A Visit to Washington: Learning History and Civics at the Smithsonian

National Museum of African American History and Culture- https://washington.org/dc-focus-on/museums-national-mall

Dr. David Childs, Ph.D.
Northern Kentucky University

There are a number of ways to get students participating and learning about democracy in America. One of the most effective ways to have a successful democracy is through active participation. In other words, what makes a successful democracy is when the citizens participate in the democratic process. Civic and history education allows citizens to understand their own history as well as the rights they have, allowing them to participate effectively and meaningfully in building a better society. This educational process should start as young as possible. 

An incredible resource for learning history and receiving a civic education is a visit to Washington, D.C. People that have never visited Washington may not realize that all the museums within the Smithsonian system are free of charge. The Smithsonian is not just one museum but a system of FREE museums throughout the D.C. area that offers incredible educational resources for people of all ages. The newest museum that was decades in the making is the National Museum of African American History and Culture

In case students and teachers do not have the resources to visit the Smithsonian sites in person, they now have incredible online websites that allow audiences to take virtual tours of the museums. There are also a number of incredible educational resources for students and teachers to use in and out of the classroom. Below I have included links to the museum websites to click on and explore.    

Museums within the Smithsonian System in Washington DC

The National Museum of African American History and Culture
National Museum of American History
Unites States Holocaust Memorial Museum
Nationa Museum of the American Indian
National Musuem of Natural History
National Gallery of Art
National Air and Space Musuem
National Museum of African Art
National Archives Museum


  1. Active learning/participation is something that every school should cultivate to benefit their student’s education. Field trips allow students to experience history by actively being there rather than reading it from a textbook. Washington D.C. is filled with ample opportunities for free education and its resources should be taken advantage of daily. As a future teacher for secondary social studies students, I want to show them how to participate in history; just like Dr. David Childs stated in his article, D.C. allows students the opportunity to recieve great history and civic education. The Smithsonian System, while far away, is a great source and I hope to use it in the future. If I am able to take my students to Washington D.C. I will take advantage of their string of educational and free museums and if I can’t go, I will use the informative websites that you have listed after the article. This article was very eye opening about the importance of educational field trips and active participation.

  2. I think that hands on learning like this will really inspire the students that their voice does count in our democracy. Personally I have never been to Washington D.C. but I would love to go and think that I would learn a lot even being someone who has voted for a few years. The impact taking students on a trip to these museums and historical places could truly make a huge difference on these students ideas of what democracy means. I think having resources like the virtual tours is a great thing for schools that don’t have the financial means to take their students on a trip like this but still be able to give the students the experience of learning about their country in this way.

  3. This article reminded me of my experience visiting Washington, D.C. My school took their trip during eighth grade, but I have a hard time remembering what we did and the places we visited. I think it is a good way to get students thinking about their role in democracy, but it might be better to try to take students when they are in high school so that they have a better chance to remember their experience as an adult.

  4. Especially when it comes to learning history, active learning is incredibly important. History is an incredibly interesting subject that can too easily be seen as memorizing dates and places. Immersing students into a museum is an incredibly powerful bridge into an active discussion, or even connecting subjects. For example, if a class is reading the “narrative of the life of Frederick Douglas”, visiting the freedom center is a powerful way to connect with the reading.

  5. Active participation is definitely a key part in helping children learn. They understand everything more and know what is going on by experiencing it hands on. Visiting Washington D.C is a great way to learn history, as you stated. You get to see everything first hand and not just in a textbook. It’s awesome that most of the museums are free of charge, so everyone can go and experience them. The online websites of the Smithsonian are something that I didn’t know existed, but those seem like such a cool thing for those who can’t get out to D.C.

  6. I visited Washington D.C when I was in middle school. I didn’t know much about the government when I went, but when I left I had so much more knowledge about it. I think its a great way for students to actively participate and learn. Its the best environment for students to really understand and appreciate history.

  7. Growing up I never got to go to Washington D.C through school and that is something I always wanted to do. I think it is a great way for students to have fun and go on a trip and to also get some knowledge as well. Being a future educator I think it would be cool to take a trip to DC because I know now that the kids would love it. Even though my school never went I had a lot of friends from another school that did and they had an amazing experience and I think every student needs to experience it once in their life.

  8. In the fifth grade, I had the opportunity to take a trip to Washington D.C., but unfortunately, my family was unable to afford the trip. I think it would be a great fundraiser to help save money to assist funding a trip to Washington D.C. so students can see the Smithsonian in person. Whereas these virtual tours are a great substitution for active learning, seeing on a projector and seeing in person are very different in regard to engagement. The topic of going to Washington D.C. could spread to different core classes other than social studies content, like Language Arts and Math. Students could add up the expense of the trip, which could take place in a math lesson, and write a letter to their parents or the principle regarding the trip, which would take place in a Language Arts or Writing lesson.

  9. I’ve never had the opportunity to go to Washington D.C. but one of my goals is to visit there and the first place I would visit would be the Smithsonian. While reading the article I did not realize that it was a series of museums I thought it was just one big building. As a teacher this would be a great learning tool  for my students and myself if the opportunity to visit there is not available. We could use the interactive website to do research projects or just something to look at in their free time if they want to learn more about history outside of the classroom.

  10. I think the use of field trips has drastically decreased since I was in middle school. I felt like we would go on field trips all the time, especially when it would come to social studies class. I remember going to the Freedom Center in downtown Cincinnati and learning about history, but the difference was that the learning was hands on. The idea of hands on learning is so important and I think incorporating field trips, especially to Washington D.C. is so great for the students learning. Students will learn so much more by going and visiting these places and it will be a memory that they can take with them. Therefore, I feel like field trips are so important and should be brought back into schools more.

  11. Before reading this article, I was not aware that the Smithsonian had a feature on their websites that allowed you to engage with the museum itself! When I was in the 7th grade, my whole family went to Washington D.C. and I was beyond excited to go to all of the Smithsonian Museums. I actually am looking into going to Washington D.C. soon with my friends, to get to see the museums again! I will definitely utilize the resource of the Smithsonian websites to share all of the hands-on learning experiences that I had when I was in middle school myself. I would love to get to take my students there in person, but I am unsure of how practical that is. However, I plan on utilizing the many historical areas and museums that are in the Cincinnati area- such as the Freedom Center, the Art Museum, the Cincinnati Museum Center, etc. I think that students benefit significantly from getting to engage with the content that they are learning in school, in an out-of-school environment.

  12. I had no idea that the Smithsonian was multiple different museums, I always assumed it was one big thing with all these different “exhibits” or areas. I think it would be great for students to experience Washington D.C. but the virtual tours can be a great substitute for those who can’t afford the trip or can even be used as a “sneak peek” for what’s to come. There are lots of ways to get students engaged and excited about it.

  13. I have visited Washington D.C about two/three years ago and sadly didn’t have time to go into the Smithsonian as the wait time to get in were terribly long. Taking kids on a trip to Washington D.C would be a little trickier, as parents don’t have the money to send their kids or the school does not have the resources to do so either. But rather than visiting the weblinks are a great resource to use as you can see some things that are on display there and the National Museum of the American Indian National Museum of Natural History, gives you free digital lesson plans which is a bonus. I think it is a great way to participate in museums even if the children cannot physically be there.

  14. I have never had the opportunity to visit the Smithsonian or Washington D.C. I never knew that it was free service with multiple museums inside! I bet it makes our Cincinnati Museum look like a grain of salt. I never knew that they had online virtual tours either. That would be a great experience to use in the classroom. It would be like taking your students on a virtual field trip. There are so many different activities that could be done with the students. I hope to someday be able to go on my own and come back with some useful information and pictures for my students to see and further my lessons.

  15. I was able to go to Washington D.C during my 8th grade year. We visited a few museums, but we didn’t go to the Smithsonian. The one museum I remember the most was the United States Holocaust Museum. In 8th grade, we learned about the Holocaust and this museum was specifically chosen to show us artifacts and let us hear/read about real life experiences during this time. Going to museums was a great way to learn about history. Schools in Northern Kentucky don’t have to travel all the way to Washington D.C to go to educational museums, they can just go to Cincinnati. In Cincinnati, there are quite a few museums that would offer a great educational experience for students, such as the Freedom Center or the Cincinnati Children’s Museum. These would be a lot more affordable for every student to go to, I do say that Washington D.C was an awesome experience.

  16. Active participation and learning is something that I think every student would be able to benefit from. For students, being able to get their hands on something to learn can make a huge difference in the classroom and can go a long way. History is a very important part of school for students and unfortunately most students don’t like learning about social studies. Social Studies has just become lectures that students have to sit through and readings that they have to do. By making lessons more interesting and interactive will help students get more involved. I have never had the opportunity to go to Washington D.C but have always wanted to. I know that there are so many history lessons to learn as you walk through the city that are not just lectures to listen to. If I ever got the chance to go to Washington D.C. I would definitely go.

  17. Luckily, I had the opportunity to visit Washington DC when I was in 8th grade. We actually went and visited the Smithsonian. We also went to visit many memorials, museums, parks, and more. One place that stood out the most to me was the Arlington National Cemetery. This trip was a huge learning experience for me, and I still vividly remember the time I spent on the trip. I think that seeing the monuments and places that I was learning about was a huge help in me remembering about these places and the importance behind them.

  18. I wanted to view an article that Dr. David Childs has written in the past as today is March 7,2020, I felt like it would be beneficial for myself as an educator and a student. I have never been to Washington DC so I understand that I explore Washington and such a monumental place like Simithsonian for free. My favorite part is they offer virtual tours! I can make a lesson plan that involves them researching and then acting like they are going to the Simithsonian. The article states “ This education process should start as young as possible” I think that my students should understand Democracy in America. Citizen participation in the democratic process is huge and starting an elementary age will prepare them to be more active citizens.

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