Every year when the weather becomes cooler I start to seek out indoor play spaces for my kids, and every year we end up visiting the National Building Museum.
For me there are some definite pros and cons to visiting this museum. My kids enjoy visiting, but I always leave with the same frustrations. (We go once a year, and it is always because I see a great deal on Certifikid and forget how annoyed I was with our visit the previous year). Let me just say that if we were able to wander through and explore the museum at our leisure, while sipping water as needed, this would be a quick post encouraging you all to check it out. But since that isn’t the case, bare with me.
It’s beautiful! You enter into a hugeeee lobby featuring 75-foot Corinthian Columns and a beautiful fountain, along with many other features that any architecture enthusiast would definitely appreciate. Because it is a museum I always remind my kids that we need to use ‘walking feet’ while inside, and I appreciate that the staff seems to understand that despite my reminders, my four year old just CAN’T help sprinting across such a tempting open space.
There are two areas that are a lot of fun! The upstairs “Play, Work, Build” room features an area for small foam lego-esque pieces where you can build upon a table top, and an area filled with large foam blocks perfect for building towers and forts!
Downstairs is another room with a lot more areas to explore. We didn’t get a chance to check out the whole room (I’ll explain why in the cons), but we saw a small house, train table, lego table, and a magnetic marble run, which was my son’s favorite.
So let’s talk about the cons.
There is a small cafe in the lobby. Why am I annoyed by moderately priced food and a large coffee selection? Because they sell you coffee but you are but drinks are forbidden in all the rooms. They are incredibly strict with their no drink or food rule (like, TSA strict), and I forget every time. So I spend $5 on a coffee, bring it upstairs, and am then told to “leave it on the table in the hallway”. Inevitably, when I come back for my latte, it has been confused with trash and thrown away.
But it isn’t just coffee. You can’t even drink water in the play rooms. On our previous visits we were also asked to step in the hallway to take a sip of water.
Here is my other complaint: Upon arrival you get a timed ticket to enter the downstairs playroom. From what I understand you get 45 minutes of play time, and the tickets are timed for every hour. So when I arrived I just chose the next available time slot, which started in 30 minutes. We went to the upstairs room to kill time, but between all the building and water breaks, I lost track of time. We only had 20 minutes left in our allotted time for the downstairs room. By the time we got to the downstairs room we had 15 minutes left. Five minutes later an employee came in and announced it was time to clean up. So we spent 5 minutes playing, and 10 minutes cleaning up. I asked if we could just hang out for the next time slot since we missed most of ours, but was told that would entail having to go back to the desk, standing in line, paying $3, and waiting 15 minutes until the room opened back up.
We would prefer to wander from room to room at free will. Even if I hadn’t lost track of time, I don’t like interrupting my kid when he is playing with the foam blocks. I don’t want to be in the middle of building a fort but have to leave, then come back later and start all over. This goes against what I know to be important about children learning through play, and it’s called flow!
Perhaps it is busy on the weekends and the timed tickets are necessary then, but we have always gone on a weekday and there has never been more than fifteen children in the entire museum. So the whole timed ticket process seems to be an extra, annoying, unnecessary step.
So, would I reccomend visiting the National Building Museum? Eh. I wouldn’t pay the full price to visit, but their $5 deal on Certifikid seems like a fair price. If you don’t mind setting alarms and timing the amount of play you have in one room before having to move to another, and only rehydrate between rooms, it would probabaly be fun. Just don’t forget to grab a coffee on the way out, instead of the way in.
Know before you go:
Museum Operating Days/Hours:
The Museum is open 7 days a week, Monday-Saturday from 10am – 5pm and Sunday from 11am – 5 pm.
Building Zone closes daily at 4pm.
Closed on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day.
Children ages 2 and under are FREE.
National Building Museum is located across the street from the Judiciary Square station on Metro’s Red Line.
Parking is challenging near the Museum and we recommend using public transportation whenever possible. For those who plan to drive: National Building Museum has partnered with Parking Panda to help visitors find and purchase guaranteed parking at many convenient locations in the area. Once purchased, parking for the National Building Museum is 100% guaranteed even if the location otherwise fills up, often at exclusive discounts. Simply present your purchase confirmation at the selected location, and this serves as your payment with no additional payments or fees ever.
Food is available for purchase at the Firehook Cafe.
Food and drink available for purchase on site.