Three Days in Washington
“Mom, I just don’t like learning Social Studies,” said my 10-year-old daughter as she alphabetized her weekly history vocabulary list. “It’s just so boring.” “Sure,” I replied, “It can be boring when it’s only in books.” “Yeah, well,” she snarfed back at me. “It’s just about stuff that happened in the past and forming the government and dead guys.” For this well-travelled mom who loves the mystery in history, I was determined to find some fun in modern-day public affairs… and show my tween why the boring stuff and the dead guys all matter.
We planned a three day, mid-week trip to Washington, DC. My daughter’s main concern… the dining options in the neighborhood we’d be staying in. Let’s just say, she’s not a girl who eats off the kids’ menus. She left the rest of the details for me to plan.
Where America got its start
A great place to kick off a tween tour of the American capital is at the National Archives in the Rotunda for the Charters of Freedom where you can see the honest-to-goodness original documents written by the Founding Fathers: Declaration of Independence, Constitution, Bill of Rights. As an added bonus, there’s even an original copy of the Magna Carta on display. There is no entry fee and reservations are not required. However, for a nominal convenience fee, this is one attraction where visitors can make a reservation online in a user-friendly calendar booking system. Simply show the guards the printout of your confirmation and you’ll have a much shorter line in which to wait – very important during the peak school group visiting season (Mar-June).
Even tween tourists can’t help but notice the impressive architecture of the Dome of the Capitol Building that houses Congress – the body of elected officials that makes laws for the federal government. Touring the Capitol Building requires a reservation . If you are a U.S. resident, you can see Congress in action by requesting a Gallery Pass from the office of your Representative or Senator. An easy link to all current members of Congress is provided on the Capitol website. International visitors can obtain Gallery Passes on the upper level of the Capitol Visitor Center.
The United States Supreme Court may not be toppers on the list of tween hot spots, but entering the halls of justice will silence even the most sullen of teens. Tours of the building are available year-round, but while Court is in session, you can sit in and listen to the nine Justices discuss and debate during proceedings. Arguments are generally limited to one hour – thirty minutes for each side of the case. There are two tour options. The first is to listen to the entire proceeding – good, perhaps, if you and your child is interested in the issue before the bench. There are 60-250 seats open to the public, depending on the number of invited guests to the case. The second option – which was more palatable to my daughter – is a 5-minute seat in the back of the hall. You don’t get a great view, but you can hear it all. If you’re lucky, there might even be some demonstrations outside – citizens engaging in their Right to Free Speech.
1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. Certainly one of the most famous addresses in the nation, the White House is home to the President of the United States and his staff. As you can imagine, getting inside here requires a bit of planning. To reserve a place on a tour, visitors have to submit an official request through a member of Congress or, for international visitors, through your embassy in Washington. A minimum of twenty-one days is needed and tour requests are accepted up to six months in advance. Because our trip to DC was last minute, my daughter and I didn’t get a chance to take the tour. However, we spent a lovely hour walking around the security perimeter. Dining options are sparse in this area of DC so bring some water and snacks with you.
When traveling with toddlers or tweens, you have to find the balance between learning and letting loose. My daughter wanted to check out the International Spy Museum, but after two days of educational history, I felt that a fun surprise was in order. Zip line, here we come!
We hopped back in the car for a short ride north to Savage, Maryland to take on Terrapin Adventures. Housed on the grounds of a former textile mill, Terrapin Adventures has transformed the forest into a world of Giant Swings and Rope Climbing Courses and Super Giant Rock Walls. And of course, Zip Lines. Harnessed in and helmet on, you step off the platform thirty feet off the ground and fly over the forest growth for 330 feet. Must. Be. Brave.
My daughter and I learned quite a bit on this journey. There’s the history and government knowledge, of course, but we learned how to travel together – just as vital a skill as knowing about the three branches of government. Plus, she did ace her social studies exam!
Tips for Visting Washington
- Most museums are free-of-charge, including all of the museums of the Smithsonian.
- While driving in D.C. is straightforward, parking can prove to be difficult. The Metro system is easy to follow and there are stops within a few blocks of most major tourist attractions in Downtown.
- As you can imagine, you’ll have to pass through security when you enter most public buildings. Build an extra 5-10 minutes into your schedule to allow for this.
- Washington, D.C. may be a walking city, but not with little legs. Everyone should wear comfortable shoes, use a stroller for younger children, and bring lots of water and snacks.
- Don’t try to “do” DC in one trip. Pick a few highlights and plan some down time in a café, an ice cream shop, or playground.