Wednesday, May 12, 2010

Wild Things with Wild Imaginations

In Maurice Sendak's fantastical children's book Where the Wild Things Are, a mischievous young boy named Max is sent to his room without dinner for behaving wildly. But this does not prevent Max from imagining himself voyaging by sailboat to a lush, exotic island far away from home. On the island, he is crowned king of the wild things, a pack of googly-eyed monsters with pointed teeth and hooked claws. Spike Jonze's 2009 film adaptation of the story was inspired by revelations that Sendak's monsters are metaphors for a child's fierce emotions and the mysterious island is like the extraordinary dreamscape of his imagination. A scene from the movie portrays Max lying solemnly on his bed following an argument with his mother and finding solace playing with a toy boat he has fashioned out of sticks. There are other signs of imaginative play in Max's bedroom, including a tent made of blankets and a worn wolf costume, that are reinterpreted and exaggerated in Jonze's surrealistic movie version of Max's daydreams.

When my son, a wild thing in his own way, first handed me an invisible morsel of food and smiled when I pretended to eat it, I knew that we had reached an important milestone in his development. Children typically show signs of imaginative play by 18 months of age according to an article about the brain in a recent issue of Discover magazine. Pretending is a blend of knowledge and imagination that demonstrates "a uniquely human kind of intelligence". It is critical that parents foster this development in their children by providing age-appropriate toys or other materials and scenarios suitable for pretend play. For example, when AS and I play with his stuffed animals, I give each one a name and a voice and start to enact a short narrative with it. Sometimes these narratives are based on children's stories or fables we have read. More often than not, AS will take the animals from me and enact a different narrative with his own actions and made-up voices. The ability to think imaginatively and ultimately transcend traditional ideas helps children gain knowledge, generate meaningful new ideas, explore cause and effect relationships, and find solutions to problems that will facilitate their progress into adulthood.

The shelves of toy stores are stocked full of playthings, such as dolls, hand puppets, princess dresses and craft kits, that are intended to encourage imaginative play in children ages 2 and up. But these toys can be prohibitively expensive for parents regularly seeking fresh ideas. While spending more time outside enjoying the Spring weather, I have been reminded how much children love to explore the natural world and play with simple rocks, leaves, and sticks. These objects are free and plentiful in Washington, DC's parks and may be applied as materials or tools in craft-making. Nature crafts provide lessons in cost-effective creativity and in recycling as the materials may be re-used for another project or returned to the earth again once a child has outgrown his or her use for them. Children tend to value these types of crafts and playthings more than store bought items because they have had a hand in making them. Also, they feel empowered knowing they have employed their imaginations to "make something from nothing" and found ways to share their original ideas and vision with others.

As an art teacher, I was gratified to see my creative colleagues and students use found materials from nature in lieu of expensive art supplies. In one lesson, students created color wheels with Fall leaves collected from the school yard to learn the principals of color while observing the changing of the seasons. This exercise also introduced young artists to the natural landscape as a primary source of artists' inspiration, theories and art-making media. Another art teacher distributed small twigs affixed with pencils at one end for drawing on large sheets of paper. This unconventional tool compelled her students to make looser, more abstract images on paper and consequently introduced a different style of art-making to teenage artists accustomed to rendering drawings realistically, copying directly from life.

One approach to nature art that I especially love is to allow the distinctive shape of a found leaf, stone or stick suggest how the object should be used in the artwork. A Native American sculptor I once met said that the individual soap stones he carved suggested to him what animal form they wanted to become, such as a bear or seal. Family Fun magazine featured a whimsical drawing game, "Foliage Friends" based on a similar idea. Leaves are glued to pieces of drawing paper and children use pens, pencils or crayons to add heads and legs, using their imaginations to transform the leaves into animal characters. A birch leaf becomes a bird's wing and a leaf from a rose bush becomes a turtle's shell. Another great craft idea from Family Fun includes making a simple pinecone photo holder. Take your camera along on a nature hike and document the adventure as you search for the perfect pine cone to display your favorite photo from the day!

Of course, simply being in a beautiful setting like a state or national park with your child has its own rewards, not the least of which is to watch a child demonstrate how truly inventive he or she can be. Outdoor activities can engage your child's senses, help them make relationships between themselves and the natural world, and teach them to respect the natural environment. So get outside, and let your imaginations run wild!

Friday, April 30, 2010

Brookland: The Kids are Alright!

You may have noticed a few people driving around the city sporting white oval stickers with black letters "BK" in the center on their bumpers. These are the proud, civic-minded residents of Brookland in northeast Washington, DC. Brookland has the feel of a small suburban town and is home to a tight knit community. The neighborhood tends to be more affordable for home buyers because Brookland does not have as many stores, restaurants, or other conveniences within walking distance as do other neighborhoods in northeast Washington like Capitol Hill. Nevertheless, there are plenty of free or low cost entertainment options nearby for families with young children.

The Brookland Kids listserv on Yahoo! has a very active group of parent contributors. So when I was looking for something to do with my son in NE, I checked here first. This is how I gained a little insiders perspective on Turkey Thicket Recreation Center, the playground at North Michigan Park, the Washington Youth Garden and picnic areas at the National Arboretum, and the Franciscan Monastery. The BK listserv also contains posts about local yard sales, farmers markets, and playgroups. If you are new or moving to the area, check it out!

Turkey Thicket Recreation Center is located at 1000 North Michigan Avenue, NE, a short walk from the Brookland-CUA Metro station. The playground and athletic fields are spacious and sun-drenched, perfect for games of tag, kicking around a soccer ball, or meeting for a group picnic. A shady bench under a large tree near the playground is a nice spot for Mom and Dad to catch a break while their children play. There are also several tennis courts and a basketball court for families to practice a sport and stay fit together. The aquatic facility inside the recreation center is another draw for families with a kiddie pool for youngsters learning to swim. I've heard the water here tends to run a little warmer than at some other indoor DPR pools where they keep it cool for swim meets so competitors don't tire as quickly. Affordable swimming classes for children and adults are offered at this location as are summer camps. Register through the DPR website.

Improvements were made to the playground at North Michigan Park Recreation Center, 1333 Emerson Street, NE, in 2008. The park, a sometime meeting place for Brookland playgroups, now features two play structures and rubberized ground covering instead of wood chips. One structure is suitable for children ages 2-5; the other is for ages 6-12. New Moms may get back into shape pushing baby in a bucket swing, then strolling on the paved walkway surrounding the play area. Twelve laps around the walkway is equivalent to one mile! Recreation facilities also include basketball and volleyball courts, a softball field, horseshoe pit, picnic area and lots of restrooms. If your child is more the cerebral than athletic type, exercise his or her mind playing a strategic game of chess on one of two checker/chess tables. The closest Metro station is Fort Totten on the red line.

A picnic area and tree groves at the National Arboretum, 3501 New York Avenue, NE, also provide meeting points for local playgroups. Relax and enjoy a brown bag lunch or snack at a picnic table, then lie in lush green grass staring up tree tops or chase butterflies with your little ones. The Washington Youth Garden adjacent to the National Grove of State Trees picnic area (near the M Street Parking Lot) showcases the green thumbs of District pre-school children, ages 3-5. The Youth Garden "sows the seeds of interest in gardening, horticulture, and environmental issues during the school year with carefully designed lessons and activities that are delivered in the classrooms of several schools in the area." Students with a special dedication to the program are invited to plant their own garden plots in the Spring, so the garden is at its peak in late Summer. Admission and parking are free, and plants are always in bloom. Events, including gardening demonstrations and workshops, are available to the public. Some require a fee, others are free; registration is required for all.

An image on the home page of the Brookland Kids listserv shows a toddler pushing a walker on the grounds of the Franciscan Monastery, a 15 minute walk from the Brooklan-CUA Metro station. Many visitors to the monastery come for quiet reflection as they stroll along the Cloister Walk or through the beautiful gardens, listen to the chirping of birds, and admire the statuary, mosaics, stained glass, paintings of the Byzantine-style church inspired by the Hagia Sofia in Constantinople (Istanbul). The monastery has been affectionately referred to as the Vatican Disneyland by Catholic visitors who make a pilgrimage to see 100 year-old recreations of holy sites in Jerusalem and Europe, such as the Nativity Grotto in Bethlehem and the Roman Catacombs, and religious relics. Children are encouraged to roam respectfully, and flowering plants and the architecture of the church and monastery provide wonderful backdrops for family photos. The decorations during the holidays are especially festive, and you may bring your family pets (yes, even the hamster) on St. Francis's Feast Day for the blessing of the animals. Admission, parking and tours are free, and everyone is welcome.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

Kids Swim

We have had some surprisingly hot days here in Washington, DC, this April, and the cooling system for our apartment building is on the fritz. When the temperature first crept up to near 90 degrees, air inside the building was warm and stifling. It actually felt cooler in the shade outside, especially when a breeze was blowing. Circulating fans came out of residents' closets, and parents with small babies ran out to purchase window air-conditioning units.

On the second oppressive Spring day, my husband called with encouraging news. The "Resonance" water fountain at Columbia Heights Plaza was flowing again after being turned off for the winter. Children gather at the fountain to play under the watchful eye of their parents sitting nearby.
AS and I strolled over to join them, and I was immediately reminded of old documentary photos from the 1950's of city kids splashing in water shooting from New York City fire hydrants. At the Plaza, some children are sopping wet in their street clothes, others come dressed in bathing suits and water shoes, and all are having a great time beating the heat. The fountain was designed by DC Metro Area artist Jann Rosen-Queralt, and it incorporates textile designs from cultures represented in the neighborhood. Water shoots upward from below ground, dancing across the Plaza at intervals when the fountain is running. Youngsters make a game of leaping from one spout to another, trying to avoid getting wet or intentionally jumping in. AS toddles out to the center to join in the fun, bringing to mind another sunny afternoon last summer watching teens wade in the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden reflecting pool, surreptitiously gathering silver coins thrown into the fountain by tourists making wishes. Adults on their lunch break from offices nearby sat noshing sandwiches with their pant legs rolled up and their manicured toes dipped into the water.

A friend of mine who is also a new mother was born and raised in Brooklyn, on Coney Island. She and I were discussing our plans to teach our sons to swim when she revealed she had just recently learned to swim herself. Swimming had provided gentle exercise she needed during pregnancy while she rallied from a long bout with severe morning sickness. We agreed it was advantageous for everyone to learn to swim, for fun, exercise, and water safety. She told me that the DC Jewish Community Center (DC JCC) offers swim lessons for children and adults, but I had missed the registration deadline for Spring enrollment. After a brief on-line search, I discovered that DC Department of Parks and Recreation offers swim classes at aquatic facilities throughout the city at even lower cost. Classes fill up quickly, but it is worth a call to both JCC and DPR to see if there are any openings. We were on a waitlist but received a call prior to the first class that space was available.

I registered for the Learn to Swim:
Parent and Child (Level A, ages 6 months to 2 years) class which met 5 times for the low fee of $30 for DC residents. Classes were held at Takoma Aquatic Center on Van Buren Street, NW within 15 minutes walking distance of the Takoma Metro Station. I have also heard good things about the Turkey Thicket and Wilson Aquatic Center locations. The facility and pools at Takoma are very clean, with two large adult pools used for laps and competitive swimming and a separate graded play pool with fountains for kids. The locker rooms are spacious, and there is a separate, smaller family changing room directly off the pool deck. We used this room to change into our suits so that I didn't have to chase after AS in the locker room while attempting to get dressed. Other parents brought strollers down to the locker room via an elevator, left their kids buckled in while they changed, and parked the strollers by the kiddie pool during class time.

Only three children were enrolled in my son's class, so we all got plenty of attention from the instructor. Parents work one-on-one with their children in the water under the direction of the instructor. She had a gentle approach with the kids, respecting their individual comfort levels and praising them as they attempted a new skill. We were encouraged to bring bath toys from home to acclimate our kids more quickly to the unfamiliar environment and to develop positive associations with the pool through water play. The instructor blew soap bubbles which floated on the pool's surface to help the children relax as they were introduced to very basic skills like floating and gliding, stroking and kicking, and becoming accustomed to the feel of turning from front to back in the water. She also led us in a game of "Ring around the Rosie" in the pool, encouraging the children to put their faces under water and control their breath by blowing bubbles at the end of each round of the song. Other sessions included information regarding how to safely enter and exit the adult pool or deep water with your child and using personal flotation devices (life jackets). Each session was 30 minutes although we were invited to stay as long as we liked afterward.

If you want to spend more time at the pool, there are a few options. The DPR's Aquatic Centers (indoor pools) are open year round. Some are closed weekends or Sundays, so check the DPR website for days and hours before you go. Outdoor pools and children's pools open for weekend use by the end of May and throughout the week by late June. Admission is free to DC residents, so bring your ID. Non-residents can purchase daily or seasonal swim passes. More fee information for non-residents is provided here. A number of DPR spray parks also begin operating at recreation and community centers throughout Washington's four quadrants at the end of May. Water features at playgrounds offer another way for children in the District to play and cool down.

Saturday, April 17, 2010

Brainstorming for a Sunny Tornado: Free and Cheap Activities with Kids in DC

I have heard it said that you never feel prepared enough for parenthood.

A friend nicknamed my son "Sunny T", short for "Sunny Tornado", after observing the enthusiasm and speed with which he can turn a room topsy-turvy. Sunny T earned his title, in part, by systematically removing the contents of every drawer in our bedroom. While surveying the wreckage, I uncovered a scrap of paper tucked inside a parenting book on the floor near my bedside table. Scrawled on the paper was a handwritten list of free and cheap things to do with kids in DC that I began during my first trimester, after the reality of raising a family on a shoestring budget dawned. I added to the list periodically over the next six months, ultimately fostering this blog. As an artist and teacher, I was in the practice of conceptualizing projects or lessons through brainstorming, generating ideas to inspire the process. And new parents can't help but plan ahead, visualizing what life will be like with a child. It seemed like kismet that I should rediscover this list now, almost two years after it originated. What I hoped for then is now reality; we are making fun discoveries and learning and doing new things as a DC family while living economically. Every day I find affirmation that it is possible to be enriched more by collecting experiences than possessions.

I decided to share this in hopes that it will help others who want the same for themselves and their families. It's more than a simple list, it's encouragement. Please add your suggestions for free and cheap activities with kids in DC in the comment box below, and share the love!
  1. pack a picnic
  2. explore a playground
  3. hike at state and national parks
  4. become a Junior Park Ranger
  5. go geocaching
  6. observe the stars at the planetarium
  7. conduct home science experiments like baking soda volcanoes
  8. discover different toys and activities at interactive museums, playrooms and rec centers
  9. play with the train table at Barnes and Noble
  10. cultivate imaginary play and games
  11. dress-up in costumes fashioned from old clothes
  12. build a "fort" in the living room with blankets and sofa cushions
  13. ride a carousel
  14. fly a kite, kick a ball, or throw a Frisbee on the National Mall
  15. walk, skate or bicycle on a paved trail
  16. stroll through the city on a self-guided walking tour
  17. exercise on an obstacle course
  18. splash around in a DC Department of Parks and Recreation pool
  19. cool off in a public fountain
  20. enjoy a cool drink on an outdoor patio
  21. scarf ice cream at a parlor or a baked treat at a bakery
  22. share a bite of a local specialty at a neighborhood eatery, like Ben's Chili Bowl on U Street, NW
  23. host a potluck dinner for neighbors
  24. meet new kids and parents at Kiddie Happy Hours
  25. bring lunch to Daddy at work
  26. visit family and friends
  27. research family genealogy at the National Archives
  28. make a scrapbook or photo album
  29. call someone we miss on the phone
  30. volunteer and participate in fund-raisers
  31. register for classes or activities through DPR
  32. join a playgroup or team
  33. watch a local sports event
  34. have a pillow fight at a slumber party
  35. cuddle up and take a nap
  36. read and have "floor time" every day
  37. borrow lots of books, DVDs and CDs from the library
  38. attend story time at library or bookstore
  39. browse the children's items at used book stores and consignment shops
  40. write letters, poems and stories
  41. tell a joke or story
  42. submit artwork or writing for publication
  43. view contemporary art at gallery openings on First Fridays in Dupont Circle
  44. tour museums & attend family events
  45. re-purpose old picture frames to create a home gallery of children's art
  46. learn to home-make toys, clothes and holiday decorations
  47. take pictures with digital and toy cameras
  48. play online computer games and puzzles
  49. create outdoor art and games with sidewalk chalk
  50. collect found objects like stamps or coins
  51. make crafts from recycled or natural materials
  52. give homemade cards and gifts
  53. blow wishes on dandelions, fountain pennies and four leaf clovers
  54. draw and photograph the flora and fauna at a garden
  55. grow a windowsill garden or community garden plot
  56. watch birds with the Audubon Society
  57. learn about animals at the zoo and aquarium
  58. visit the horses at the Rock Creek Park Horse Center
  59. observe little critters at the pet store
  60. watch dogs chase balls at the dog park
  61. tour historic homes and monuments
  62. shop farmers markets
  63. dine at restaurants where kids eat free
  64. attend Mommy and Me events at Whole Foods Market
  65. taste free food samples at Harris Teeter
  66. ride in a rocket-ship shaped grocery cart
  67. cook, bake and eat together
  68. play a musical instrument and sing in a home-style jamboree
  69. dance to a live musician outdoors or at a coffee shop
  70. see a puppet show, play or dance performance
  71. be entertained and informed by public radio or television programs and podcasts
  72. see a cheap matinee movie or a free film at Screen on the Green
  73. putt a hole-in-one at the Hains Point miniature golf range
  74. take a short boat cruise on the Potomac
  75. rent a paddle boat or canoe
  76. cheer dragon boats and crew teams racing by the Georgetown waterfront
  77. see firetrucks up close at the local fire station
  78. appreciate flash art at a tattoo parlor, then get a temporary tattoo
  79. watch workers and construction vehicles at building sites
  80. study the architecture of unique homes, churches and museums
  81. search the grounds of the National Cathedral for gargoyles
  82. build towers of giant Legos at the National Building Museum
  83. walk under the Friendship Arch with a friend in Chinatown
  84. window shop at Gallery Place or in Georgetown
  85. ramble along neighborhood street festivals
  86. meander around a labyrinth
  87. watch a parade
  88. participate in a march to the Capitol
  89. request tickets to tour the White House
  90. ride an elevator to the top of the Washington Monument
  91. watch planes take off from Reagan National Airport at Dangerfield Island
  92. see the DC skyline from the observation deck at the Old Post Office tower
  93. see a free trade show at the Convention Center
  94. support women's flat track roller derby at the DC Armory
  95. take the Metro bus or train to explore another part of town
  96. take a day trip
  97. plan a staycation
  98. trick-or-treat or see holiday lights at the Smithsonian National Zoological Park
  99. ice skate at the National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden
  100. enter lottery for the annual White House Easter Egg Hunt

Friday, April 16, 2010

Picnics at the National Mall: Every Day is the 4th of July!

Every Spring locals in Washington, DC, observe a phenomenon on the first warm day of the year akin to a flutter of butterflies simultaneously emerging from their cocoons. Outdoor dining chairs and tables suddenly appear on sidewalk patios of restaurants and are quickly filled by cheerful patrons enlivened with good food and restorative doses of sunshine and fresh air. Before our son was born, my husband and I certainly enjoyed our share of outdoor dining experiences just a few blocks from home. While our restaurant budget has since diminished, we happily still find ways to dine alfresco with a picnic in the park. Whether its a little snack for our immediate family or a larger potluck meal with friends, its always worth the extra time it takes to pull it all together.

There are so many pluses to having a family picnic that I even saw a chapter devoted to it in a parenting book. Of course the main benefit is sharing time with friends and family in a relaxed setting that is conducive to quiet conversation or active play, whichever fits your mood. It is also an opportunity for your child to experience the outdoors, possibly exploring part of a park you have never visited before, and develop friendships socializing with children of other families. And from a thrifty parent's standpoint, a potluck picnic is a great way to save a few pennies while exposing your child to new culinary adventures.

Most Washingtonians have celebrated at least one Independence Day down on the National Mall, but we assert our constitutional freedom to peacefully assemble (with family and friends for a picnic) there on a more regular basis. We have three favorite picnic spots near the National Mall, all within easy walking distance of the Smithsonian Metro station. One is on the grounds of the Mall itself, close to the Smithsonian Carousel at 1000 Jefferson Drive, SW. This is the best place to throw down a big blanket and cooler for a large group picnic. A few large trees provide shade here, but it is smart to pack sunscreen as you will likely spend time in the sun. Wide grassy areas lend plenty of room for kicking around a soccer ball, throwing a Frisbee or even flying a kite after lunch. Kids can be kids and make as much noise as they like in this vibrant public space. Leashed dogs are welcome, too. Tickets for the carousel, open 10-5 daily (except Christmas), are $2.50 per rider and worth every penny to a child. The carousel features sixty Dentzel horses, two chariots, a spinner tub, and one very popular dragon. It was built in 1947 and relocated to the National Mall from Baltimore, MD in 1981.

The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, across the National Mall opposite the Smithsonian Carousel, at 7th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW, offers shady picnic spots appropriate for small groups. Enjoy your lunch while sitting in the grass under a canopy of flowering trees, shrubs and perennials within view of modern and contemporary sculpture installations, including Roy Lichtenstein's illusionary House I and Louise Bourgeois' colossal, bronze Spider. A cooling fountain at the center of the Garden is surrounded by additional seating areas. We spent a few minutes tossing pieces of leftover sandwich bread to the Mallard ducks swimming there. You may also take advantage of the public restrooms at the Pavilion Cafe, a pleasant alternative to the portable toilets available on the Mall grounds. Pets are not permitted, so leave Fido at home if you choose to picnic here rather than on the Mall. Sculpture Garden hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 to 5 and Sunday from 11 to 6, mid-March to Memorial Day.

My last recommendation is for the public gardens behind the Smithsonian Castle. Picnics are not permitted on the grass to protect the delicate plants, but plenty of outdoor seating on benches is available for a brown bag snack with your immediate family. Take the time to stroll along the garden pathways to choose the perfect seating area and admire the elaborate flower beds and hanging baskets, 19th century cast-iron furnishings and reproduction lampposts and the turn-of-the century urns in the Haupt Garden. Consider resting along pink granite benches in the Moongate Garden, inspired by Chinese gardens and architecture, or upon one of four Victorian benches surrounding a cast iron fountain in the sweetly fragrant Folger Rose Garden. As you tour the Haupt Garden, it is fun to realize that you are actually walking atop the roof of the subterranean National Museum of African Art and Sackler Gallery.

Admission is free to all three locations, so don't wait until July to start planning a family picnic!

Saturday, April 10, 2010

Toddler Art: Process and Play at Palisades Park

I discovered a book at the library last week that has me so excited about making art with my toddler son that I feel like I might jump right out of my skin. As I turned each page for the first time, I heard myself repeatedly saying "Wow!" out loud and could hardly wait to curl up on the couch at home at night and read it more thoroughly. The book is First Art: Art Experiences for Toddlers and Twos by MaryAnn F. Kohl, an author who feels "the process of art for young children (is) more important than the finished product". Kohl collaborated with a parent and an art teacher who encouraged her to fill a literary void by writing a book about art for children this age.

First Art fulfilled a need for me, too, as I learned that art classes for children in Washington, DC, start at 18 months of age at the earliest and do not fit within our budget. Only Gymboree offers an Art 1 class for tots age 18-24 months, but it is costly at $79 a month. Last December, I resolved to more cheaply introduce my infant son to art-making at home by using nontoxic materials, corresponding methods to his capabilities, and using appropriate caution for his safety (see "Arts in Infancy: Part 2"). Kohl's book is just the thing to help guide AS's toddler endeavors in open-ended art activities. She also wrote a book for preschool children that focuses on the "experience of art, not the final product a child creates".

Why focus on the process of making art and not the end product? We all remember at least one art teacher who expected us to merely imitate their examples, but how much of these copy-cat experiences did we internalize and retain? By giving young children the freedom to explore different media (traditional and non-traditional art-making tools, materials and methods) at their own pace, we open the door to more meaningful learning opportunities and a sense of ownership. Children learn best by experimenting and they develop confidence by problem-solving. For example, Kohl relates the story of a boy who was given a tightly rolled tube (like a cigar) of colored crepe paper leftover from a birthday party, a bowl of water and a large sheet of paper. He dipped the crepe paper tube in water and discovered he could draw with it as the dye from the damp crepe paper transferred to the paper sheet. After doing this several times, he tore off a piece of newspaper and dipped it in water to see if it would also work as a drawing tool. This demonstrates direct development in his visual thinking skills.

One key to success is to neatly present just a few materials at a time so that your toddler is not overwhelmed and immediately discouraged. Also, you may model art-making techniques but should encourage your child to investigate autonomously, praising them for their efforts. Often, there will be no "finished" art product. Instead, the child may employ the tools and materials in imaginative play rather than art-making or abandon them entirely to play with something unexpectedly more intriguing.

Since the weather had turned unseasonably warm, we tried one of the outdoor art activities suggested in First Art, "Out and About Water Painting". Preparation was quick, and there was virtually no clean up! We filled a plastic bucket with water, sealed it with a lid, and collected a round sponge and large paint brush to take with us to Palisades Playground at 5200 Sherrier Place, NW. I brought my camera to document the process knowing that photographs would be the only keepsake remaining from this activity. We found a wide stone and concrete patio adjacent to the mulched playground area and put the open water bucket on the ground with the sponge and brush inside. The light gray patio surface darkened dramatically when wet, providing the perfect "canvas" for water painting. My husband and I demonstrated the process for AS by making a few preliminary marks on the flat gray stones with the damp brush and sopping sponge. The marks disappeared as the water evaporated in the sun, reminding me of an Etch-a-Sketch.

AS saw he could make different types of marks with his painting tools, including lines of varying length, width and angles as well as dots and splatters. I described the types of marks aloud, introducing new vocabulary to him. He also tested other surfaces by dampening his skin, clothing, and a fence post with the brush, exclaiming "Wow!" as I did when I first opened Kohl's book. A look of concentration appeared on his face as he alternately dipped the tools and his hands in the cool water, and he laughed when he realized the sponge floated. He eventually picked up the bucket and dumped the water out on the ground, making a puddle to joyfully stamp with his feet. The entire art activity lasted just 15 minutes or so before AS was satisfied with his work and decided it was time to explore the rest of the playground.

Some scholars believe there are different styles of learning, visual, auditory and tactile, but it is sometimes difficult to determine what a child's preferences are at an early age. Parents and teachers can ensure their students' success by using methods of instruction that address all three styles. The goal is to both accommodate children's learning preferences while encouraging them to ultimately become adept at learning in a variety of ways. Effective, fun education ensures children are successful in and out of school and more likely to become lifetime learners. By bringing art to the park, we provided our learner with multi-sensory experiences that educated his mind and exercised his body through play.

Palisades Playground has several multilevel wooden forts with ramps and bridges, red plastic slides and tunnels, and tire climbing areas bound to exhilarate active kids and inspire imaginative ones. A picnic area, bucket swings, and a sandbox welcome parents with babies, too. When we were there on a Saturday afternoon, soccer games were in progress on the nearby fields so the parking lot was full. We found a spot on Sherrier Place, a pretty residential street, and walked a short distance to the playground and recreation center. See the DC Department of Parks and Recreation website for more information on free and discounted activities at the recreation center for DC residents.

Wednesday, March 31, 2010

Eastern Market: Monkeys, Fairies and Whirligigs... Oh My!

A co-worker who was born and raised in Southeast Washington revealed that before she became a teenager, she had never left her neighborhood. She had little reason to; most everything she desired was within a few blocks of her home. I remembered this as we traversed town to spend another great day bargain shopping and exploring the community near Eastern Market at 7th and Pennsylvania Avenue SE in Capitol Hill.

We didn't need to venture far from the Eastern Market Metro stop. Just north of the station on the 300 block of 7th Street SE are two places I wanted to visit first, before we wore ourselves out at Eastern Market Farmers Market and Flea Market. Monkeys' Uncle consignment shop and Fairy Godmother children's books and toys store are conveniently located in adjacent row-houses. As we parked our stroller outside beside the front steps and prepared to carry AS inside the cozy little stores (read: not stroller or wheelchair accessible), a 3-year-old passing by with her grandmother said, "I want to go to Fairy Godmother". It was apparently a place she liked enough to know by name.

The two men who operate Monkeys' Uncle, "purveyor of recycled children's clothing" and maternity wear, are DC residents and proud uncles to nieces and nephews. Their mission is to provide affordable clothing for infants to pre-teens by applying the principles of reduce, recycle, reuse and rethink. They greeted us immediately and were overheard offering "The Father's Chair", a comfortable resting place, to an older gentleman shopping with his daughter and her child. Prices are reasonable, more than a thrift store but less than retail. The clothing is gently worn but clean, current and seasonal. It was a relief to browse items presented neatly by size, unlike shopping at large thrift stores. I quickly found dress shirts, tees, and pajamas to fit AS and was offered help when I wanted to see the toddler pants located in bins stacked above the clothing racks. In addition to clothing, there was a shelf of parenting books and some baby gear. Check the store website if you hope to sell your children's outgrown clothing to Monkey's Uncle. They constantly provide "intake" updates to prevent you from schlepping over with bags of stuff unnecessarily.

At Fairy Godmother, an independent book and toy store, we were also immediately offered assistance but chose to simply wander the aisles discovering a wonderful variety of merchandise for infants to teens. I spied Caldecott and Newberry award winning books for younger readers, foreign language titles, and bestsellers like the Twilight series for big kids. The toys ranged from bargain items at the front counter (perfectly priced for a child spending their hard-earned allowance) to moderately priced educational and eco-friendly toys, craft kits and musical instruments to more expensive collectibles. The proprietor was graciously complaisant when our toddler wanted to touch everything and also perfectly happy to ring up our modest purchase, a metal kazoo for $2.50. A community bulletin board near the door advertises upcoming events, and complimentary copies of "Kids' Next" provide book recommendations for kids ages 4 and up from indie booksellers. The shop does not have a website, but reviews and info are available on It is closed on Sundays.

Eastern Market, on the 200 block of 7th Street SE, is Washington's "oldest and continually operated fresh food public market" and a great outing with kids, especially on sunny weekends when local farmers peddle fresh produce, artists and collectors sell crafts and antiques, the flea market is bustling, and musicians perform outdoors. My son was especially thrilled by the artists painting and drawing as he watched, blues musicians swaying children to dance, vendors displaying hand-crafted toys (like wooden whirligigs whirring in the wind! Wow!), and even flocks of pigeons taking flight from the market rooftop. Parents will love the unique, hand-made baby items such as knitted hats, toys and wall art at the Arts and Crafts fairs on Saturdays and the affordable children's clothing at the flea market on Sundays. Food merchants sell their tasty wares, including deli sandwiches and baked goods, indoors at the South Hall Market, part of a historic building renovated after a fire in 2007. Free food samples are sometimes available, or ask for a taste. The Market is closed Mondays. Hours are posted here. The North Hall is used for community events, including weekly $10 Tango Night classes which are open to the public. See the Events Calendar for details.

If you wish to grab lunch at the Market, picnic tables are available outside and it's often easier to find a seat there than at the cafe indoors. If the tables are full, cross North Carolina Avenue SE and enjoy a little picnic in the grass at the small Turtle Park play area with concrete turtle statues perfectly sized for kids to climb on. The small statues were created by local artist John Giesecke.
Also, don't miss the birdhouses unexpectedly embellishing the park's trees!

At the end of the day, before heading back home on the Metro, consider recharging with a cup of coffee (bring-your-own) and soaking up the air-conditioning and conversation at The Family Room while your children enjoy safe toys, books and art supplies or a climbing structure provided for their amusement. Admission to The Family Room, an indoor play area located a few blocks southeast of Eastern Market on 8th Street SE, is free for children under age one and for adults accompanying a child. An all-day pass (you may come and go with your child, as often as you like) for children ages 1-6 is $10, but the price drops to $5 after 3:00 Sunday to Thursday or after 5:00 Friday and Saturday. The Family Room also hosts family dinner-and-movie nights on Fridays and a babysitting service for couples looking to get away to a near-by restaurant on Barrack's Row. More information is posted on their website.

Whenever we venture into this part of town, my husband and I iterate that it feels like we have entered a different city. In fact, Capitol Hill is one of the oldest and largest residential neighborhoods in Washington, DC. There are many reasons, several within a few blocks of the Eastern Market Metro station, why families love living there. And while they might have less reason to justify bargain shopping in other parts of town, we look forward to returning to the Hill again to discover what more there is to see and do with kids in Washington, DC.

Copyright 2009 Kristen Morse All Rights Reserved