The Smithsonian National Portrait Gallery. It sounds so frilly and formal, with heavy oil depictions of important historical figures, and not a place teeming with toddlers. But with the architecturally bold Kogod Courtyard, an expansive indoor atrium, and now a new space called “Explore!” in partnership with the National Children’s Museum, the Gallery is shedding all the fuss and welcoming the muss with the addition of an interactive kid dedicated exhibit to its already family friendly atmosphere.

img_1919Photo: Carolyn Ross

Pause for Portraiture
Opening as the first space dedicated to children at the Gallery, Explore! does not aim for exactly the same audience as busy kid faves like Natural History, or hugely popular Air and Space. It is a cozy area where kids and parents both can unwind, featuring simple activities that encourage a kind of introspection among young visitors. With activities designed for children as young as 18 months , there are several window seats, cushions on the floor and a fuzzy rug where toddlers and their families build towers made of blocks with photos of different parts of the face, or become entranced by felt and magnetic boards.

Look at Me! Look at Me!
Recommended for children up to age 8, the exhibit’s “Strike a Pose” section caters to any kiddo with a bit of a silly streak, a frownie face, or goofy grin to share with the world. A large red button marked “Record” is all your little star needs to know how to operate before some casual observer is bound to say, hey kid, you oughta be in pictures. ” Filming bits of five to ten seconds at a time, children absolutely revel in discovering they can then see themselves, on a nearby screen where their live recordings are playing frame by frame in a repeat montage. Equally as popular is an activity where the reprimand “don’t fidget,” takes on a whole new meaning as your partner tries to trace your portrait in silhouette. Both are designed to operate easily and do not allow for any one child to monopolize the activity so even in a crowd, you will get your turn.

What else?
Open until 7 p.m. daily (6 p.m. for Explore!) the Portrait Gallery is a great spot for families, particularly on weekends when just across the corridor museum educators offer Portrait Discovery Kits that help guide families around the museum, and afternoon Portrait Story Days in partnership with D.C. Public Libraries, featuring stories from Black History in February. These programs are in addition to Young Portrait Explorers, a weekday program for children 5 and under, and occasional Family Days co-hosted by the adjacent National Museum of American Art. Most Portrait Gallery exhibits tend also to be small enough to maintain a short attention span, and interest level for all age groups. Finally, if your little slip and slider has never been to Kogod Courtyard when the fountain is on, grab your rain boots, and maybe even an extra set of clothes, for a little splishing and splashing in the smooth granite water feature that runs across a portion of the Courtyard floor.

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Have you visited Explore! yet? Tell us about it in the comments. 

Carolyn Ross