We just returned from a fascinating trip to Washington DC with our tween and teen, and I want to share with you how we made it fun for our kids as well as ourselves! If you have been following me for a while, you probably have already read my article that gives general tips about how to have a successful vacation with tweens and teens. If not, click here to check it out.
This article is all about the things you can do to get kids excited for a trip to Washington DC before you go. If you want to read about what you should do once you are there, read my article about how to have a fun trip to Washington DC with tweens and teens.
Washington DC Family Movies
Before any trip with tweens and teens, you need to help fight their natural inclination to be bored and work on getting them excited about where you are going. You definitely want to get ready for your trip to Washington DC with tweens ahead of time. One fun thing we like to do to get the kids interested is to watch some movies together that take place in our destination.
National Treasure is a fun movie set in Washington DC that isn’t too scary for sensitive tweens, and is an entertaining choice for teens and adults, too. It’s about a historian that tries to steal the Declaration of Independence in order to protect it from treasure hunters…and then ends up on the treasure hunt himself. The movie’s sequel, National Treasure Book of Secrets, is also a fun one and continues into the world of American history. The second one is a bit scarier for sensitive kids.
Night at the Museum – Battle of the Smithsonian is another fun movie for tweens that takes place in Washington DC. If you haven’t seen the first Night at the Museum movie, watch that one first (honestly, it was a bit better). The first one takes place in New York City at the Natural History Museum. But in the second movie, the action moves to Washington DC, and it’s a lot of fun – and totally ridiculous.
We also watched Evan Almighty. It’s about a man who is elected to Congress and moves his family to Washington DC, then meets God and is told to build an ark like Noah. A ridiculous plot, but an enjoyable family movie that was fun to talk
Learn Before You Go
If you have tweens or teens, your kids are old enough that they have already learned some American history in school. American kids are taught from a very early age about George Washington, Abraham Lincoln, and Martin Luther King Jr. Fifth graders and eighth graders are taught a lot about America. Unfortunately, many kids don’t find history all that interesting. I think that is mainly due to the fact that history is so abstract, and younger kids can’t think abstractly. Things that happened long ago or far away don’t seem real to them. Pictures of people wearing old-fashioned clothes aren’t relatable.
That is the wonderful thing about taking kids on trips like this one – it helps make it more real and less abstract to actually BE at the places where the historical events took place. Telling them about where you are going ahead of time can help “connect the dots.”
Talk to your tweens about what they already know about American history. Get some good dinner conversations going about our presidents, the Revolutionary War, the Civil War, the Civil Rights movement…find out what they know, and talk about what you find interesting, too. Figure out what interests them, and then look into what you could do that might teach them more about those subjects before you go.
The School House Rock cartoons are a super fun old-school way to learn about American government. My husband and I grew up with School House Rock – they used to come on between Saturday morning cartoons on TV back in the 70s and 80s. Before going to Washington DC, we watched all of the American history and government-themed episodes.
Non-fiction Washington DC Books
There are lots of books available, of course, but it can be a challenge to find ones that aren’t too dry. I recommend finding some books that focus on some of the more exciting aspects of American history. The spy network in the Revolutionary War is a topic many kids would find interesting. Totally True Adventures: George Washington’s Spies presents this story in an understandable way for younger tweens. It’s appropriate for kids in 4th or 5th grade.
For teens or adults, George Washington’s Secret Six by Brian Kilmeade covers the same topic. According to reviews, the author wrote this non-fiction work in the style of a historical novel, so it’s a pretty good page-turner.
Washington DC Fiction Books for Tweens and Younger Kids
When my kids were younger, we really enjoyed listening to Magic Tree House stories in the car. These are chapter books by Mary Pope Osborne for 2nd-4th graders, but they are fun to listen to up to 5th or 6th grade. They would also be a great choice for a bedtime read-aloud for younger kids. They are fictional stories about a pair of siblings that travel to many different times and places in a magic tree house. Most of the stories are based on real topics. If you are traveling to Washington DC, I would recommend Magic Tree House #21 Civil War on Sunday or #22 Revolutionary War on Wednesday.
Another author that writes fun mystery novels based on real places for kids is Penny Warner. She has a series called Code Busters for 8-12-year-olds. Book number 5, The Hunt for the Missing Spy, takes place in Washington DC.
Washington DC Fiction Books for Teenagers
Not if I Save You First by Ally Carter is a book my daughter enjoyed. It is about a girl who is the daughter of a secret service agent. She is friends with the son of the president. Most of it takes place in Alaska, but there is still that DC connection.
My son enjoys the books by Tom Clancy. They don’t all take place in Washington DC, but they are about the government and the military, and would definitely get a teen pumped up for seeing government buildings. The Hunt for Red October is his favorite so far.
The Lost Symbol by Dan Brown is another choice that teenagers might like. You probably know Dan Brown as the author of The Da Vinci Code. His books are exciting mysteries that take place in a variety of interesting cities. The Lost Symbol takes place in Washington DC and is about American history. I enjoyed it, but I have to admit I find his writing style a bit annoying. I love the mysteries and puzzles so much though that I’m willing to overlook his style. His books are very violent though, so they are not appropriate for young readers.
Focus on the Space Race
Another topic that is interesting to delve into before heading to Washington DC is the space program. The Smithsonian Air and Space Museum is fantastic, and it would be helpful for kids to know more about the space race before seeing it. There are actually two museums to visit nowadays- the one at the National Mall, and another out by Dulles Airport. We visited both and they were super interesting.
You could watch The Right Stuff, which is about the first astronauts and the space race. It’s a really good movie, but the Common Sense Media website warns that The Right Stuff does have some adult content, so you might want to skip it if your kids are younger. It would be good for most teens. CClick here to read their review of The Right Stuff. It was originally a book, and teenagers that are really
Apollo 13 is another fantastic movie for older kids. It is also about the space race, but it too has some language and sexual situations. We haven’t watched these yet with our kids as my daughter is still pretty sensitive and they are both rather worrisome. You can read the Common Sense Media review of Apollo 13 here. I have seen both movies in the past, and they are both really well made.
Books About the Space Race
Younger kids also find the topic of space exploration fascinating. There are so many great books available on the subject! Hidden Figures is a book about the African-American women that helped make the space program possible in its early days. It is available as both an adult book that teenagers would enjoy and also as a young reader’s edition for tweens. The story was also made into a movie. Common Sense Media says that movie is appropriate for ages 10 and up. The story not only covers interesting space subjects, but it also brings attention to the civil rights movement. Both topics are things that it would be helpful for your kids to have an understanding of before heading to Washington DC.
Buzz Aldrin, one of the original astronauts, has become a best-selling author with his books about space exploration. He has a book entitled Mission to Mars, which is a book for
More Washington DC Books for Tweens
For tweens, there is a fun series of books called “Who Was.” They have hundreds of biographies available. Tweens headed to Washington DC can read about not only the astronauts but also about Presidents and our founding fathers, Civil Rights leaders, Supreme Court justices and tons more! The people who make the books now have also started a comedy series for kids on Netflix that teaches about historical figures.
Websites to Get Your Tweens and Teens Excited for Washington DC
There are helpful websites for all of the sites in Washington DC. Several of them have some ideas for helping your tweens and teens get excited
The Capitol website has several resources for families, including some games. Click here to check it out.
The Smithsonian Museum of National History has a website called History Explorer that is full of information on many American topics. They have lesson plans, videos, online versions of exhibits…all sorts of things. Poke around on the site to get ideas, or let your kids check it out. Click here for the Smithsonian’s History Explorer website.
Another website worth checking out is PBS LearningMedia. They have information and lessons for grades K-12, including video and audio clips of historical events such as the March on Washington. They have things that are relevant to many subjects on their site. Click here to go directly to the Social Studies section of PBS LearningMedia. From there, you can click on over to civics and government, or you can click on U.S. History.
Final Thoughts About Getting Ready for a Trip to Washington DC with Tweens and Teens
I hope you have found my ideas helpful! Whatever you decide to do – whether it’s watching movies, reading books together or separately, or looking online – be sure to also spend time together talking. Find out which topics pique their interest. As you plan which sites to go to and how much time to spend there, get input from everyone in the family. If the kids help you to plan your trip to Washington DC, they will be more invested in it and therefore better participants once you get there.
Now you’re ready for part 2 of my Washington DC with tweens article! In it, I delve into our itinerary and give you tips for planning your own awesome trip to Washington DC with tweens and teens!
Interested in US History and Civics? Check out these articles:
Comment below and let me know which Washington DC movies and books your family enjoys!