Parents who will take their kids to any other kinds of museum will often hesitate to take them to an art museum. Although not as obviously welcoming as science, natural history and children’s museums, art museums can teach children about artists, art movements, and the stories behind the art (whether historical, biblical or mythological). As an art history major, I’ve made an effort to expose my children to art at an early age.
I’ve had a few bad experiences at the National Gallery of Art with surly guards and patrons, who actually told me that my relatively well-behaved children didn’t belong in an art museum. Nevertheless, I was pleasantly surprised to discover what great programs the National Gallery of Art has to offer.
We began our day in the East Building’s comfortable auditorium, seeing Eleanor’s Secret, a charming, animated French film about a boy named Nat, who saves storybook characters from disappearing. My six year-old especially loved the film and wants to own it. All the family films are free and no reservations are required. Selections are relatively current and designed to appeal to both children and adults. For up-to-date information on the current month’s films, call 202.789.3030.
We then walked across the ever popular moving walkway to the Cascade Cafe for lunch. The CafÃ© offers some of the better food on the National Mall. Find a table near the cascade waterfall, which is endlessly fascinating especially for toddlers. The three of us split an orzo salad for the affordable price of $9 (65 cents an ounce). Be careful, though, as the food prices can add up quickly. Afterwards, we paid a quick visit to the Young Artists Section of the Museum Shop which is near the cafe. This section has a good selection of children’s books, blocks, puzzles, baby toys, and some art supplies.
The National Gallery of Art offers some fantastic children’s programming year-round. The two mentioned below are primarily summertime programs. Artful Conversations is a drop-in program for ages 8 to 11. Signup is in the East Building Atrium beginning at 12:30pm and the program runs twice, at 1 and 2:30 p.m. The Stories in Art program is for children ages 4 to 7. Children listen to a story, look at a piece of art, and do a related arts and crafts project. Stories in Art is offered only in the summer and winter. Signup is in the West Building Rotunda at 10 a.m. on weekdays and 11 a.m. on Sundays and continues until all spaces are filled.
On our visit we took part in the Artful Conversations program. Siblings outside the age range are allowed to attend but they can’t get the booklet or participate in the program (for some reason my six-year-old got one anyway). The theme of this years summer series is poetry. Children who participate in three plus programs receive a magnetic poetry kit. In each session, children examine one work of art for about 45 minutes and then create something inspired by it for the remaining fifteen.
Our work of art was Curtain Waterfall by Pat Steir and the children were invited to write a concrete poem (a poem in the actual shape of a wave, waterfall, or other shape). The booklets were collected by the instructor. In September, each child will receive a collection of all the poetry written in the workshops and have their booklet returned to them. My 10 year-old enjoyed the program; my six year-old didn’t get it. The program is recommended for children with good focus and concentration.
Finally, we checked out the new Children’s Audio Tour. The audio tour desk is at the main floor, of the Mall entrance of the West Building. The tour is free but you have to leave an I.D. with the very helpful clerk. The tour gives highlights of the permanent collection of the West Building. The tour is new so they haven’t worked all the bugs out yet. Some paintings have the recorded message “Sorry.” You look for the blue “Children’s Tour”signs and press the corresponding number and listen to it like a phone. Additional information on some paintings is available by putting a one before the number. New York actors provide the voices and the recordings have period music and sound effects.
For example, a seascape is accompanied by the sounds of a storm. The messages included information about the subject of the painting, as well as the artist. It was wonderfully done and provided a scavenger-hunt type overview of the collection. We only got from the Renaissance to 19th century French painting on the Main Floor, which took about an hour. The kids were too tired to go any further at 4:00 p.m. after beginning the day at the museum at 10:30 a.m. The Children’s Audio Tour also includes 19th century French and American paintings on the Ground Floor. It’s impossible to predict how long the complete audio tour would take. My kids were very interested in the tour and I would recommend it for ages six and up.
We didn’t get to it on this visit, but the outside Sculpture Garden is a fun place for the kids to run around on a nice day. I always get a kick out of the typewriter eraser sculpture. In the winter months, you can skate at the Sculpture Garden Ice Rink.
From home, have your kids check out https://www.nga.gov/kids/. They can go into The Art Zone to create interactive art online. The Fall children’s schedule is not online yet; check back in a few weeks to see what might be of interest to you and you children.
Hours and Admission
The National Gallery of Art is FREE and is open Monday through Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 6:00 p.m. The Gallery is closed on December 25 and January 1. The Sculpture Garden is open Memorial Day through Labor Day. Monday to Thursday and Saturday from 10:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.; Friday from 10:00 a.m. to 9:30 p.m and Sunday from 11:00 a.m. to 7:00 p.m.
Restrooms and Food
The Espresso and Gelato Cafe and the Cascade Cafe in the East Building are probably the best restaurant choices for kids because of their view of the cascade waterfall. The former serves light sandwiches (about $9), pastries, and gelato. The Cascade Cafe has a wider selection with an antipasto bar and salad bar (65 cents an ounce), pizza (around $5), sandwiches, hot dogs ($3) and hamburgers ($4.45), and interesting pizzas.
Other restaurants are the Garden Cafe in the West Building, which is pricier and has menus inspired by themes of major exhibitions and the outside Pavilion Cafe.
Restrooms are scattered throughout the two buildings. Most have water fountains outside and changing platforms. There’s a family restroom across from the Cascade Cafe. Opposite the Audio Tour Desk, West Building, there’s a ladies room with a changing table and water fountain outside.
Getting ThereThe National Gallery of Art is a short walk from the following Metro stops: Judiciary Square on the Red Line, Archives on the Yellow/Green Lines, and Smithsonian on the Blue/Orange Lines. There’s two-hour metered parking around the museum. Bring lots of quarters. Surprisingly, there was a lot of parking the day I went (maybe the time of year) but two hours isn’t enough time, so I had to move the car twice.