua fresca.
Fourth St. at Independence Ave., SW (National Mall)
Open: Monday 10 AM–1 PM; Tuesday through Sunday 10 AM–5 PM
Be With Me Playseum
Designed as a scaled-down replica of a real-life town, the Playseum features 12 themed rooms like a grocery store, bakery, pizza parlor, art supply store, and pet store. Children up to age 11 can let their imaginations run free by pretending to be cooks, grocers, doctors, and shopkeepers. Each room also contains a few books relevant to the theme, and you can purchase Playseum money in advance for special themed activities (paint ceramics in the art room, have your nails painted in the salon, or decorate a cupcake in the bakery).
Cost: $9/person (free/under 11 months)
Open: Mon, Weds, Fri, 10 am – 5 pm; Tues, Thurs, 10 am - 4 pm; Sat, 9 am – 7 pm
Chibis Indoor Playground
Now here's a place that just might be able to contain your little mover and shaker. Featuring a climbing frame and slide, a play kitchen and play living room, a train table, a doll house, a LEGO table, ride-on cars,a soft play room, and a ton of open space for stretching limbs, don't be surprised if Junior wants to do nothing but hit the hay when they get home.
What’s in it for you? This playspace has partnered with ASAP Sitters to offer designated drop off sessions (so you can run errands...or just take a nap) for kids 18 months to 6 years old.
44675 Cape Ct., (Ashburn, Va)
Nook: Play Well
This family hangout in Arlington, Va. is synonymous with cool, calm, and collected. It bucks the overstimulate-to-wear-’em-out trend (as much as we appreciate those options, too), while still managing to be an engaging experience for little ones.
What's in it for you?
The interior at this play space is the perfect backdrop for some killer mama-razzi shots.
2905 District Ave. (Fairfax, VA)
The centerpiece of this kid space is the mega-roster of classes. From a construction-themed art class and hip-hop dance to a railroad-inspired music class and high energy obstacle course fun, there's something to attract the attentions of every itty bitty in your family. At certain times throughout the week, they transform their gym area into a supervised indoor playspace for littles to run climb and jump around.
What’s in it for you? After kiddo is settled into his class, you can settle into this hot spot's Sit n' Snack cafe, where you can grab a snack and check your text messages.
4825 Bethesda Ave., (Bethesday, Md)
Cost: Varies depending on drop-in/class
The main goal at this play place is to spark kids’ (ages 0-6) creativity and play-inspired learning without the over-excitement and stimulation that’s often found at other indoor playgrounds. The creators, who are also parents, achieve their goal with super=curated stations–think: an indoor wooden play structure, an indoor water table, and toys that require interaction and imagination. All activities and classes (i.e. sign language, baby hip hop, friendship workshop) are designed to boost development and social skills.
What's in it for you? The owners have sprinkled article print-outs throughout the space that detail the importance of play for parents to read while sipping their gratis java and watching the littles.
709 8th St., SE (Capitol Hill)
—Katie Brown and Ayren Jackson-Cannady