15 Free Activities Near DC this Winter for Kids and Families

Admission to Planet Word is free and offers plenty of hands-on exhibits kids will love. Photo courtesy of  the museum
Admission to Planet Word is free and offers plenty of hands-on exhibits kids will love. Photo courtesy of the museum

When the weather turns colder, it gets harder to entertain the kids without spending money. Free outdoor events such as festivals and concerts in the park aren't happening. Splash pads and spraygrounds are closed. Playground equipment freezes up. Fortunately, there are still plenty of free activities near DC for kids and families to enjoy this winter.

Some of these free activities for kids are located indoors. Others require the family to bundle up and brave the cold. But all of these free events and activities will brighten up even the dreariest winter day.

Here are 15 free activities near DC to do with kids this winter. For more ideas for cold-weather fun, check out our Winter Activities Guide for DC Kids.

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Be sure to check with the venue for its COVID guidelines and requirements before heading out to any event. Many places in DC now require guests to show either proof of vaccination or a negative test; some events are getting canceled or postponed at the last minute due to the latest COVID surge.

15 Free Activities Near DC this Winter

1. Free Museums

It is well-known that all of the Smithsonian museums are free every day, as are the National Archives and the Library of Congress. But the National Museum of the United States Army in Fort Belvoir, Virginia and Planet Word in DC are also free and offer plenty of hands-on exhibits kids will love.

2. National Zoo

Winter can be a great time to visit Smithsonian's National Zoo, which is free to enter. Giant pandas, cheetahs, gray wolves, and many more animals are active in colder weather. When you need to warm up, you can visit the zoo's indoor exhibits including the Reptile Discovery Center, the Great Ape House, the Small Mammal House, and the Think Tank. Don't forget to stop by the Kids' Farm for a chance to pet an alpaca!

The Lincoln Memorial is breathtaking in any season. Photo courtesy of the National Park Service

3. National Mall and Memorial Parks

Crowds are thinner in winter at the National Mall, making it a perfect time to visit the monuments and memorials. Bundle up and see how many you can check off your list. When you need an extra burst of warmth, climb the steps at the Lincoln Memorial and the Thomas Jefferson Memorial.

4. Ford's Theatre

Ford's Theatre, a National Historic Site, is the place where President Lincoln was assassinated. A limited number of free tickets to the theatre and museum are offered at the box office each day, or you can reserve them in advance online for only $3 each. Exhibits teach visitors about Lincoln's life in the White House, the Civil War, and more, and include artifacts related to the assassination, such as the pistol with which Lincoln was killed. Petersen House, the boarding house across the street where Lincoln died, is currently closed due to COVID.

Go ice skating for free at Fort Dupont Ice Arena. Photo courtesy of Friends of Fort Dupont Ice Arena, Facebook

5. Ice Skating at Fort Dupont Ice Arena

There are plenty of places to go ice skating in and around DC, but most of them cost money. Fort Dupont Ice Arena is free and offers public skating sessions on Fridays, Saturdays, and Sundays all winter long.

6. Free Library Programs

Libraries are a great place to find books for your family to read without spending money. But they also offer plenty of free, in-person and virtual events and programs such as storytimes, performances, craft and board-game nights, book clubs, and more. Some of these events require advance registration while others are drop-in, so check the events calendar on your local library's website to see what's coming up and how to join. The DC Public Library events calendar includes plenty of upcoming choices for babies, toddlers, kids, and teens.

7. National Parks

Some national parks in DC, including Rock Creek Park and Kenilworth Park & Aquatic Gardens, are free every day. And if you have a fourth-grader, signing up for an Every Kid Outdoors pass will give your family free admission to all national parks for one year. Otherwise, you can visit any national park on a fee-free day. Fee-free days, including MLK Day (January 17, 2022) and Presidents' Day (February 21, 2022) are a great time to visit DC-area national parks that usually charge admission, including Great Falls Park and Shenandoah National Park.

DC goes big for Chinese Lunar New Year. Photo courtesy of the Smithsonian American Art Museum

8. Chinese Lunar New Year Parade

Celebrate the Year of the Tiger at the DC Chinese Lunar New Year Parade in Chinatown on Sunday, February 6, 2022 at 2pm. There will be plenty of performances, live music, dragons, and more. Wear red for good luck, and check out the parade route to find the perfect spot.

9. U.S. National Arboretum

The grounds of the 446-acre U.S. National Arboretum are open every day of the year except Christmas, and winter can be a gorgeous time to visit. Many shrubs have berries or blossoms that visitors won't see in other seasons, and evergreen trees such as pine, cedar, spruce, and hemlock trees abound. With crowds thinner, kids will have more space to run around. Check out the on-site Washington Youth Garden, too!

10. Martin Luther King Jr. National Day of Service

Martin Luther King Jr. Day (January 17, 2022) has been designated a national day of service. With schools closed, DC-area families can honor Dr. King by giving back to their communities. Search for a local volunteer opportunity through AmeriCorps or VolunteerMatch. Families can also participate in the annual two-mile Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. Peace Walk beginning at 10am at the Frederick Douglass Memorial Bridge. (The parade is canceled this year due to COVID.) Register online for the peace walk.

Free nature centers around the DC area are great places to see wildlife.

11. Free Nature Centers

Nature centers are like mini zoos at which visitors can see reptiles, amphibians, fish, and other small animals up close. They also offer plenty of hands-on activities, crafts, and special programs like animal feedings. When it's cold, families can stay warm inside the nature centers or bundle up to explore the trails and other outdoor areas. And the best part is, so many DC-area nature centers are totally free to visit! Try the National Wildlife Visitor Center and Croydon Creek Nature Center in Maryland, Hidden Oaks Nature Center and Hidden Pond Nature Center in Northern Virginia, and Rock Creek Park Nature Center and Planetarium in DC.

12. Watching Planes Take Off and Land at Gravelly Point

The flights going into and out of Ronald Reagan Washington National Airport don't just stop because it's cold outside. So bundle up, pack a picnic (and maybe some hot cocoa), and head to Gravelly Point Park to see the planes fly right over your heads as they take off and land. It's a real treat for young airplane fans, who will feel like they can reach out and touch them!

13. Torpedo Factory Art Center

This Alexandria landmark is home to the nation’s largest collection of working-artists’ open studios under one roof. It's a lot of fun to stroll through the Torpedo Factory Art Center's three floors, watch the artists while they work, and see some of their finished products on display. Be sure to visit the Alexandria Archaeology Museum on the third floor to see artifacts from Alexandria's past.

14. Local Day Trips

Winter is the perfect time to take a drive and explore a new town. Take a stroll around historic Clifton, Virginia, window shop on Antique Row in Kensington, Maryland, or explore all of the history at Harpers Ferry.

Many bookstores offer free storytimes and other children's events, including virtual ones.

15. Free Bookstore Events

Politics and Prose Bookstore hosts various free storytimes, author talks, and other events for children, teens, and families at its three DC locations. Both virtual and live events are currently being offered. Check the event calendar to find more information about upcoming events. Barnes & Noble locations throughout the area also offer free storytimes for children and parents. Check your nearest location for upcoming events.

Places featured in this article:

National Museum of the United States Army

Kenilworth Park and Aquatic Gardens

Politics and Prose Bookstore - The Wharf

Politics and Prose Bookstore - Union Market
Beyond King Tut: The Immersive Experience
National Geographic Society - 10:00 AM Pick
Loudoun Pride
Claude Moore Park - 1:00 PM Pick
Fairfax City: A Hometown Celebration
Veterans Amphitheater - 5:00 PM Pick
Sunday Sunset Concerts at Allen Pond Park
Allen Pond Park - 7:00 PM Pick
Smithsonian Folklife Festival
National Mall - various times Pick
Neighborhood Guides
Activity Guides