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.

Tuesday, March 23, 2010

At Home, Going Places

I love to read travel guides, especially about Washington, DC. It's interesting to see what the editors of these books decide is worthwhile visiting and what I may have missed as an in-towner. Each type of guidebook emphasizes different sites depending on their target audience; Let's Go is written with the student or budget traveler in mind while Forbes reviews restaurants and hotels for those seeking 5-star accommodations. I especially appreciate books that suggest itineraries by neighborhood for folks who only have limited time, a day or two, to tour a large and unfamiliar place. Though I have traveled abroad and throughout the U.S., I tend to be a creature of habit when it comes to living in DC and frequent the same restaurants, shops, museums, and parks over and over. A quick look at a guidebook, online or in a library or bookstore, always presents fresh ideas for local adventures to shake up my routine.

As a parent determined to make the most of family life between nap and bedtime, I approach rediscovering the city with my child one neighborhood at a time. This is where guidebooks come in handy again. I borrowed Going Places with Children in Washington, DC by the Green Acres School in Rockville, MD, from my DCPL branch, renewed it, and ultimately put a second hold on it. Copies are also available for purchase from the school website or at local bookstores like Politics and Prose (which has an impressive selection of books and events for children and teens, btw) The first edition was published 50 years ago and has since earned its reputation as the most comprehensive family guidebook to Washington, DC, for both those living in or traveling to the city. The latest addition is illustrated by children at the Green Acres School and features reviews of over 400 destinations in the Washington region tested by teachers, parents and children, including old favorites and new and lesser known places.

Several websites and blogs for and by DC parents have made it to my list of Bookmarks due, in part, to their events calendars. I often check them in the evening after AS has gone to bed to plan our adventure for the next day. Here are a few from my list:
Washington Parent posts events a month in advance to help you schedule ahead.
If you are searching for a fun, hour-long activity to break up your busy day, A Parent in Silver Spring features a calender of events listed hourly.
GoCityKids-DC at lists events by date and location and even provides Google maps to easily find activities in your neighborhood and beyond!
OurKids-Washington, DC lists Special Events and Seasonal activities.
The Washington Post "Going Out Guide" is kid-friendly, too!
Museums and the National Zoo also have events calendars posted on their individual websites.
If I haven't discovered an events calendar on your blog or website yet or if you would like to recommend another one, please let me know!

Throughout the warm weather months, I plan to branch out to different DC neighborhoods and report back about artful, kid-friendly activities on $5 or $10 a day. Is there a place or outing you'd like to know more about or a family-favorite experience that you'd like to share? Submit a comment! Also, please participate in the readers poll on my homepage. Your feedback will help guide future posts. Thank you!

Wednesday, March 17, 2010

The Scoop on the Newseum

Museum guards must eavesdrop on the most interesting snippets of public conversations throughout the day, the kind of stuff you expect to read the next morning in "Overheard in DC". Much of it is likely gossip or assumptions visitors make about the content of museum exhibitions. The Washington Post ran an article a few years ago which suggested that parents often feel pressured to make up answers to questions their children ask if they are stumped. At the Newseum, however, facts are central to the news presentations and programs. So it was with great satisfaction that I overheard teens visiting the museum on a school field trip discussing what they were reading, amazed that truth could be more interesting than fiction.

To be honest, going to the Newseum, billed as Washington DC's most interactive museum, was a bit of an indulgence for me. Admission for adults is expensive at $19.95 (free for kids 6 and under), and I wasn't certain that there would be much to interest my toddler son. But I was encouraged to visit the museum at its new home on Pennsylvania Avenue after reading reviews from enthusiastic parents of satisfied kids on Yelp DC. They were right; it was worth it! I saved myself a little money by ordering advance tickets online for a 10% discount. The tickets were valid for two days, so we passed them on to some friends who were interested in going the second day. Group discounts are also available and school groups can attend for free. A word to the wise, though, some of the material on display is "intense" and may be inappropriate for children or some visitors. Look for signs that provide advance warning for parents and guardians.

The Newseum is within walking distance of Metro stations serving all train lines. Outside of the museum entrance is a display of the day's headlines published on front pages of newspapers from all over the U.S. and the world. On the day we visited, a small town paper in Missouri announced a new performance at a repertory theater while the Washington Post ran a lead story about health-care reform legislation. It was fascinating to see these differences, and I was impressed that the museum updates its displays daily to keep up with the 21st century demand for 24/7 global news feeds.

It's hard to miss the news helicopter and high definition media screen suspended in the atrium as you first approach the ticket counter. It speaks to the airy spaciousness of this beautifully designed building. The exhibits are extensive and varied, spreading across seven floors. We picked up a few informative visitors guides at the counter (which are also refreshingly up-to-date in their description of the exhibitions, including the temporary special exhibits) and took the elevator down to the Concourse level. The food court, aptly name the Food Section, was the perfect place to grab a quick bite to eat. We brought our lunch to save a few dollars, but there is a kids menu available. After taking a closer look at the guides, we decided to take a self-guided tour following suggestions from the "Newseum's Top Ten" and "Two-Hour Highlights Tour" brochures. The "Visitors Guide" contains clear maps that will help you navigate the museum quickly to make efficient use of your time.

We continued to look around the Concourse after lunch. Here we found the largest exhibit of graffiti-covered sections of the Berlin Wall outside of Germany, a Conus 1 news satellite truck (similar to those we've witnessed broadcasting live reports around Washington, DC), and a sports photography display which all captivated my son. One temporary exhibit featured life-size photo cut-outs of notorious crime figures that visitors can pose with for pictures. The school kids visiting the museum seemed to enjoy this opportunity to take pix of their friends since photography is prohibited in some exhibits to protect the artifacts. These include personal effects of journalists (from customized cameras used to capture prize-winning images to battered laptops and other reporting tools), curious objects such as the Unabomber's cabin and a door that "played a starring role in the Watergate scandal", and the in-tact, relocated NBC bureau office of Meet the Press moderator and family-man, Tim Russert. Other galleries showcase original copies of newspapers highlighting important events in U.S. and world history and influential books on freedom from the last 500 years. A Learning Center and Educator-Gallery Tours provide educational offerings for school groups and professional development for adults. We stopped to listen to a bit of one tour and learned that additional resources for students and teachers may be accessed online.

Professional photographers have said that the best pictures make a viewer laugh, cry, or simply feel something. Photojournalists have the distinct privilege and power to make thousands of other people care about their subjects. It was with this in mind that I toured the Pulitzer Prize Winning Photographs on the first floor. Most of the images were captured by career journalists with a few notable exceptions, those taken by passersby who happened to have a camera at the right place and time. Highschool students looking at these photos asked thought-provoking questions, like, "Why didn't he just put down his camera and help those people?". The Journalists Memorial is also sobering to experience and begs the question why journalists put themselves in harms way to cover wars and work in countries that deny free speech and other human rights. Interactive kiosks and games of judgment in the Ethics Center help museum-goers consider the difficult decisions journalists must often make.

The Interactive Newsroom on the second floor provides lighter diversions. Big kids can try reading the news in front of a live camera, and youngsters are challenged to separate fact from rumor as virtual reporters solving a "Who Dunnit?"-type touchscreen computer game. My son enjoyed helping investigate how wild animals escaped from a circus downtown by watching and progressing an animated sequence by touching the computer screen. To observe how real TV studios operate, visit the Knight Studio on Pennsylvania Avenue. ABC’s news show "This Week" is taped every Sunday morning in the studio. More learning and entertainment opportunities come by way of fifteen (!) theaters showing original films about the Newseum, documentary photography, sports history, the First Amendment, and breaking news. The Annenberg Theater even provides a 4-D film experience, "I-Witness!", a 3-D movie (you wear the funny glasses) with motion effects, air gusts, and more. Museum talks and special movie screenings also take place at the Annenberg Theater. See the Calendar of Events for more information.

We appreciated that the Newseum has plenty to interest folks of all ages. The temporary exhibit, "First Dogs: Presidential Pets in the White House" was perfect for toddlers as the photo enlargements were placed low, at their eye level. We voted on our favorite pet by placing a penny in a tube near the display. Other points of interest, especially for families with younger children, are the Comics exhibit on the Concourse level, the Internet, TV and Radio Gallery on Level 3, and the Terrace on the 6th floor. The small comics exhibit only takes a short time to see, and kids will love the colorful Sunday comics on display. There are familiar characters like Calvin and Hobbes as well as the first published comic strips. The Terrace on Pennsylvania Avenue offers a stunning rooftop view of downtown Washington, DC looking East to the U.S. Capitol Building and West to the Washington Monument. An exhibit spanning the terrace rail documents, in words and pictures, the events that shaped historic Pennsylvania Avenue, from Presidential processions to political demonstrations. A 25-foot high multimedia timeline in the Internet, TV, and Radio Gallery reflects the evolution of technology, from radio to the Internet to the Kindle, as it has impacted the delivery of news. Early newspaper editors were considered celebrities and had their likenesses reproduced on trading cards, but the 21st century has witnessed the general public using "the power of the mass media" via social networking media like Twitter and weblogs.

If a trip to the museum doesn't fit into your budget, the Newseum website still has something to offer. A news trivia game and virtual museum tour are available on the Fun and Games page. Online galleries featured on the Exhibits and Theaters page showcase the work of news photographers. By the time we left the Newseum that day, though, I better understood why the admission tickets allow entry for two consecutive days. We appreciated every minute of our visit, and there was still so much left to experience. While I had blown my activity budget for the week, I felt better knowing it went to support a worthwhile cause.

Wednesday, March 10, 2010

Wizards in the Kitchen

My mother turned us on to cooking by introducing my older sister and me to Betty Crocker in the 1970's. My sister first received the Betty Crocker Easy Bake Oven that baked cookie and cake batter prepared from packaged mixes with heat generated from an electric light bulb inside the small toy oven. When we had used up the Easy Bake mixes, we improvised our own from scratch. We also prepared whimsical salads inspired by the technicolor photos illustrating our Betty Crocker's New Boys and Girls Cookbook. A family favorite was the bunny salad, canned pear halves trussed up with cinnamon candy noses, cottage cheese tails, and almond slivers for ears. The appeal of these recipes was less their flavor and more the challenge of making ingredients (pears) look like other things (rabbits). Like many American girls and boys growing up in the 1970's, we fell in love with cooking by being encouraged to play with our food. Of course, we were also learning our way around a kitchen at a time when mothers were beginning to work outside the home in record numbers. This meant "real" meals slow-cooked from scratch were quickly replaced with processed, packaged foods reheated in microwaves not unlike the Easy Bake Oven.

Like the Betty Crocker cookbook of my childhood, Ruth Yaron's Super Baby Food features plenty of suggestions for making mealtimes special for kids. Recipes include Toddler Hors d'Oeuvres, Flying Saucers (sandwiches on round bread) and Teddy Bear Pancakes. But Yaron's book, which has become my baby food bible, provides tips for preparing fun and healthful meals for children and common sense advice for stretching your grocery budget. Yaron insists that her own kids, raised on the organic produce and vegetarian diet she promotes, have "super" immune systems and rarely get sick. That means they spend fewer days recuperating and have more time for play! Sections of her book are entitled "Feeding Your Super Baby", "Toddler (and Grown-up) Recipes", "Food Decorating", and "Let's Have a Party!". There are also chapters on environmentally safe cleaners, home-made baby products, starting a windowsill garden, and Arts and Crafts... everything new Moms and Dads need to know about making those first years with baby contended ones and more. Other kid's cookbooks available at our local library include those for children with special dietary needs (vegetarian, wheat-free, low calorie, etc.) and, for the more adventurous, international cuisine.

Teach Mama, a mother of three young children and an educator, writes an inspirational blog dedicated to sharing ideas for "learning through meaningful time and play". In her post "More Counting and Cooking with Cora", TM describes her toddler daughter's enthusiasm for helping in the kitchen and her own desire to capitalize on this impelling instructional opportunity. She enlists her daughter in counting pieces of potato as TM cuts them for dinner or sorting colorful vegetables (carrots, broccoli, grape tomatoes) by hue, sneaking learning into an every day activity. On "New for Us Friday", her older children participate in exciting new educational activities during the afternoons following half-days at school. One afternoon, they made Zip-loc Bag Ice-Cream at home, an enriching experiment in culinary science. The added benefit was getting to eat the ice cream that the children made themselves!

Ruth Reichl, former editor-in-chief of "Gourmet" magazine, has a sophisticated relationship with food and writes about its correlation to her family life. She most recently wrote a memoir entitled Not Becoming My Mother: and Other Things She Taught Me Along the Way. In the book, Reichl describes her mother, born in 1908, as an educated woman who sacrificed her career ambitions, even in the new era of women's emancipation, to fulfill her obligations as housewife. She also suffered from depression and taste "blindness". According to Reichl, her mother once served bad meat covered in chocolate, forgoing consumability for creativity. A career woman and mother, Reichl left her post as New York Times restaurant critic to be home earlier in the evenings to make dinner with her family. She encouraged her teenage son to help (he chopped while she cooked) and found this eased him into talking about his day at a time when teens often distance themselves from their parents. Reichl declares this was the best time in her life, a period when the members of her family "entered each other's lives in a really profound way." But to make it happen, she had to plan ahead. Every Sunday, she spent a few hours choosing easy-to-fix recipes, preparing a menu for the week in advance, and shopping for the ingredients.

"Gourmet" magazine, respected for its thought-provoking articles regarding the politics of food, recently folded, but the website still features content from the print publication, plenty of recipes, reviews of restaurants and cookbooks, and instructional videos. My favorite series are "Extreme Frugality", a food writer's experiment in zero spending, and "The Kid's Menu" which offers fresh perspectives for parents who cook.

Now that we must be careful in our spending, I have adjusted my shopping habits. For the first time in my life, I religiously use coupons and club cards for discounts and two-for-one deals at grocery stores. A vegetarian since the age of fifteen, I habitually read the list of food ingredients before buying; now I am also in the habit of comparing prices and purchasing items on sale. Many store brands, even of natural and organic products, cost less than name brands. Local, seasonal produce is often cheaper (and fresher) at both retail stores and farmers markets. I buy in bulk when it's practical, and bring my own reusable shopping bags to save a nickel for every bag. Warehouse stores (Shopper's Food Warehouse and Costco) and superstores (Wal-mart and Target Greatland) are meccas for thrifty shoppers, but the inconvenience of driving to their suburban locations prevents me from going. Instead, I walk a few blocks to shop for the best deals at retail grocers like Harris Teeter (with grocery carts fashioned like cars for the tots riding in them) or Safeway and pick up a few store brand or hard-to-find specialty items at Yes! Organic Market or Whole Foods Market. It's a good idea to check the stores' websites first for specials and on-line coupons.

Typically on weekends during Spring, Summer and Fall months, farmers markets located throughout the Washington area offer fresh produce, baked goods, cheeses and preserves at good prices. AS enjoys the adventure of these outdoor venues as there are sometimes free food samples, local musicians performing and good people-watching opportunities. A friend and his wife arranged regular home deliveries of seasonal produce from a farm discovered through our neighborhood farmers market in Adams Morgan. They save money buying organic this way but never know which fruit or vegetables or how much of each they will receive. Every monthly delivery presents a fun challenge in finding creative ways to cook new foods, from winter root vegetables to Chinese cabbage.

Whole Foods Market in Georgetown holds an indoor farmers' market every Tuesday from 4-7pm with products available from local farmers and artisans. WFM is perhaps best known for selling high quality natural and organic goods, including "Whole Baby Products" like baby formula, pureed baby food and chlorine-free diapers, but DC stores also offer free cooking classes and other programs, such as "Mommy and Me" and the "Mom's Tour". Check the website of your neighborhood store for the events calendar to learn more. On-line coupons are available on their website, as are money-saving meal plans and recipes and nutrition tips for kids and teens. The DC Chapter of the Holistic Moms Network has also invited whole food chefs and nutrition educators to speak to parents about cooking holistic meals for their families at their monthly meetings in the Cleveland Park Library.

If your youngster or teen insists on learning to cook from a "real" chef, rather than Mom or Dad, consider the Washington Post Cooking Class Listings for children's cooking classes and camps. They receive mostly good reviews from parents, but tuition can be high. The DC Department of Parks and Recreation occasionally offers FREE cooking classes, usually for teens, at community centers, but I have not heard parents recommend these. Please let me know if you have heard anything! An easy alternative is to enlist a relative or friend who is known for their culinary expertise to volunteer their time to teach your little Top Chef a thing or two. Read's ten "safe and easy ways for the family to cook together" before getting started. My mother is happy to break out her apron and mixer to bake special treats with the grandkids on holidays, like gingerbread houses for Christmas and Rice Crispy Treat "Eggs" at Easter. Aunt K and Uncle J are the family gourmets and are pleased to test new dishes on us, their enthusiastic patrons, whenever we visit.

When I was pregnant, acquaintances with children would see my extended belly and comment "Your life is never going to be the same!". Since the prospect of suddenly morphing into a different person was a frightening one, I chose to skirt these conversations. Now that I am a Mom, I understand that some of my interests, like motorcycling, need to be put on the back burner (at least until AS is old enough to ride in a side car), but cooking is not one of them. A recipe for red sauce with sweet caramelized onions remains tucked into my art school sketchbook. It has been there, rather than in my recipe box, for 20 years to serve as a reminder. Copies of the recipe were distributed to students in a kind, impromptu gesture by a photography professor known for discovering beauty in the seemingly ordinary events of day-to-day life. Years later, in an e-mail conversation, he and I talked about the care with which he customarily set his dinner table and how I had found myself, in a moment of contended observation, enamored with the color and shape of a bunch of grapes placed as the centerpiece on mine. My former professor has since become a dear friend and mentor and continues to share his knowledge of both art and food with me. In his life as in mine, they are entwined. Every meal is a simple aesthetic experience.

Food is magic, it has the power to charm and influence people. And creative cooks are like alchemists with the power to change a common substance into one of great value. Food nourishes our bodies and minds, appeals to our senses and need for creativity, and brings people together. If parents aspire to be wizards in the kitchen, children will become enchanted by cooking, too.

Tuesday, March 2, 2010

Mother as Muse

Hermann Hesse's Narcissus and Goldmund, a profound epic describing the dichotomous nature of the life of an artist, is one of the few novels I have read several times in my life (most get one chance, then I'm on to another must-read). In my first post, "Living the Impossible Life", I introduced myself with a favorite quote from the character Goldmund. A sculptor, Goldmund uses the term "bliss" to convey the state of mind he seeks both as a student of religion, an artist engaged in the creative process, and as a man traveling the world in search of his muse. He looks to God and to the image of his mother, his own creators, for inspiration and ultimately accepts that his artistic development, life experience and happiness are integral. He cannot fully realize one without also nurturing and making sacrifices for the other.

Minimalist sculptor Anne Truitt's (d. 2004) Daybook: The Journey of an Artist is another book I have been compelled to reexamine. My appreciation of her whole life, the public life of a successful artist and the private life of a Washingtonian, changed significantly after my son was born. I now understand the weightiness of her seemingly simple decision that dirty dishes remain unwashed in the kitchen sink during childrens' nap times; she seized the opportunity to work in her home art studio at the expense of tidy appearances. But more stirring was her disclosure that her early pieces, sculptures of the "marked, used" female form, "failed" in her estimation. Having been misdiagnosed as sterile and told she would never have children, Truitt was haunted by this physical "deprivation" and feared that her work would lack the "vital force" of assimilated experience. Reflecting back on life during her 50's, she asserted that her career was the only enterprise she made successful entirely by herself, but her three children were her "greatest blessings".

Family and home have long been pervasive themes in my artwork, whether it be capturing images of relatives and close friends or scenes from the neighborhood. But I returned to Hesse's and Truitt's writings for a little perspective after a month during which I infrequently raised a camera to my eye. Instead of documenting AS's every new accomplishment in pictures, I exhausted my reserves in hot pursuit of a toddler boy who very much wants to wander and explore, often into harm's way (not so unlike Hesse's Goldmund). The artist in me, for whom creating is vital to well-being, needed gentle reminding that my son and I are collaborating in the most creative endeavor, his development.

Gretchen Ruben, an urban Mom and author of The Happiness Project, deduces that mementos help prompt positive memories and that "recalling happy times helps boost happiness in the present". So, instead of fretting about the serious art that is not getting made since I left the teaching profession to be a SAHM, I try to remember all that I have accomplished during my first momentous year as Artful Mom. I pull out an album of our mementos, snapshot photos I have diligently taken and archived, and place it on the floor. AS sits in my lap and helps turn the pages. He identifies the faces of his parents and grandparents and flashes smiles of recognition at his own image. We love looking at the photographs together, and this motivates me to pick up my camera again. While I take pictures of AS, he experiments with an old 2.0 megapixel compact point-and-shoot. Digital cameras designed for kids are available in toy and camera stores, but this hand-me-down seems to do the trick. AS already knows, from seeing his parents model the behavior, how to hold it and push the shutter release button. He immediately looks at his LED screen for playback of the digital image and shows it to me. A third book comes comes to mind, Show and Tell, containing photos of city life by artist Thomas Roma with written commentary by his son Giancarlo who was eight years old at the time. Giancarlo selected the pictures to be used for the book and thereby turned the process of creating it "into a dialog between father and son".

That afternoon, we look at newsworthy pix from an on-line gallery at It proves to be a great opportunity to introduce AS to new vocabulary and help him see the most basic elements of an image, such as colors and shapes, which I point out or trace with my finger. This is similar to our experience of looking at photographs together at the Newseum or in the West Building at the National Gallery of Art. As I carried AS on my hip from room to room to view the prints on display, I talked to him in clear language about important details, including features of people's faces and clothing. AS enjoyed seeing the images from my eye level (as opposed to the lower vantage point of the stroller), and I was able to keep his interest by talking animatedly and gesturing to parts of the pictures. While we were at the NGA, I overheard a wonderful mother of three older children, probably between ages 5 and 9. She asked her kids a variety of short questions about the pictures, praised their responses, and modeled good learning practices by reading information provided by the museum to answer her childrens' questions when she didn't already know the answer. A book I later discovered in the juvenile section of our library, Tell Me a Picture by Quentin Blake, provides examples of questions parents can ask their children about art.

Documentary photography, maybe more than any other type of photographic imagery, seems to have immediate appeal for young people. Perhaps this is because kids can better relate to images made directly from their world. In the 1980's, Jim Hubbard, an acclaimed professional photographer, began documenting lives of the homeless in Washington, DC, and found children he photographed especially eager to look through his camera's viewfinder. Many of these children were from low income families that suddenly fell upon hard times, such as the death of a parent or a parent's loss of a job, and were at risk of being lured into gangs and illegal activities. Hubbard was motivated to establish, "Shooting Back", a program to help children in shelters develop skills to increase their self esteem and to learn about legitimate career possibilities. I often shared a documentary film about "Shooting Back" with my own students to raise their social awareness and prompt them to act.

In 2002, I had the pleasure of attending a workshop for DC educators at the Corcoran Gallery of Art by photographer, teacher and author, Wendy Ewald. Ewald has helped build darkrooms and bring the power of photography to disadvantaged children and their communities all over the world. She discovered that children, "insiders" in their communities, often take more emotionally compelling photographs of their families and neighborhoods than do professionals who are "outsiders". Ewald applied for grants to purchase Polaroid instant cameras and film for the children, empowering them to find their own voices and to become ambassadors for their communities.

The success of Hubbard's and Ewald's efforts with children motivated me to begin a mentorship program at the high school where I taught. Teenagers in the advanced photography courses were challenged to apply their knowledge of photography and writing to teach elementary school students, for whom English was often their family's second language. We used the childrens' own images of home life, captured with simple Kodak one-time-use film cameras, to inspire their creative writing and help improve their literacy. One of my high school seniors adapted this program for the Best Buddies chapter at our school, creating friendship and learning opportunities for people with intellectual and developmental disabilities. She is now teaching photography to inner city kids in Baltimore using inexpensive, plastic Holga cameras while she completes her degree in special education at Gaucher College.

These personal experiences, however, did not completely prepare me for how to introduce the magic of photography to my very young son. Nor did a quick tour of photography websites for kids on the web (Google: "teaching kids photography"). So I looked to my original role models, my sensitive, right-brained parents. Art-making became intrinsic to my life in early childhood due to their efforts and understanding of it's value. Mom encouraged my natural interests by keeping art materials and books on hand, enrolling me in classes and, most importantly, earnestly participating in art and craft projects with me. My father and paternal grandfather were avid amateur photographers who also shared their equipment, knowledge and enthusiasm with me. I first fell in love with drawing for its immediacy as I urgently recorded the real world and shared the stuff of my imagination. As a teen, I inherited a small, portable single lens reflex camera and created lasting images of beloved people, places and things, reconnecting with them through the process. Smitten, I went on to earn a BFA in Photography before earning my teaching certification in Art K-12.

As an artist, I found encouragement in knowing that I could not fail to make important images if I was photographing my family. As a teacher, I led by example and shared my work with students as they shared theirs with me. In this way, we learned more about one another and about Art. My mantra, photograph what you are passionate about. If an image ultimately lacks artistic relevance, it will still have personal value. This is the thing I want most to share with my son about art-making, the special and limitless rewards of following your bliss.

Wednesday, February 24, 2010

For the Love of Dirt

People collect lots of things... postcards, vinyl records, coffee mugs, refrigerator magnets, old toys. I collect dirt. Friends, family and students have contributed to my collection over the years, bagging samples of earth from as far and wide as the base of the Parthenon in Greece, the volcanic beaches of Hawaii, the grave of Jim Morrison in Paris, and a backyard in Moscow. I began this endeavor before increased security at airports made it difficult to carry unusual souvenirs in one's luggage. I persist for the same reasons most people advance their collections, because they prize its nostalgic significance and sensorial appeal.

One of the things I most look forward to this Spring is the opportunity for my son to play outside in the dirt and get downright grubby. Children are fascinated with dirt and sand because of it's tactile quality and unlimited possibilities for play. They can dig in it, build with it, draw in it, manipulate it, drive vehicles over it, even swallow the occasional handful with out much adverse effect. It's potential for imaginary play is limitless... aspiring archeologists sift for dinosaur bones, make-believe princes and princesses build sandcastles and moats, wanna-be artists create Earthworks, hopeful monster truck racers navigate dirt tracks and ramps, and future chefs just add water to create soup and mud pies.

My mother (who was a stay-at-home-Mom and member of the local chapter of a Garden Club) and father (who was handy with tools and had a DIY approach to domestic life) transformed a patchy backyard landscape into a garden playground when my sister and I were young. We tended a vegetable garden, composted, stocked a man-made pond with koi fish, filled vases in our home with freshly cut flowers and, of course, scrubbed plenty of soil out from under our fingernails at bath time. This period in our lives seemed magical to me, and artist-gardener Tasha Tudor's watercolor illustrations for Frances Hodgson Burnett's enchanting story The Secret Garden enriched my appreciation of it. When my mother returned to work full-time, my sister and I joined the new generation of latch-key kids. Mom suddenly had less time for gardening, and she soon replaced many of her houseplants with artificial flower arrangements and scaled her vegetable garden to a few tomato and strawberry plants. I dolefully relayed this experience to a friend and professor of feminist literature recently who reminded me that child rearing has been likened to tending a garden. I guess at this point in my life, my mother was ready to let her well-tended roses grow a little wild.

I still miss our family garden and yearn for my own little patch in the city, especially when I can now envision my son digging up rocks in search of rolly pollies by my side. Lamentably, our community garden at Walter Pierce Community Park was closed for "erosion control engineering work" and due to concerns regarding the tilling and watering of park land that was a 19th century Quaker burial ground and African American cemetery. A Howard University professor is currently conducting a non-invasive archeological survey of the park. Friends of Walter Pierce Park, a non-profit neighborhood organization, and the DC Department of Parks and Recreation hope to eventually honor the history of the park with a commemorative garden.

Following the garden's closure, I contacted the group responsible for assigning public plots (via a lottery system) in our neighboring community only to be told that I lived on the "wrong side" of 18th Street, NW, and was ineligible to apply. Some reactive urban gardeners have resorted to Guerrilla Gardening in response to the scarcity of public space sanctioned for growing things. These Eco warriors stealthily beautify cities under cover of night by using "green grenades" to plant hearty, self-cultivating plant species in neglected parkways between streets and sidewalks and in abandoned lots. Unfortunately, "seed bombers" may be slapped with a hefty fine if caught although their illicit sowing of seeds improves the look of the neighborhoods.

Ill-prepared to pay steep penalties to the District for the pleasure of cooking with some fresh organic herbs, I keep searching for alternatives. In the meantime, a little basil plant is thriving in my son's bedroom window, and AS is getting the feel for dirt by digging in pots of my houseplants., a website of the non-profit National Gardening Association, provides suggestions for beginning a window sill garden indoors from seeds, cuttings or plants. Parents who have neither the time nor space to start their own garden are encouraged to "adopt" a wild or public green space and visit it periodically with their children to study, photograph or draw, write poems and create leaf rubbings from the plants. The NGA promotes gardening "as a vehicle for encouraging children to make good food choices, augmenting classroom studies with experiential learning, building a love of nature, stimulating social interaction, facilitating cultural exchange, and more."

City Blossoms in Washington, DC began a Children's Community Garden project at Girard Playground supported by Columbia Heights Shaw Collaborative in participation with neighborhood schools and youth centers. Beginning in March, weather permitting, families are encouraged to stop by the Children's Community Garden during "Open Time" to participate in free impromptu workshops and help tend the garden. Open Time is on Tuesdays from 12-1 and Wednesdays from 4-6. City Blossoms' mission is to use "gardening to create environmental, nutritional, and cultural connections for children and youth", an effort that would make First Lady Michelle Obama proud. For more information about how the White House Kitchen Garden is feeding the homeless, go here. The Girard Playground project transformed an asphalt lot into a demonstration garden where volunteers lead hands-on workshops for local children. City Blossoms has facilitated other art and gardening projects to beautify areas surrounding Girard Playground and at several schools in Washington, DC.

The DC Department of Parks and Recreation also offers environmental programs and gardening workshops year-round for District residents of all ages at Twin Oaks Garden in Northwest and Lederer Environmental Education Center in Northeast. Residents may apply at either center for use of an existing DPR community garden plot during the growing season from May to end of August. Users pay a $30 fee annually. You may also participate in the DPR community gardens partnership program by adopting and managing an existing community garden or creating and adopting a new community garden. Visit the DPR website to learn more about these programs or to submit an application. Contact the DPR Camping and Environmental Education Division directly at (202) 671-0396.

As I discovered, there is plenty for would-be horticulturists to look forward to in Washington, DC, even before the first crocuses and daffodils appear in the Spring. Like the mother in Margaret Wise Brown's classic children's story The Runaway Bunny, if your little one likes to imagine himself as a hidden crocus in a garden, you can be the gardener and find him.

Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Raising Art-smart Cyberkids

There is a computer in the children's section at our neighborhood library that is loaded with educational software. Now that my son can walk, he makes a bee-line for it as soon as we arrive. Here we are surrounded by hundreds of beautifully written and illustrated books, but he wants to play with a computer. If it is not already in use he climbs up into the desk chair, makes a grab for the mouse or starts tapping away at the keys. Often, though, another child is playing one of the spelling, math, drawing or music games, and AS contentedly watches. When this first happened, my heart sank a little. Then I reminded myself that 19th century critics were initially skeptical about the applications of the newly invented camera (a "soul-less" black box) until master artists and scientists showed them photography's full potential as a medium for creative expression and learning not unlike a paint brush or a book.

Now I sit down beside AS at the library's computer and use digital painting tools to draw animals with basic shapes that he can identify and label by name, "Cat!", or with a sound, "Meow!". When he eventually loses interest in looking at the PC monitor, we go in search of similar subjects in some of my favorite children's books, such as Geoff Waring's Oscar and the Bird, by illustrators who use Photoshop computer software. I hope a seed of understanding will eventually begin to germinate and help AS form connections between the process of drawing animals with a computer mouse and the images he sees in published books like Waring's illustrations of Oscar the cat.

Our tech-savvy librarian has also hipped me to the fact that some children's book authors and illustrators have launched their own kid-friendly interactive websites. Mo Willems' site features games, art activities and video animations with his famous book characters, including Pigeon, Knuffle Bunny and Elephant & Piggie.

Last week, I received a phone call from my 8 year-old niece asking for help with a multi-player on-line computer game, Poptropica. Poptropica is a safe, virtual world designed by the Family Education Network (a network of educational resources for teachers, parents, and students on the internet) where kids engage in narrative quests that are both entertaining and informative. My niece had entered into a virtual art gallery and needed to match reproductions of paintings with the name of the style in which they were rendered, such as a Pablo Picasso piece with the style "Cubism". She was able to describe the images to me in enough detail that I could envision the paintings and help her successfully complete the task. She was enjoying learning about art, and I was glad to have an opportunity to play along with her.

These experiences recalled a discussion I heard pertaining to the pros and cons of children playing on-line games. Some parents and teachers express concerns that young people who sit in front of the computer for hours every day are more sedentary and have less social interaction than those who are encouraged to play sports or engage in other activities with friends. On the plus side, computer games can motivate reluctant learners by presenting educational content in an entertaining framework and provide a participatory alternative to passive television viewing.

I wondered if there were websites with free on-line gaming options that could teach us more about the city in which we live as my son and I explore them together. I discovered that the Smithsonian Institute, for one, has a Smithsonian Education site to familiarize kids, families and educators with the museum collections, special exhibitions, and upcoming events designed with young people in mind. You may explore different topics that are of interest to your student, "Everything Art", "Science and Nature", "History and Culture" or "People and Places", through interactive games and activities. Or, navigate directly to the Smithsonian Kids page for more on-line fun, such as matching games, trivia quizzes, crossword puzzles, art-making, and home or school project ideas.

The youngest computer users may especially appreciate the National Gallery of Art's interactive website NGAkids "Art Zone". Since a child must develop mark-making ("bang-dots" and scribbles, the most rudimentary visual symbols), prior to forming the controlled lines and shapes that become letters of the alphabet and subsequently the written language, demonstrating and learning how to click and drag a computer mouse to create images is a worthwhile collaborative activity for a parent and child.

The brazen young Dada artists of the first half of the 20th century embraced technology. In the Yellow Manifesto of 1928, the Dadaists proclaimed, "Machinism has revolutionized the world." It seems that nearly a century later many of us are still trying to make peace with youths' manifest fascination with machines, but playing interactive on-line games from the Smithsonian Institution and the National Gallery of Art is one way for families to have fun learning about new digital media together.

Copyright 2009 Kristen Morse All Rights Reserved