Monday, December 28, 2009

You Give Me (Cabin) Fever

The stork visited our apartment building only once in the five years prior to AS's birth, and the winning family moved to a new house with their first born within months. This suddenly dawned on me during the waning third trimester of my pregnancy, and I wondered momentarily if there was some rule prohibiting children that I'd overlooked in our co-op by-laws and if we would be forced out onto the cold streets of December after one all-nighter with a crying newborn. But AS quickly became chummy with the building's longest resident who is our next door neighbor, several members of the board of directors and the superintendent, securing our family's rightful place here. We also befriended expectant parents living in a similar unit above us when we heard their first child was due the following year, encouraged that AS would have a buddy close-by and we would have yet another reason to stay in our cozy-for-three but affordable home.

AS continued to make acquaintances as he toddled beyond our front door to explore the halls and lobbies of the building at-large with his walker wagon. Following a blizzard, when record-breaking snowfall and sub-freezing temperatures prevented us from venturing outside, the indoor common areas became AS's playground. But after a day or two, something akin to cabin fever set in as we grew weary staring at the same four walls and window views of an alley.

When the snow melted making sidewalk travel with a stroller feasible, we bundled AS up in layers of clothing and sought other public venues for indoor amusement. This proved more challenging on a shoestring budget than heading out to the neighborhood park on a balmy day, but once again the Washington, DC area did not disappoint.

First, we followed our pediatrician's recommendation to check out some free 45 minute introductory Play and Learn classes for children ages 0-5 at Gymboree. Gymboree classes are guided by enthusiastic teachers who refer to children as "my friends" and who balance opportunities for structured movement and independent exploration on colorful pint-size gym equipment that is eye-candy for grown-ups and makes me wish I was two feet tall again. Wooden steps, tunnels and bridges encourage climbing, and sturdy plastic slides and teeter-totters help develop balance. Parents are encouraged to participate in group games that may include singing, hand motions, soap bubbles, wiffle balls, or even a parachute. These activities follow an age-appropriate curriculum geared towards building and exercising the cognitive, physical and social skills of children through play.

Gymboree offers other classes, including Music, Art, Sports, Family, and School Skills, as well as Birthday Party Packages. In fair warning, the Gymboree approach is a bit commercial with images of trademark Gymbo the Clown making appearances in the songs, toys and even on the playground equipment. Employees also follow up with a phone call after your initial free visit to encourage you to pay for additional classes. It was tempting to say "yes" because AS truly did enjoy himself there, but our search to find cheaper alternatives to remedy the winter blues continued.

Getting to Gymboree presents challenges to Washingtonians who eschew driving as there are no classes offered within the city, but the Bethesda, Maryland location is accessible by Metro rail or bus lines. Use the Trip Planner feature on the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority (WMATA) website to find the most direct route and the amount of fare. Maximum fare for an adult is $4.50 per person. Up to two children 4 years and younger may ride free with each adult paying full fare.

Word on the street is that the National Building Museum is the place to take your kids in the city to thaw out. NBM's Building Zone is a playroom for ages two to six (and their adult companions) with activities and toys intended to introduce children to the building arts. A playhouse, plastic tools and toy construction trucks, giant building blocks, and architecture picture books and puzzles are available to spark future engineers' imaginations.Soft-blocks for constructing a seven foot-tall arch with your family are available in the museum's Great Hall. The huge atrium is a great open space for crawlers and toddlers to safely explore while Mom and Dad sip coffee at tables near the museum cafe. Admission to NBM is free (or pay-what-you-can), and the museum is conveniently located across the street from the Judiciary Square station on Metro's red line or a quick two blocks from the Gallery Place/Chinatown station on the yellow or green lines.

Science buffs may want to visit the Butterfly Pavilion at the Smithsonian National Museum of Natural History to get their nature fix in a climate controlled environment until warmer weather returns. This is a great place to get some portraits of your young'un, so don't forget a camera!
All Smithsonian museums have free entry, but the Butterfly Pavilion is a fee-based special exhibit where you stroll among live butterflies and exotic plants from all over the world. Tuesdays are the exception; timed-entry tickets are still required to the exhibit but are available for free at the Butterfly Pavilion Box Office each Tuesday morning beginning at 10:00 am. Otherwise ticket prices are $6 for adults and $5 for children ages 2-12. Tickets are not required for children under two years old.

Oh's and ah's could be heard from AS as we wove between massive fossils in the Dinosaur Hall and experienced the eerie sights and sounds of the Mammal Hall. Visit the Insect Zoo if you can stomach a tarantula feeding demonstration. This may also be the only place in town you'll welcome seeing and even touching a Giant Hissing Cockroach.

Native Washingtonians will be especially interested in the Birds of DC exhibit and the Nature's Best Photography Show. If you're a shutter bug like me, you'll want to see the impressive nature photographs captured by the NBP Youth and Conservation Photographers of the Year. Nature's Best Photography magazine is founded in Northern Virginia but reaches an international audience. A free spin-off publication created by and for young people ages 12 to 21, NBP Students, was launched on-line. Encourage your budding naturalist to get his or her own photographs or stories published!

Take in the Discovery Room before ending your sojourn at NMNH. In the Discovery Room, museum staff interact with visitors and present objects from the collections such as fossils, skulls, and shells. Young people hone their skills of scientific inquiry through close examination of the objects, gathering evidence, and drawing conclusions. Programs are available on Tuesday, Wednesday and Thursday from October to May. See the museum website for up-to-date information.

The Smithsonian National Museum of American History also has a space dedicated to hands-on interactive play in addition to regular museum exhibits where touching objects in the collection is usually forbidden. Spark!Lab helps kids learn about the history and process of invention through games, science experiments, and inventors’ notebooks. My sister jokes that this area of the museum is a potential Purell-fest with the mutual handling of objects and sharing between kids, so bring your own bottle of hand-sanitizer if you're a self-described germaphobe! If you're feeling inspired after your museum visit, the Spark!Lab website includes how-to's for conducting experiments on your own at home. Build a drum or yo-yo out of recycled materials with your child or grow a hydroponic vegetable garden!

The ongoing NMAH exhibition "National Treasures of Popular Culture" showcases artifacts that fall into the category of museum objects you can NOT touch, but we love it just the same. Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” and Kermit the Frog are on permanent display along side other paragons from American music, sports and entertainment culture spanning the last 100 years. All indisputably worth braving frigid weather to see!

Where do you take your cubs when you come out of hibernation? Let us know!


  1. All very awesome ideas that we'll have to now add to the rotation. baltimore is also amazing. we can get free tickets to the National Aquarium (which is way way pricey otherwise) thru Discovery, then pay for entry to the Discovery Zone across the street (by the power plant). That Discovery Zone is freaking amazing!!!! 3 stories of brilliantly developed kid adventure for all ages. hidden surprises EVERYwhere. personal faves- the water room, the face painting room, and the ancient runes room with secret passage ways.

    Love the blog, Kris! - McNeals

  2. I continue to be amazed by your thorough and varied ideas. Yup, I'd be carrying a super-sized bottle of Purell. Just call me "matt lauer."

  3. Getting discounts on tickets for family entertainment through your workplace is an excellent idea! Thanks for sharing!



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