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Not sure how to begin a visit with your littles? Expert tour guide Addy (age 6) and her dad Austin (@austinkgraff on Instagram) have tips for enjoying the National Gallery as you grow.

Age 0 to 1: Lights

During the first week of my daughter’s life, we visited the National Gallery of Art. This made Addy one of the museum’s youngest visitors. She had been sleeping in a baby carrier strapped to my spouse until we found ourselves under Leo Villareal’s Multiverse. The flickering LED lights captivated our baby, creating a core memory. (It’s a story my now-six-year-old loves to hear over and over.)

It was in that moment that I first saw my daughter as a guide. Living in DC for close to two decades, I had been a frequent visitor to the National Gallery. I had walked through the famous tunnel of lights countless times. But it was when Addy’s eyes grew wide with wonder and danced in the light that I fully saw the magic of Multiverse for the first time. And she has remained my guide ever since.

Age 1 to 2: Water and Colors

A year later, we returned. Now one year old, Addy was obsessed with water. She pulled me toward the fountain next to I. M. Pei’s glass “crystals” in the Fourth Street Plaza. She squealed in delight as her hands touched the cold water. Later, her face pressed against the glass, she watched the cascading waterfall from the café below.

At age two, I taught Addy her colors using Ellsworth Kelly’s Color Panels for a Large Wall inside the East Building Atrium. Green. Yellow. Blue. Pointing out each panel made me appreciate the famous piece. The canvases became a teaching tool.

Age 3 to 4: Scavenger Hunts and Numbers

Scavenger hunts were the name of the game at age three. Starting in the West Building, we walked through gallery after gallery finding dogs, fruit, or babies in old paintings. Whoever found the item first got one point. The winner’s prize? A treat from the Espresso & Gelato Bar. The game was fun, but it also invited us to study the details in every painting.

The rooftop is where we lived when Addy was four. The reason? Katharina Fritsch's Hahn/Cock, a 15-foot blue rooster. It became our destination every time we visited.

Also on the rooftop are a number of sculptures. The “four” was the backdrop to many photos of Addy that year. And the nearby US Capitol appeared in photographs of Addy with papa.

Age 5 to 6: Skating and the Sculpture Garden

Spending every Saturday at our neighborhood rink, Addy blossomed into an ice skater. When we visited the National Gallery that winter, we rarely went inside. The Sculpture Garden Ice Rink is where we camped. Ice skating with the National Archives in the background followed by hot chocolate at the Pavilion Café were highlights of every trip.

After warming up at the café, we always ended up wandering around the Sculpture Garden. Louise Bourgeois’s Spider and Roy Lichtenstein’s House I were two of our favorites. But Addy also introduced me to Marc Chagall’s Orphée. Secluded in a corner of the garden surrounded by trees, the mosaic is hidden. It wasn’t until Addy ran through the trees that we found the grand, glittering work. That corner is now where we go to sit on the bench, read, and escape the hustle and bustle of DC.

Age 6 and up: Brushster and Shops

Now Addy is six years old. She’s a budding artist and has plans to become a “restaurant owner.” These identities bring us to two different spots at the museum. The first takes us to Brushster, three giant screens in the East Building Atrium designed for digital painting. Armed with an oversized paintbrush, Addy spends countless minutes creating masterpieces. We also paint at home using the National Gallery of Art Kids Art Zone app.

Addy’s business aspirations bring us to the National Gallery Shops. With the goal of teaching Addy about how to manage money—an important skill for any restaurant owner—we give her a weekly allowance for doing chores. Ten percent of her allowance goes to a charity. Ten percent goes to savings. And the rest she can spend.

And spend she does, at the shops. There are three, but the Concourse Shop (near the Espresso & Gelato Bar) carries art projects, toys, and activities for kids. Tempted by the Supercool Paper Airplanes Kit, Tiny Art Studio book and activity kit, and the Tiny Ceramics Studio, Addy learns about saving her money for something “big.” After weeks of saving, she walks out with the Tiny Ceramics Studio.

Born in DC, a city with some of the country’s best museums, Addy always returns to her very first one. It’s where we go after an early pick-up day from school. Over the years, Addy has shown me how to really see and experience the National Gallery. She’s my guide, and I am grateful.

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Austin Graff

Austin Graff is a travel writer, explorer, and social media consultant in Washington, DC. He often explores different parts of the DC area with his six-year-old daughter Addy.

December 01, 2023