Who doesn’t love free fun in D.C.? And we’re not talking only about the obvious stuff like monuments, memorials and museums. Got kids ages five and under? Check out these 10 options that will keep them busy and your wallets full.
Photo: art around via Flickr
#1 Art Wall Photo Opps
If you’re looking for a cool backdrop to snap kiddo’s next pics for grandma, look no further than D.C.’s outdoor art scene. Not sure where to start? This map lists every local open air work of art (200 and counting). Bring a camera and some snacks for the littles, but leave your wallet at home; there are no down payments or studio fees involved with these sittings.
#2 Smithsonian National Zoological Park
Bring a stroller and lace up your sneakers to walk the 163-acre animal park. Home to popular exhibits such as the panda house, there are plenty of lesser-known must-see stops. For instance, there’s the Kids’ Farm, where llamas and cows are neighbors with rare breeds like San Clemente Island goats and Ossabaw Island hogs. Educational programs are available throughout the day and include Amazon fish feeding, elephant training and meetings with panda or ape keepers. Splurge on a $3 ride on the Speedwell Foundation Conservation Carousel, one of a few solar-powered carousels in the world.
#3 Bureau of Engraving and Printing
We parents aren’t made of money, but the Bureau of Engraving and Printing is. Well, at least it prints paper currency. On weekdays, take a 40-minute tour of the production process. Sorry, no free samples are distributed at the end. Between September and February, tours run every 15 minutes from 9 to 10:45 am and 12:30 pm to 2 pm. Tickets are required between March and August, and tours run from 9 am to 6 pm during that peak season.
Photo: Wolf Trap via Facebook
#4 Starter Theater
Two iconic locations promise to expose children to theater at an early age. Don’t dilly-dally to get inline and snag tickets to Saturday Morning at the National, the National Theatre’s weekly free program. Tickets are handed out 30 minutes before the show times: 9:30 am and 11 am. Performances have included music by the popular local band Rocknoceros, puppet shows and plays. For something more outdoorsy, look into Wolf Trap’s Children’s Theatre-in-the-Woods. During the summer, kids under two can see shows there at no charge.
#5 Frying Pan Farm Park
Go back in time without spending a dime at this Fairfax County park. Dating back to 1726, the park imitates a 1920s through 1950s farm, including agricultural process, rural community life and landscape. In the Kidwell Farm area, check out horses, chickens, rabbits, sheep, goats, cows, pigs and their babies. Then, help a farmer milk a cow. Wagon and carousel rides are available seasonally for a small charge. In the Antique Equipment Shed, visitors can look at horse-drawn carriages and early farm equipment from 1900.
Photo: Georgetown Waterfront Park
#6 Labyrinth Laps
Peace and quiet aren’t always associated with tiny tots, but labyrinths are said to bring out those qualities. Escape the bustle of D.C. right in the middle of the city at the Georgetown Waterfront Park Labyrinth, from which you can see Roosevelt Island, the Kennedy Center and the Key Bridge, or at Washington’s only rooftop labyrinth atop the American Physiological Association, near the Capitol.
#7 National Gallery of Art’s Stories in Art
Calling all mini-makers! Museum educators expose children ages 4 to 7 to art and artists from around the world through a story time, study of a work of art and a craft. The hourlong program runs every summer and is based on a four-year cycle. Last summer’s theme was “Explore Italy,” and this year’s will be “Discover Dutch Art,” starting July 9.
#8 Clemyjontri Park
When it comes to free fun for little ones, it’s tough to beat the tried-and-true playground. Whether it’s bucket swings or little slides, Clemyjontri has it all. The two-acre park has four areas–including Fitness & Fun, the Movin and Groovin Transportation Area, Schoolhouse & Maze, and Rainbow Room–that appeal to children of all physical abilities. The playground is home to the state’s first Liberty Swing, which lets wheelchair users swing right in their chairs. If you somehow run out of things to play on, the park also has a carousel that costs $1.75 per ride. Coming this spring and summer is the Resource Railroad Train, which will take riders on a tour of the entire park for $3 each.
#9 Wheaton Regional Park
This park sits in a forested 536-acre area of Montgomery County. It encompasses Brookside Gardens, a 50-acre horticultural display garden divided into Aquatic, Azalea, Butterfly, Children’s, Rose, Japanese Style, Trial and Rain gardens in addition to two conservatories. The park also has tennis courts and an ice arena that’s open year-round. But the real draw for tots is the Adventure Playground and the miniature train and historic carousel. Besides slides and the usual playground suspects, this has a space dedicated to the youngest visitors that includes a sandbox. The 1863 train, which takes riders through park woods and meadows, and the 1915 musical carousel are available on weekends only in April and September and daily from May through August. The cost to ride is $2.
#10 Pinstripes Bowling
OK, so this is probably best for those who can walk and it’s not totally free, but pretty close to it. The new alley in the posh Shops at Georgetown Park welcomes budding bowlers for $5, while parents bowl for free and shoe rentals are gratis, too. Tots Playtime is available Monday through Friday from 10 am to noon. On Sundays from 5 pm to 9 pm, kids under 12 eat free from a menu of pizza, mini burgers, grilled cheese and more, served with breadsticks and marinara sauce, a drink and an ice cream sundae.
#11 Cultivate Culinary Curiosity
Speaking of eating for free, you don’t have to go to a chain restaurant to take advantage of deals. At Rosa Mexicano and Whitlow’s on Wilson, children 10 and under can get a complimentary kids’ meal with the purchase of an adult entrée. At Whitlow’s, a D.C.-area fixture since 1946, the deal is offered Tuesday through Sunday from 4 pm to 7 pm. Bon appetit!
Did we miss anything cool? Tell us in the comments section below.
—Stephanie Kanowitz and Ayren Jackson-Cannady