Parents with little ones, take note: The new Wegmans Wonderplace at the National Museum of American History should be among your go-to places to take your babe to play. Designed especially for children 0-6 years old, the activity center in the recently opened Innovation Wing incorporates play and learning in the museum’s context with fun and interesting features that cater to curious young visitors as well as their accompanying adults.
My kids are too old for it now, but it’s exactly the kind of place I sought out in their early years. (I know this from joining a friend and her 4-year-old on a recent visit there.) As the museum puts it, “Wonderplace is built around the enduring wonders of childhood, the things kids are naturally curious about — blocks, animals, sounds — and branches out to make connections to the museum’s diverse collections and exhibitions.”
They achieve this with a variety exhibits that appeal to little guests with hands-on activities, active fun, and pretend play opportunities. A big boat in the middle of the room welcomes children to climb aboard, slide down, and drive. There’s a market to shop for veggies, and a kitchen where they can use them to prepare a meal. A farm area lets them collect eggs from chickens, and a corner dedicated to blocks and building encourages them to use their imaginations to create all kinds of structures. A wall of full of framed portraits is shows how history is the story of people. And throughout the space are items from the museum’s collections on display that relate to the exhibits.
A nice feature at the stations are panels that explain the connection of the activities to both the museum and childrens’ learning, plus tips for parents on ways to explore them at varying stages — infants, toddlers, and preschoolers. And all of the exhibits are at eye-level for kids, so they can engage completely and comfortably.
These are among many thoughtful details that parents can appreciate. Some others are boppy pillows in the reading area for nursing moms, a crawling area for babies with soft toys and a low-hung mirror, and a restroom within the space that includes a changing table and child-sized toilet. And enthusiastic museum staff are on hand to answer questions and occasionally jump in with helpful suggestions for both adults and children.
When I asked my friend, Jody, what she and her son thought of Wegmans Wonderplace, she said, “I think the fact that I had to drag him out of there speaks volumes!” She noted that the mix of activities kept him occupied for a full two hours and also pointed out that the location inside the American History Museum is a bonus “because it gives some good variety in the outing for grownups, as opposed to trucking to a play zone place just for that purpose.”
A great point, indeed! You can extend your visit beyond Wegmans Wonderplace and explore other parts of the museum that young children enjoy, like some of the displays in the Innovation Wing and America on the Move, where they can sit on an L train car and gawk at other vehicles. And the newly renovated Spark!Lab is adjacent, but generally geared toward older kids. (That’s also good to keep in mind…while Wonderplace is supposed to be for ages 0-6, I thought it seemed like 4 and under would enjoy it best. But you can always bring your 5/6-year-old, and move to the Spark!Lab next door if they seem too old.)
And did I mention that it’s all free? That’s right, like many Smithsonian gems, there is no entrance fee. There’s a chance of a short wait if it happens to be crowded, but you have a whole museum to explore until it’s your turn to go in.
Wegmans Wonderplace is located on the First Floor West of the American History Museum (14th & Constitution NW). It’s open every day except Tuesdays and December 25 from 10am – 4pm. Admission, as mentioned, is free. There is street parking nearby, and you can probably find a close spot on a weekday, but weekends will be more challenging. The nearest Metro station is the Smithsonian stop, just across the National Mall at 12th and Independence SW.