Indoor, Free Fun for Children at the National Museum of the American Indian

Now that the holidays are over, we have little to distract us from the next two months of bitter cold. Yet the kids still expect to go out, even if that means their parents will be grumbling through chattering teeth. Fortunately we live in an area with lots of indoor amusements for children, many of which are free. We are particularly lucky to be near all the fantastic resources of the Smithsonian. I’m continually discovering hidden gems within their museums. Here’s a great one that I learned about last weekend at the National Museum of the American Indian.


The National Museum of the American Indian (NMAI) is located on the National Mall in Washington, D.C. The NMAI hosts one of the world’s largest collection of artifacts of Native cultures, covering the entire Western Hemisphere. In addition to the museum’s exhibits, live performances, films, and events, NMAI offers an activity center with hands-on activities for children of all ages.

The children’s area of the NMAI is called the imagiNATIONS Activity Center. It’s located on the third floor of the museum. Admission to imagiNATIONS (and the rest of the museum) is free. The exhibits in this area are interactive and would appeal to a wide variety of ages. I saw children ranging in age from babies to teens enjoying the children’s area, although my best estimate is that it would be most fun for kids ages 4-10.

One of the highlights of imagiNATIONS is a full-sized tipi that people can enter and examine up close. The tipi is surrounded by huge windows that offer a great view of the Capitol Building, so even in bad weather, you can feel like you’re taking in the D.C. sights. Other structures include an Amazonian stilt house, where children can imagine a life in the rain forest.

The Smithsonian's National Museum of the American Indian ImagiNATIONS exhibit for children

Another housing demonstration is this very popular iglu that children can build out of large foam blocks. Each block is numbered on the inside and fastened with velcro, and they spiral around the structure until they meet at the top. Kids have to work together to assemble the iglu, and I saw lots of kids making new friends as they figured it out. I loved watching each new group of kids complete their iglu, pose for photos with it, and then knock it down gleefully.

Something I really appreciated about imagiNATIONS was that it provided plenty of space for kids to move around. They could pounce on their own iglu creation without interfering with kids at other stations. The ample space also enabled kids to focus on individual tasks without too many distractions from other activities nearby.


My favorite aspect of imagiNATIONS, though, is that almost everything is interactive. Kids really want to touch and try things as they learn, and this children’s activity center welcomes that. Some of the hands-on activities include a large basket for weaving, bird sounds to listen to, and a music room with Native percussion instruments.

Several of the activities are presented as games, to further engage the kids. A popular game is a sled balance structure, where kids have to hold their hands out and try to keep the sled from wobbling side to side.


A few video games are also offered, including this skateboarding game that is popular with a wide range of ages. Other types of transportation are discussed throughout the exhibits, including kayaks and snowshoes. Kids can compare snowshoes and regular shoes and their impact on the surface of snow.


For quieter fun, a reading room offers children’s books on a variety of topics related to Native cultures and the environment. There is also a large craft room, where kids can take create art projects and take them home.


The rest of the museum has tons to see, too, of course. It’s a huge museum, and you could fill many hours there on a cold day. I also recommend the Mitsitam Cafe on the main level for a lunch break. I was pleasantly surprised by the variety and quality of the foods, which include Native foods from many regions of the Western Hemisphere. There is also an espresso bar, which is obviously a plus at any establishment, especially on days when the kids don’t understand that people are supposed to be warm and cozy at all times.

The National Museum of the American Indian is located on the National Mall between the Smithsonian’s National Air & Space Museum and the U.S. Capitol Building. Admission is free. The museum does not have parking, but I was able to find street parking half a block away on a Sunday morning. You can also get there by taking the Metro to L’Enfant Plaza. The imagiNATIONS Activity Center is open Tuesday through Sunday, 10 AM–5 PM.

For more information about the National Museum of the American Indian, please check out their website, at For a list of upcoming events, refer to their calendar.

What other ideas can you suggest for indoor fun on a cold day? Please let us know in the comments. We’d love to hear from you.

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