Great Places for Kids on the Anacostia

Ducking under the waterfall at Yards Park. Photo: Bill Matuszeski

As more and more happens to restore the waters and to attract people to the Anacostia and the lands along it, there are getting to be a number of super places to take the kids, the grandkids, the nieces and nephews, or whatever else you call the young ones following you around. Here are a number of special activities and the most fun places to go on both sides of our river.

Yards Park
This new waterfront park near the stadium has many attractions and is designed to let the youngsters safely get near and even into the water. The fences along the river are childproof (but watch out when you enter the Navy Yard walkway, where only a single chain separates the pathway from a dropoff into deep water). At the end of Third Street SE there is a set of fountains that go up and down, on and off, in a random pattern. Kids love the excitement of not knowing when a jet of water will shoot up and threaten to soak them, since they can walk right into the array.

Even more exciting, below these fountains is a large and safe wading pool, only about 18 inches deep, and dropping into the pool is a 15-foot waterfall that you can actually walk under! Hard to resist. Up the street you can walk around an even larger set of random jets that are lit up with different colors at night. These are right above Second and M streets, where the ice skating rink is set up in winter. Make sure it is warm enough and the kids have clothes that give hope they won’t be soaked to the skin.

The Pirate Ship Playground
Right below the Pennsylvania Avenue bridge on the Anacostia side of the river is a playground that features an enormous pirate ship filled with ramps and steps and slides of many kinds to challenge all ages. Reach it off Minnesota Avenue, or bicycle over the bridge on the south side from either direction and slide down the pathway to it. There is a nearby covered picnic pavilion if you want to plan a long stay – the youngsters will entertain themselves and you can read a book or take a nap.

Kenilworth Aquatic Gardens
This hidden gem for seekers of peace and beauty is located along the river not far below the city line on the Anacostia side. It is a National Park Service facility, the only one in the entire national system that features water-based plants. It was originally a commercial operation raising waterlilies, lotus, and other plants. It has a great collection but it is also a favorite place for youngsters to find frogs, water snakes, and all manner of insects and other critters.

The ponds are connected underground to the river, so their levels rise and fall with the tide and storms or dry weather, providing lots of exposed areas for kids to hunt. For the littlest hunters, the place to start is a very small rectangular pond near a couple of picnic tables right after you pass the Visitors Center. From there they can graduate to bigger natural ponds and mudflats and head out on a long boardwalk over the marshes. The gardens are connected to the new Anacostia River Walk Trail, so you can even arrive by bicycle. And the Visitor Center has excellent educational materials for children, including a free Junior Ranger Activity Book.

The National Arboretum
For another great space along the river, you can reach the arboretum by boat at the dock below and climb up the path through the Asia Gardens. The best views out over the river are high above in the dogwoods. For the youngsters, a favorite place is Fern Valley, which has a maze of paths, many of which cross the stream that winds through the valley. Older children will enjoy the Washington Youth Garden, which is always open to visitors for inspection (be sure to secure the gates in and out to prevent the deer from entering). Vegetables and spices are well labeled, and there is much to learn about how food grows. At the south end is a play area for younger kids that includes a sandbox. Finally, stop by the Visitors Center to check the live camera in the eagle’s nest; the two fledglings may still be in residence and it is quite a scene when Mom arrives with food.

Kingman and Heritage Islands
These two islands in the Anacostia are mostly comprised of dredged material from the days when the Corps of Engineers dug up all the wetlands along the river. But they have survived and now serve as a learning center operated by Living Classrooms. They are the only part of the areas along the river that have been designated a “Chesapeake Gateway,” a set of sites around the Chesapeake watershed known for their special environments and opportunities to learn about preservation of natural systems. Access is from the Capitol Hill side, the parking lots north of RFK Stadium.

While there are formal programs working with youth on the islands, they are also open for exploration any time. Those in the know say that the most fun for the kids is on the Heritage Island Trail, which is located very close to the edge of the marshes where there is the best chance to encounter reptiles, amphibians, birds, and other creatures. The islands are connected by a set of large wooden bridges that add to the atmosphere. Plans are underway to expand activities for the public and to form a citizens’ advocacy group to plan the future of the islands.

Boat Rides, Canoe Paddles, and the Like
The DC Government used some of the proceeds of the disposable bag fee to provide boats to two environmental groups for free public trips on the river. The groups have augmented the boat trips with other activities that expand your options to take the kids out on a special trip. The Anacostia Watershed Society offers a Discovery Series of free summer fun – motorized boat trips nearly every Thursday evening, canoe trips, paddle nights at Bladensburg Waterfront Park, and nature hikes. All of these can be checked out and reservations made on the website –

The Anacostia Riverkeeper offers educational boat tours to the public on various Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays, as well as free private group tours. To join an existing tour or set up a private tour for your group of up to 20, go to Riverkeeper also operates free catch-and-release fishing on Friday nights on the Anacostia, with gear, bait, and fishing lessons provided. Sign up on the website above.

So, get out with the kids and help them learn to appreciate and enjoy our river. Along the way, have some fun yourself!

Bill Matuszeski writes monthly about the Anacostia River. He is the retired director of the Chesapeake Bay Program, a DC member of the Citizens Advisory Committee on the Anacostia River, and a member of the Mayor’s Leadership Council for a Cleaner Anacostia River.