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Washington, D.C., Theater for Kids

The theater scene in the D.C. Metro area is vibrant and ready to entertain children of all ages.

 

While theater may not be the first thing that comes to mind when exploring Washington, D.C., with children, it would be a mistake not to seek out some of the many wonderful live performance opportunities for kids available in the D.C. Metro area.

My two young kids tend to be very sensitive, and a visit to the theater can sometimes be an overwhelming experience. Walking in, they are unnerved by the big stage, endless rows of seats and crowds of chatty people. When the show starts there are sudden sounds, the lights go from bright to black and the actors are so … dramatic. But after the initial hesitation, they find the set and costumes alluring, and the actors intrigue them. If it’s a good production, it’s an enjoyable, special experience.  

The following recommendations for good theater in the D.C. Metro area reflect the needs and interests of a young audience.

Washington, D.C.

  • Discovery Theater (www.discoverytheater.org), tel. 202-633-3030: Part of the Smithsonian Institution, the Discovery Theater is located downtown in the new S. Dillon Ripley Center on the National Mall between the Castle and the Freer Gallery of Art. Look for the copper-domed kiosk. The 200-seat theater offers a year-round schedule of live performances for children ages 4 to 12. Kids sit on the carpeted floor space, while chairs and risers outline the perimeter of the room.

While the theater is terrific, I’m a particular fan of its Meet the Museum performances that take place in different Smithsonian galleries and introduce the collections to young audiences with a 20- to 30-minute performance and then a walk through the gallery to see objects, artifacts or artwork on that theme. All programs are wrapped up in an hour.  

  • Kennedy Center (www.kennedy-center.org), tel. 800-444-1324: Don’t save this experience for the adults. Throughout the year, the Kennedy Center hosts a wide variety of children’s plays, programs and activities in a spectacular setting. The theater’s annual Open House Arts Festival, held in September, offers tons of interactive activities, performances and events for all ages, and best of all—it’s free. Best for ages 6 and up.
  • Shakespeare Theatre’s “Shakespeare Free for All” (www.shakespearetheatre.org), tel. 202-547-1122: Shakespeare performances are popular around Washington, D.C., and the city boasts an impressive Shakespeare Theater dedicated solely to his works. Each summer, the theater presents 10 free performances of Shakespeare at Carter Barron Amphitheater in Rock Creek Park under the stars. Best for kids 8 and up.

The Shakespeare Theater is located in the new Harman Center for the Arts in the Penn Quarter neighborhood. Bring your teen to see Shakespeare as it was meant to be experienced, not in a book but live on stage.

  • Saturday Morning at the National (www.nationaltheatre.org), tel. 202-783-3372: The National Theatre is best known as host to touring Broadway productions, but on Saturday mornings from October through April it hosts a very popular series of children’s programs including puppet shows, music, clowning, magic, science performances and the occasional celebrity book reading. The free performances are at 9:30 a.m. and 11 a.m., and tickets are offered on a first-come, first-serve basis, so plan to arrive about an hour early; tickets are distributed a half hour before the show. Most of the programs are appropriate for ages 3 and up.
  • Stages for All Ages (www.lowt.org), tel. 202-638-4270: For select productions at more than 25 theaters throughout D.C., this program, provided through the League of Washington Theaters, offers a free ticket to a child 17 and under with each adult ticket purchased. Visit the Web site for information about participating productions and theaters. The site also offers a “Quick Guide to Age Ranges” to provide guidance regarding age appropriateness of productions.

Maryland

  • Imagination Stage (www.imaginationstage.com), tel. 301-280-1660: Located in Bethesda, Md., this modern theater offers year-round professional plays for children of all ages. I often find that I am as entertained as my kids during these top-notch productions. Most productions are best for ages 4 and up. For even younger audiences, the theater has started a new StoryTheater Series featuring live interactive storytelling shows. The 30- to 40-minute programs are held in the 150-seat Reeve Studio Theater for a more comfortable and intimate experience. Appropriate for ages 2-1/2 and up.

Glen Echo Park 

  • Adventure Theater (www.adventuretheatre.org), tel. 301-320-5331: Located in the magical Glen Echo Park, enjoy one of its seven theater productions held throughout the year. Most Adventure Theater productions are best viewed by ages 4 and up. The theater is a former penny arcade and has stadium seating. My tentative 5-year-old girl was a little apprehensive about entering the theater but quickly became engaged once the Winnie the Pooh program based on the book and movie began.
  • The Puppet Company (www.thepuppetco.org), tel. 301-320-6668 Glen Echo is also home to the Puppet Co., which features productions throughout the year that are appropriate for almost all ages. Its cozy setting features a carpeted area for kids and bench seating around the perimeter. My 5-year-old felt a little more comfortable entering this intimate theater and was clapping and laughing as she left. 

Respecting the sensitivities of the younger audience, the theater also offers Tiny Tot Tuesdays, which creates a comfortable atmosphere for children under 4. The house lights remain on, the doors open and the show is set up on the theater floor rather than the stage to create a more comfortable experience. 

For both theaters, call ahead to reserve tickets. Pick up tickets at the box office.

After the shows, enjoy a ride on Glen Echo Park’s glorious Dentzel Carousel, restored in 2003.

Virginia

  • Wolf Trap Center for the Performing Arts “Theatre in the Woods” (www.wolftrap.com), tel. 703-255-1827: A visit here requires about a 25-minute drive outside the city to Virginia, but it’s a wonderful experience for the family. While Wolf Trap is best known for its large outdoor amphitheatre that hosts musicals, '70s rock bands and dance performances, just a short walk away through the woods is a small outdoor children’s theatre that features a variety of live performances during the summer. My 5-year-old feels comfortable in the intimate setting where trees provide much-needed shade, each bench seat offers a great view and programs are entertaining, even for the very young. My 3-year-old was rapt with attention during a Maryland Youth Ballet program. The summer season of live performances includes music, dance and puppet shows. Tickets are only $5, ages 2 and under are free.

Destinations: Washington

Themes: Family Travel

Activities: Arts and Entertainment


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