The mere name invokes images of stately buildings, rows of impressive museums, and an international and political community to rival any in the world.
It should also make you think of impressive learning opportunities, educational field trips, and family fun. For homeschoolers and worldschoolers alike, Washington, D.C. is an amazing opportunity to experience the world in one location.
We have done two, full day trips to Washington, D.C. this fall. Our first had a definitive American government theme while the second had a Middle Eastern and culture one. If you walk and pack a lunch and dinner, both can be had for free. For metro fare and dinner money, both days can be had for a great price!
So what did we do and learn in Washington, D.C.?
Day 1: American Government and Life in D.C.
Yes, I am counting this as activity number one because, for many kids, this will be a new and exciting adventure. Easy to use and full of learning opportunities (money change, map navigation, geography of a city, reading), the D.C. Metro is a very family and user friendly city metro.
Depending on how you reach D.C. in the first place, the metro might be your best mode of transportation. Many argue that it is also the cheapest but, I have to say, in my opinion it is cheaper to drive/park and walk than to metro your day (though then you would be missing out on using the metro as another educational tool). In both the day trips we took in this post, I drove into the city and then used a combination of driving and parking (meter, parking garage) and walking to sites. Costs never went above $20 U.S. dollars and I moved four people around the first time and five people the second time. The same movement by metro for that amount of people would have had us incur higher charges.
Cost: Metro fares vary from $1.75 to $5.90 each way, depending on route and time of day.
The Washington Monument
Tickets to go to the top of the Washington Monument are free- if you are willing to stand in line on the day you want to go. Or, for $2.15, you can pre-purchase them online at recreation.gov and have a guaranteed time of entry. The catch with the on-line reservation system is that you do have to purchase your tickets in advance- in some cases up to three months in advance.
The great thing about the recreation.gov website is that you can look up availability by individual dates. So if you fill out the form for December 1, the site will show you if there are 5 tickets available or 55. It’s a great option for families and larger groups.
Note: As of October 12, 2016 the elevator to the top of the Washington Monument is closed for repairs. There is no set date on when it will reopen.
Cost: Free to enter, $2.15 service charge if you reserve a date and time online.
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing
The Bureau of Engraving and Printing, while free, requires advanced reservations/ tickets or the ability to stand in line early in the morning. By 10am there is a two and a half hour wait time to enter without reservations- and that’s on a weekday in the Fall! In order to maximize your time in D.C., visitors will want to contact a State Representative or Senator and ask for the office to get them tickets/ reservations.
Unfortunately, I have tried to do this twice, with over three months of advance notice, and failed both times in receiving the reserved tickets. You want to be there, in line, by 8am to be amongst the first to get the same day tickets.
Once inside, the kids will be able to learn all about the job of designing, making and printing cash money. This is definitely a worthwhile educational trip and one I recommend you take in conjunction with a trip to the U.S. Mint in Philadelphia.
Cost: Free both as a walk-up option and if you reserve in advance through a State Representative or Senator.
The White House
With ticket requests at least three months in advance you get… nothing. Well, ok, I’ve gotten nothing. I have tried three times, with months in advance each time, always requesting weekdays during school session (so not many people and children on vacation during these times) and have yet to secure tickets to enter and tour the White House.
I know it is a great field trip because I have been there before. Now I am trying to secure this opportunity for my daughter. I will, of course, continue to try. The visit is free and you get to tour one of the most well known, if not The most well know, Presidential residences in the world. So far we have been able to view the White House, front and back, from the outside. We remain hopeful. (I have included the White House in this post as it was on our original itinerary).
Cost: Free but must book at least three months in advance.
The U.S. Supreme Court
Beautiful architecture and rich history displayed for all visitors, the U.S. Supreme Court is definitely one stop we had to make. Anyone learning about American government knows and probably starts with the three branches of government. As one of the three, the supreme court is a chance for kids to see where the action actually takes place.
There are several learning options at the Supreme Court: you can take the self-guided walk through several artifact spaces, there is a film to learn more about the court, and you can go inside the actual court room where all the decisions and arguments are made while listening to a court presentation. I would definitely schedule 1-2 hours inside this gem and enjoy learning about this American institution.
Cost: Free admission, no advance reservations required to enter.
The U.S. Capitol
There are two ways to get into the U.S. Capitol. One is to show up, stand in line, and gawk at the architecture and history. The second, and the path we chose, is to contact a State representative (or Senator) and make arrangements through their office.
While you get to tour and view the capitol either way, going through a government official means a few extra perks:
1. You get to enter through the same underground tunnels that the nation’s leaders take into the Capitol building.
2. The Representative and Senate office Capitol guides are great at pointing out details throughout the capitol that pertain to their state or district.
3. You might get lucky and either meet an elected official or get to tour/ visit their office.
Make sure to get the tickets to view the actual House of Representatives and Senate. This is C-span come to life.
Also not to be missed: the geographical center of Washington, D.C. is located inside the U.S. Capitol!
Cost: Free admission whether you walk-in or make arrangements through a State Representative or Senator.
A great place to park (validation makes it $20 for the whole day), catch the metro, view history and architecture and people watch. Union Station is the train station in D.C. and a beautiful place to catch a bite to eat or shop. Located within walking distance of the U.S. Capitol and the National Mall it is a great starting point for any D.C. adventure.
Cost: Free to enter and walk around to admire.
The National Mall
Think wide open spaces for the kids to run, burn off energy, picnic, and see the Smithsonian Museums– all of whom are free. The National Mall is a wide green area, with street parking if you come at the right time, and plenty of people watching opportunities.
Cost: Free to walk around and enjoy the views. The Smithsonian Museums lining the National Mall are also free to enter and enjoy.
Iwo Jima/ United States Marine Corps War Memorial
Located in Virginia, a short five minute drive from the Lincoln Memorial, the Iwo Jima/ United States Marine Corps War Memorial is the kind of place that makes you feel thankful. The sheer size of the memorial, coupled with its story and the active military personnel or retired members it always attracts, serves to remind us of the many sacrifices that have been made for our children. All of our children.
The Iwo Jima Memorial has its own parking on site, and street parking around it. All that parking makes it a great place to take a break from a busy day and enjoy the grassy fields with a picnic. While you are there, make sure to enjoy the view! This is one of my favorite spots because, if you stand at the front section of the Iwo Jima memorial, then take ten steps to your right (if you’re facing the memorial), and then turn around 180 degrees, you will be rewarded with a perfect view of the Lincoln Memorial, the Washington Monument, and the U.S. Capitol. Just make sure to do this in the late Fall, Winter or early Spring. Once the trees are in full bloom it’s hard to get this unobstructed view.
Cost: Free admission to the memorial and free parking, making this a great place to enjoy some downtime and a picnic.
With 19 Smithsonian Institution Museums and Galleries, all of them free to the public, there is never a reason to be bored in D.C. There are plenty of options for children, young adults, families, and everyone in between. I personally love the “passport” guided trip for kids at the National Museum of the American Indian and the giant American flag folding ceremony at the National Museum of American History. There are plenty of others and all of them offer something incredible for worldschoolers to learn from and engage.
You could spend weeks in D.C. just enjoying the Smithsonian Museums. Make sure you list your priorities and look through your options before deciding which ones to visit on any particular day. Or, like us, find a base nearby and spend some time getting to visit them all!
Cost: Free admission into the Smithsonian Museums.
Day 2: D.C. with a Middle East Theme
An easy drive through Embassy Row is a great introduction to the flags and countries of the world. While not all of the Embassies in D.C. are on Embassy Row, many are and it is a great concentrated section of International affairs in D.C.
Embassy Row is the informal name given to Massachusetts Avenue, N.W., between Scott Circle and the United States Naval Observatory. Stately grand dames line the street and share this space with architecturally unique Embassies and foreign missions. Tunisia, Australia, Peru, Indonesia, India, Greece, Romania, Latvia, Madagascar, Zambia, Korea, Japan, Turkey, Brazil, South Africa, United Kingdom, The Vatican and many more can be found and enjoyed on this stretch.
Want to know the best time to go visit? May! Passport DC is an annual event in which most embassies open their doors and offer cultural programs and tours to anyone who wants to visit. Some even offer food! Held the first three weekends in May, Passport DC is an amazing time to head to D.C. Yes, it’s busy. Yes, it’s worth it. And yes, we have done it as a family and it is very family friendly and an amazing educational opportunity.
Cost: Free to drive around and look at the Embassies, their architecture, study the flags of the various countries, and enjoy. If you plan in advance you will be able to find several programs, open houses, and activities at various Embassies throughout the year (many of those for free too).
The Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center
Conveying the amazing culture and rich traditions of the Sultanate of Oman, The Sultan Qaboos Cultural Center is an amazing educational resource in the city.
For our visit, I reached out to the center and asked if they could help me build an itinerary that was engaging, fun, and educational for the kids. From the moment I made contact, their liason was accommodating and incredibly helpful.
We spent two amazing hours and learned so much about Oman and its culture that Mackenzie wrote a whole story about it. Our day began with a film sharing how life in Oman is lived. The video was incredibly informative and child friendly and our presenter did an amazing job at linking what the kids were learning with their own lives and customs. We learned about meal times in Oman, school and kid uniforms, manners and dressing customs, traditional ways of eating (with demonstration from our presenter), and typical foods and activities for kids.
After the film and a wonderful Q & A session, we ventured deeper into the center for a child friendly craft. The kids were able to custom make an Omani outfit for their paper doll. The different dress, patterns, and colors really came alive for the kids while completing their craft and it served as a gateway to ask and answer questions regarding local Omani customs and traditions.
To complete our amazing tour we were taken to the exhibit hall and lead through their collection. Replicas of local forts, a demonstration of traditional irrigation systems, life size models of beautiful dresses, and various Omani household and traditional items guided our group into a better understanding of life in Oman.
At the end of our tour we felt humbled and impressed with everything that Oman has to offer and its beautiful culture. Mahbuba, our paper doll, now proudly hangs in our classroom wall as a reminder of everything that we learned about Oman- including their warm hospitality.
Cost: Free admission. I would highly recommend contacting the center in advance to request a tour and educational program. Though it is not a requirement, contacting them gives you more options on your day of visit.
Embassy of Saudi Arabia
Not many people get to visit The Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. With no individual tourist visas, Saudi Arabia remains an enigma to most people. I wanted to make sure that our kids learn about this far away country and set about to make some first hand exposure a reality.
I reached out to the Embassy of Saudi Arabia in D.C. and asked if it was possible to schedule a tour and visit in their embassy. Ever gracious, I received a prompt reply and we were on our way!
Our tour started as soon as we were inside the embassy. Beautiful pictures and displays welcomed us as we walked towards the waiting room- filled with more displays of life inside Saudi Arabia. We were having fun learning through these displays when our host came out and led us to the video room.
We had the pleasure of being one of the first guests to view their new video: Saudi Arabia. Full of information and entertaining, the film made for a great introduction into the country and culture Saudi Arabia. Anyone but the most knowledgeable of students of Saudi society will be able to learn a great deal about the country. Did you know that at least 25% of the budget is spent on education? Or that where once small villages stood now bustling and modern cities thrive? How about the fact that the mosque complex around the Kaaba has been restructured to fit pilgrims on what was once the roof? Or that the holy city of Mecca is working hard to expand and accommodate up to three times its current capacity during Hajj?
And those are just some of the amazing facts we learned from the film. Our host graciously followed up after the film with a Q & A session where everyone got to ask as many questions as possible. The kids were impressed with the story of the father of Saudi Arabia, the succession lines of Kings, and the modern amenities available inside the kingdom. They were kind enough to guide us through the picture gallery and further explain the aspects of Saudi society we were observing in the pictures, traditional clothing, and mosque miniature replicas.
To end on a high note, the kids got to take home a frisbee, complete with the Saudi website to access and be able to learn more about this exotic and modern country. As a worldschooling parent, I can’t thank the staff at the Embassy of Saudi Arabia enough for their time and hospitality.
Cost: Free admission. You must contact the Embassy in advance to request a tour and educational program.
As you can probably tell, we love Washington, D.C. The plethora of opportunities that the city provides, and free of charge, is amazing. Within the confines of this bustling international city we are able to have first hand experiences, meet local, national and international leaders, and experience life in many different ways.
Worried D.C. is too far? It took us four hours to get there and, with a little preparation for car fun, I can definitely tell you that it is worth it!
While food and housing needs to be factored in for most visitors, the entertainment and educational opportunities can be had for free. We will be back next month, visiting once again and creating a mix of hands-on learning experiences with exposure to something different from our everyday lives. That’s worldschooling at its best.
If you would like to follow along on our family adventures as we travel the world, “like” us on our Facebook page: Border Free Adventures for more pictures, stories, videos, and fun information as we worldschool our daughter.