10 civic engagement opportunities in Washington, D.C.

What better way is there to teach youth about our government than to visit Washington, D.C.?

Most youth learn about our government and our nation’s history on a regular basis in school, but visiting Washington, D.C. is a great way to put hands-on learning to work. The impact from seeing a monument and learning about it at the same time is much greater than seeing it in a book, and it’s something youth will remember forever. Planning a visit to Washington, D.C. can be very daunting as there are so many things to take advantage of. Michigan State University Extension lists the following 10 experiences you may consider when planning a trip and a few tips to help take full advantage of each experience.

1. Representative or senator’s office

Stop in at your representative or senator’s office to say hello. If you do not schedule an appointment, you will most likely only be able to talk to staff members, but they are very knowledgeable about the issues and are usually very willing to talk to youth. Pre-planning a drop-in meeting is the most beneficial, even if it is with a legislative aide. Have your youth prepare an issue they feel strongly about and present that issue either in written format or just through discussion with whom they meet with. Be sure to ask for passes to view Congress in session before you leave.

2. U.S. Capitol Building

Visiting the U.S. Capitol is a great experience for youth. Booking a guided tour is the best way to learn about the Capitol and to see a large portion of it. In addition to touring the building, you can visit Congress in session by obtaining passes from your representative or senator’s office. Before your tour, sit on the Capitol steps and ask the youth to explain the difference between federal and state government. Discuss how the two units of government work together and who their U.S. representatives and senators are and what committees or issues they are presently working on.

3. Library of Congress

The Library of Congress is not only beautiful, but is home to many rare books, large books (5x7), tiny books (1/25-inch x 1/25-inch), presidential papers, the Gutenberg Bible and so much more. Even if you are not a book enthusiast, it is a majestic place and a must-see.

4. White House

It is possible to book a tour of the White House. These tours are full of information and very interesting. If you are not able to book a White House tour, don’t miss the opportunity to at least walk to the White House and visit it from across the front lawn.

5. Holocaust Museum

The Holocaust Museum can be a high emotion museum for youth. It is a wonderful opportunity to help them understand the setting of our world before, during and after the holocaust. Make sure to plan time before and after this exhibit to talk to youth about what they will see and then what they saw, discuss concerns they have and answer their questions. The best approach is to have them hold these questions to the end if they are old enough to do so and then discus them away from the exhibits. This will help them to deal with the emotions that often surface during this exhibit.

Tickets are free, but are often sold out way in advance, so reserve your spot early. If you didn’t reserve tickets in advance, there is still an opportunity to go to the museum on the day you plan to visit and get passes. You will need to go early in the morning and wait outside the museum in the line that forms along the side. Passes will be distributed first come first serve, and will have a time stamped on them telling you when to return for entry. Once you have your tickets and know when to return, your group can walk to some of the Smithsonian Museums in the area until your reserved time.

6. Smithsonian Museums

There are 17 Smithsonian Museums available to tour for free. Each museum offers unique opportunities and can fill a lot of your day. If you want to visit a lot of the museums, you will need to plan accordingly and stick to a tight schedule. Some of the museums are quite large and have so many exhibits that you could spend an entire day at one facility. Reservations are not needed at any of these exhibits, but special attractions may exist that do, so plan in advance.

7. Monuments

There are many monuments to see in Washington, D.C. such as presidential monuments, war monuments, memorial monuments and more. Many of the monuments can be reached by walking from one to the next. Planning your trip in advance will ensure you see as many monuments as possible along your walking route and reserve those that must be driven to for a separate day. Each monument has a lot of history and interesting facts. Doing your research in advance and printing off a fact sheet about each monument is a great way to get the best experience. Read the fact sheet to your youth just before each monument. Be sure to discuss with your youth that these monuments are a place for people to grieve, remember and reflect, and that they should keep their voices low and stay on the walking path. Take a moment after each monument for youth to reflect with you.

8. Pentagon

Individuals or small groups can book a tour at the Pentagon. This is a wonderful opportunity for youth to see a division of our government most people do not. If touring the inside of the facility is not possible, then plan to visit the 9/11 Pentagon Monument outside of the building. This is a very touching memorial for a lot of youth because some of them are the same age or close to the age of the younger youth that were killed in the crash. Many youth are able to relate to the impact of 9/11 more than the war monuments. I suggest seeing the monument at night as the water and lights allow for the most impact in the evenings.

9. Mt. Vernon

Mt. Vernon was President George Washington’s Virginia home. It is full of history, artifacts and is comparable to taking a step back in time. Learn about George and Martha Washington, their lives and political views all while getting a glimpse of what it must have been like to live in that era.

10. Twilight Tattoo

Twilight Tattoo is a unique pageant performance put on by the U.S. Army, Old Guard Infantry Regiment and the U.S. Army Band “Pershing’s Own.” This performance is entertaining and educational as the group walks you through many of the past wars, showing the change of garments to the change of weapons. Reserve tickets for Twilight Tattoo.

These are just a few of many educational and fun places to visit in Washington, D.C. If you have more time, look into visiting the National Cathedral, take a Duck Boat tour, a Segway tour or go up in the Washington Monument. If planning a trip to Washington, D.C. isn’t possible, but you would like your youth to experience many of these opportunities, then consider sending them to 4-H Citizenship Washington Focus. This is an event planned through National 4-H, and Michigan 4-H takes a group of youth every year and incorporates a stop in Gettysburg, Pennsylvania. If you are interested in learning more about 4-H Citizenship Washington Focus and the Michigan 4-H program, please contact 4-HLeadership@anr.msu.edu.

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