Sandwiched between the family-favorite National Air and Space Museum and the U.S. Botanic Garden on the National Mall, the National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is an often overlooked gem that is fantastic for families. Not only does it house one of the world's largest collections of Native artifacts (or, "really cool stuff" as my daughter so eloquently put it), it also has one of the best designed children's areas I've ever seen.
I'm ashamed to admit that, despite moving to the D.C. area well before the NMAI even opened its doors in 2004, until recently, I had never stepped foot inside! It was only by happenstance that my daughter and I ended up there a few weekends ago when our planned trip to the Air and Space Museum was derailed by a massive line at the entrance. Quickly scrambling to decide on an alternative, we spotted the NMAI next door. I had heard great things about the food in their Cafe, so I figured it was worth a visit, even if just for a quick pit stop for lunch. That's one of the many great things about visiting the National Mall: Admission to all of the Smithsonian museums is free, making it easy to quickly duck in and out of a museum (or several!) without feeling committed.
First Stop: Mitsitam Cafe - First Floor
"Mitsitam" means "Let's eat" in the Native language of the Delaware and Piscataway peoples, and the Cafe's food definitely lived up to the hype. There are five different food stations that feature Native ingredients and flavors found throughout the Western Hemisphere, representing the Great Plains, Mesoamerica, Northern Woodlands, Northwest Coast and South America. We shared Tlayudas from the Mesoamerica station, a thick masa tortilla spread with refried beans and topped with a generous helping of ground chorizo sausage, lettuce, and sour cream. Other entree options include Indian Tacos, Posole, Rosemary Bison Strip Steak, Stewed Plaintains & Chicken, and Ceviche -- just to name a few. Don't worry, they also have plain old hot dogs, bacon cheeseburgers, and even chili cheese fries for the less adventurous eaters in your group!
Second Stop: Lelawi Theater - Fourth Floor
After lunch, we stopped by the Welcome Desk to grab a museum map. The friendly staff member told us to start our visit on the fourth floor at the LeLawi Theater, and then to work our way down the museum floor-by-floor. The circular theater is really spectacular, featuring an immersive, multi-media presentation, titled Who We Are, highlighting the traditions, customs and lifestyles of different Native communities. Images are projected on a multi-sided screen in the middle of the Theater, as well as on the domed ceiling above. My daughter was transfixed through the whole thing. I think children as young as 4 would enjoy and sit still through the presentation.
Third Stop: imagiNATIONS Activity Center - Third Floor
The main attraction at the NMAI for kids and families is the imagiNATIONS Activity Center. This is a totally interactive space that teaches children all about Native culture, habitats, and traditions through hands-on activities and exploration. On your way in, be sure to grab a passport book. As your child works their way through each activity, they can stamp their passport with a different authentic tribal seal at each station!
What I love about the Center is that there is a ton of space for kids to let loose and move around, every station is hands-on and encourages touching and exploring, and the variety of activities appeal to a wide range of ages so no one feels left out or bored. I saw toddlers through young tweens enjoying the activities here. There is also a spacious craft room where kids can sit at tables to create art projects following the provided instructions or read through and complete an educational activity book.
My daughter's first stop was the basket weaving station. There is a giant basket 'skeleton' and long, skinny strips of material for the kids to try their hand at different weaving techniques. As with so many activities in the Center, this is a station that encourages teamwork with other kids to complete the project.
Speaking of teamwork, one of the hands-down favorite activities in the Center is assembling an iglu out of big foam blocks. Each block is numbered on the inside to indicate where it goes and is fastened to adjoining pieces with Velcro. It was hard to tell which was more fun for the kids - building the iglu or knocking it down after they completed it!
The Center includes models of all different modes of Native transportation to explore, from the traditional snowshoe to the modern skateboard. Kids can jump in a full-size kayak or test their skills in the kayak balancing game, see first-hand how snowshoes compare to regular shoes when walking on snow, and even compete for points on a skateboard simulator video game.
Children can walk inside a full-sized Comanche tipi and see how it's built, and explore a Pueblo adobe house and Amazonian stilt house to learn how Native people lived and adapted to their environments.
Once they tire of running around (if that's even possible!), the Center's thoughtfully constructed library and reading room invite children to come relax for some quiet time with a story about Native culture or historical figures, or by a Native author. And don't forget to take a selfie with Ande the Llama before you head out!
As with all Smithsonian museums, admission to the NMAI is free. They also host a regular schedule of free events - from storytellers and artists to unique performers and activities. Check the museum's online calendar for details. The Museum is most easily accessed via the METRO's L'Enfant Plaza stop (Blue/Orange/Green/Yellow lines). Metered and paid parking garages are also available nearby.
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