Sunday, January 24, 2010

City Mouse, Country Mouse

When my husband's employer granted him an extended break over the holidays, we enthusiastically made plans for a "staycation", a stay-at-home vacation, to renew our appreciation of the place we call home. Busloads of school children and thousands of out-of-towners make a trip here to the Nation's Capitol every year to take advantage of the unique sights and sounds the District has to offer, but Washingtonians tend to avoid these overcrowded "tourist traps". By doing so, we ultimately miss out on fun opportunities to learn about our capitol city. Many famous tourism spots in Washington, such as the National Mall, the iconic monuments and memorials, and President's Park (The White House), are managed by the National Park Service. Other less celebrated national parks, accepting Rock Creek, Meridian Hill, Anacostia and Kenilworth, are virtually extensions of our backyards. The parks feature something of interest for every family member, from history buffs and animal lovers to gardeners and Scouts. When researching the National Park Service (NPS) website for the District of Columbia, my husband and I were reminded that winter is a great time to explore many of these places because, as every savvy traveler knows, popular sightseeing destinations become less crowded as temperatures drop.

Locals, unlike harried tourists with packed itineraries, have the luxury of time when exploring their hometown and can savor each site they pay a visit. They can also easily do what only the most seasoned or brazen travelers tend to do, which is to veer off the beaten path in search of a city's better kept secrets. Rock Creek Park (RCP) is one undervalued jewel with plenty of things to do, so we decided to spend a couple days reacquainting ourselves with this woodland in the Northwest quadrant of DC.

The slow winding road to the RCP Nature Center, located at 5200 Glover Road, NW, is perfect for a Sunday drive and those seeking solace away from the hustle and flow of urban life on a week day. We passed a few cyclists, backpackers and dog walkers along the way as well as families lunching at picnic areas. The parking lot, which is typically full in the summer, has plenty of spaces available in winter. A bike rack is also available in front of the center for those who prefer getting there on the power of their own two feet.

The Nature Center is open to the public from 9 a.m. to 5:00 p.m. every Wednesday through Sunday except Thanksgiving, Christmas, New Years Day and Independence Day. During winter, the the trees around the center are mostly bare making it easier to see wild birds perched on the branches. I heard and then spied a Downy Woodpecker within seconds of our arrival. As we entered the center we were greeted by a park ranger seated at the information desk who provided us with an informative NPS pamphlet on Rock Creek Park, a map of scenic hiking trails near the Nature Center, and a calendar of free programs at the Nature Center and Planetarium. Ranger led programs at RCP are typically offered two or three times a day on weekends and once a day during the week; the calendar includes descriptions of each event and age recommendations for children attending them. The park ranger also told us about the NPS Junior Ranger Program and gave us a booklet for children to complete to learn about stewardship of our country's natural resources and to earn a Junior Ranger sticker and badge.

On the ground floor of the Nature Center is an exhibit hall where you will find plants and animals both native and introduced to Rock Creek Park. Children may learn more about the center's live animals and assist rangers in feeding them during "Creature Feature", Friday afternoons at 4pm. A "Please Touch" area familiarizes children with the tracks different creatures leave behind and permits closer inspection of animal, insect and plant specimens. It is amazing to discover what wildlife flourishes in and around the creek, meadows, and forest habitats of this inner city park, including Wood Ducks, Eastern Painted Turtles, White-tailed Deer and the occasional coyote. Across from the exhibit hall is a play room where kids may stage small performances with forest animal hand puppets, complete a giant puzzle on the life cycle of a Monarch Butterfly, create crayon rubbings of leaves, and pore over beautifully illustrated children's books like Stellaluna and Wild Tracks that explain the natural world .

The RCP Planetarium, accessible from inside the Nature Center, is the only planetarium in the national park system. "Winter Night Sky: When I Wish Upon a Star" and "Young Planetarium" presentations are shortened programs, tailored for the youngest star-gazers. The Nature Center is also the starting point for several hiking trails in RCP, including the scenic "Nature Center Hike" and "Rapids Bridge Hike". Join a park ranger for these exploratory hikes if you're feeling ambitious, or simply take a short self-guided walk on the "Edge of the Woods Trail" to familiarize yourself with Rock Creek Park's Eastern Hemlock, Tulip and Sassafras trees among others. The trail is stroller and wheelchair accessible with a guide rope for the visually impaired.

Before leaving the center, take a few minutes to browse the bookstore. The store sells a variety of items appropriate for children: Junior Ranger hats, Ranger Roberta dolls, plush stuffed animals and puppets, a wonderful assortment of NPS sticker-, coloring- and activity-books as well as field guides and educational picture books for children of all ages. Our find of the day was Sierra Club Knowledge Cards, "Urban Wildlife: Fascinating Facts about Birds, Beasts and Bugs in Your Neighborhood". National Park Service Passports can also be purchased here. NPS Passports are pocket-size guides to parks throughout the United States and include maps, photos and practical information for travelers, but they also serve as keepsakes. Individual rubber stamps are available at park visitor centers for you to stamp your passport at every visit. If you don't want to purchase an NPS Passport but think your children would enjoy collecting the stamps, make your own passport from a small blank notepad.

It's just a short walk from the Nature Center to the Rock Creek Horse Center. Horseback riding lessons and summer day camps are offered to children and adults at all riding levels, but instruction doesn't come cheap. One-hour guided trail rides are a more affordable alternative but available only from April to October. Ten-minute supervised pony rides are a great introduction for children ages 2 1/2 and up (and at least 30" tall). Reservations are required, and it is recommended that you book trail rides 6-8 weeks in advance. Two thirds of the horses boarded here are privately owned, and you are welcome to visit the boarding facility as long as you agree to follow some simple guidelines for your safety and the well-being of the animals. We stopped to watch a group lesson for young girls in the riding ring before heading home.

Good friends living in Manassas, Virginia, grow organic produce and raise honey bees on acres of land within hiking distance of Manassas National Battlefield Park which is also managed by the National Park Service. They sometimes tempt us "city mice" to visit with promises of fresh air and a taste of country life. While I cherish such opportunities to explore a beautiful historic area and natural environment, when we return home from trips to cities north and west of Washington, DC, I sometimes find myself exhaling in relief as we cross the district line and enter what is, to my mind, one of the most culturally significant and attractive urban landscapes in the United States. The tree-lined streets, historic homes and buildings, and lack of billboards certainly contribute to Washington's visual aesthetic, but arguably it is the multitude of park lands that improve our quality of life here and attract wayfarers from near and far.


Monday, January 18, 2010

Playground 101

One playground where I wore myself out on afternoons as a military brat had a retired jet plane parked aside a rocket-shaped jungle gym. Wires spilled from the cockpit and the black leather seat was split from repeated exposure to sunlight and rain. The infrastructure looked almost skeletal and had a musty smell to match. It might have been a frightening place for me to play if my father wasn't a fighter pilot. Instead, it sated my curiosity to see the inner workings of an aircraft similar to the one he logged so many hours flying.

I only wish I had displayed the same bravado on my first trip to our neighborhood playground at Walter Pierce Park with my six month son in tow. He was finally solid enough to enjoy a ride in the bucket swings without suffering whiplash, so we left the unsociable but safe sidelines of the park and ventured within the gated play area. I knew we had every right to be there, but that thought made it only a little less overwhelming to be one of the newbies. I smiled at everyone, waited patiently for our turn at the swing, and repeated my new mantra: I'm doing this for my kid!

Why the initial apprehension? More flashbacks to my youth, I suppose, and the days of being the new kid on the block after yet another move. Military families tend to relocate more often than most families, except perhaps circus performers. But squadron wives band together and help raise each others' children like a pride of lionesses. Was I walking into a lion's den? I recalled the image of a postcard reproduced in the back of the Washington City Paper once that said, "I don't take my kids to the playground because I don't like talking to the other moms". This submission to Maryland artist Frank Warren's "Post Secret" community project, in which anonymous people mail him revamped postcards that confess their deepest secrets, registered years before I had a child.

Perhaps I can attribute my unease to an article I skimmed in one of several parenting magazines that my mother, a registered nurse who worked with an obstetrician, earmarked for me during my pregnancy. To paraphrase the article, the full-time mother-cum-freelance columnist suggested that a parent can be neatly summed up as one of four types according to the behaviors which they, not their children, display at a playground. There is the uber-conscientious helicopter parent who hovers over their child with an antiseptic wipe, circumventing boo-boos and intervening in any adolescent playground strife. Equally as committed is the ever youthful parent who keenly initiates and participates in their child's play even at the risk of looking like Godzilla towering over Tokyo on the child-size equipment. Next we see the easy-breezy-cool-and-easy parent who parenthetically builds their child's self-confidence from a reposeful place on a park bench, keeping a lazy eye on their child while gazing in reverie from behind a pair of dark sunglasses. And finally the multi-tasking parent, who is home on a comp day and is engrossed in conversation with another parent while checking their cell phone messages, is a career role model and provides moral support to the child who checks-in visually from across the playground now and again. I had no idea which type of parent I would be until I first lumbered up the steps of the junior jungle gym and scooched down the all-too-brief slide with my son on my lap like a giant lizard invading a city on the island of Japan.

Another mom brought her son, similar in age to mine, to join us in play. She was apparently also the same type of parent; I'll call her Mothra. From Mothra, I learned that asking the child's age is an appropriate icebreaker; I have used this myself many times since. Emblazoned by this brief but positive social opportunity for both my son and myself, I began to explore playgrounds in other zip codes as well.

Turtle Park in Van Ness has the reputation of being one of DC's most popular playgrounds (voted Best DC Playground in the 2009 Washington City Paper Readers' Poll) but is outside our zip code, so I felt trepidation again as I sized up the group of parents standing in a cozy circle near the sand box. Would they sense that we weren't from this part of town as soon as we stepped foot on "their" territory and raise their eyes disapprovingly? Or would they wrongly assume that I was a nanny and relax with a stranger in their midst? Were there unwritten rules for acceptable playground behavior different from the ones on our home turf, or could I go freely down the slide here with my son? I chuckled at the absurdity of it all when they packed their kids into SUVs which sported Maryland license plates and drove back home north on Wisconsin Avenue.

A playground worth noting for its beauty is the impeccably landscaped sanctuary at Mitchell Park on 23rd Street, NW. When we discovered it by happenstance on a long walk, my husband and I mused that this lush, green space could not possibly be managed alone by DC Department of Parks and Recreation but instead subsidized and manicured by an active community association and the proud residents of this affluent neighborhood.

I remember watching Sesame Street as a child of the suburbs and thinking, "So that's where city kids play?" Urban playgrounds seemed bleak then, of gray concrete and cold steel. I am relieved to see that that is no longer the case. Washington has many parks that have been adopted by local communities and given much needed upgrades to equipment and landscaping in the last ten years. The equipment is safer and vibrantly painted, often times with special areas including water spray features, rock climbing walls, and children's gardens. Some have community centers with public restrooms if you are planning to spend the day.

More information about recreation and community centers is available on the DC Department of Parks and Recreation website. I encourage you to explore different playgrounds to find the one that's right for you and your child. It may not even be the one that's closest to where you live, but don't let that stop you from going there. If you suffer from any doubts about leaving the comforts of your own 'hood, just imagine you are a jet fighter pilot or a colossal lizard and venture forth with confidence. Remember, you're doing this for your kid.

Wednesday, January 13, 2010

Shoo, flu... Don't bother me!

It's flu season. No kidding.
Despite spending hours on the phone tracking down the H1N1 and seasonal flu vaccines and waiting in line at health clinics in an attempt to protect my family preventively, our household has been pestered threefold by one strain of stomach bug or another in the last year- twice just since Thanksgiving.

The first hit was the most crushing. This was one of the inevitable moments I most dreaded as a new mother, how to care for a sick child when I myself felt miserable. We called in favors and relied on the generosity of family, friends and neighbors to help us muddle through the worst of it. By the third time, I knew what to expect for the twenty-four hour crisis period and we managed with much less anxiety and a little more grace. But then what? How were we to pass the remainder of our self-imposed quarantine at home when our bodies were still weak from illness and our spirits made delicate by the onset of unseasonably cold temperatures?
The answer, at the risk of sounding like a Hallmark card, was to "make special" and seemingly new again that which had become routine. This required attentiveness and creativity; my infirm body and mind rallied to the challenge.

First priority was to give AS an overdue bath. This usually involves him sloshing around in the suds for 20 minutes drowning his water toys while I take care of the washing part. I typically sing some appropriate bath time ditty such as "Rub a Dub Dub" repeatedly, and we wrap it all up by reading our sole bath book, Barnyard Bath by Sandra Boynton, for the umpteenth time. The usual toys were swapped out for others I was not in the habit of putting in the tub anymore. To rejuvenate the tired song, words were changed to reflect my son's name, "Rub a Dub Dub, AS in the tub...". My new approach to reading the book was perhaps the funnest part; I turned it upside down. The Boynton book rewarded AS's efforts to perceive and name the inverted farm animals with an image of a right-side-up chicken (which appears upside-down when the book is viewed correctly- Silly Chicken!) on the last page, so it turned out to be the perfect choice of book to interpret in this unusual way.

Since AS turned his nose up at flavorsome toddler vittles in favor of blander foods he knew instinctively were gentler on an upset tummy, I cautiously chose not to tempt his taste buds with a new menu. But every seasoned cook knows that appropriate presentation of a meal is only second in importance to its taste. AS was already playing with the food on his tray, so here I took my cues. Now was the time to dust off Gramma's fruit boat recipe, if only for inspiration in cutting bananas and grapes into small but festive shapes. Re-hydrating a sick kid was a cinch with a novelty straw in lieu of the standard sippy cup. The piece de resistance was Cheerios cereal, ideal for stacking in towers and pyramids that AS knocked over repeatedly in a fit of giggles. After two enduring days, this endearing sound was music to my ears.

Going outdoors to play was out of the question, so we brought the playground inside. An indoor sandbox was easily fashioned by pouring two or three cups of puffed rice cereal (the "sand") into a small portable tub that we bathed AS in as an infant. Plastic measuring cups were handy scoops and appropriate for developing AS's fine motor skills by filling and emptying them with cereal. Pouring grains back and forth between smaller and larger size cups became a rudimentary lesson in the math concept of volume. I then plopped AS in the tub, clothes and all. He took joy in the tactile sensation of the grains in his hands and under his feet. The look of surprise on his face when he discovered this play material was edible was priceless; he scarfed it in handfuls. Unlike real sand, there were no repercussions (No! Yuck!) for putting it in his mouth. And the added bonus... I had inadvertently discovered another way to encourage a child with a suppressed appetite to eat.

As the day wore on, AS and I both showed signs we needed to rest more. I caved and turned on the T.V. to WETA Kids, a local public television channel, without sense of guilt. We cuddled up on the couch together and enjoyed an hour of developmentally appropriate, commercial-free children's programming. Classics such as Sesame Street and Mister Rogers hold court with new The Electric Company (now featuring hip celebrities like actor Jack McBrayer from 30 Rock and rapper Wyclef Jean) and educational shows with animated superheroes like nerdy-cool "Word Girl". Unlike commercial networks, WETA Kids content is free of violence, including the cartoon sort. During the episode we watched Becky Botsford, aka Word Girl, champion literacy while foiling her nemesis "The Butcher" (who butchers the English language and whose powers are nullified by tofu). The Butcher wore a bandoleer of sausages, not bullets, and his greatest assault was to the vanity of know-it-all art collectors who he hoodwinked by selling forgeries of famous masterpieces sculpted in... chopped liver.

As we woke from restorative naps dreamscapes were on my mind, the kind of fanciful places I called "castles" or "forts" and contrived with sofa cushions and throw blankets in the living room of my childhood home. Relishing the thought that AS might be just old enough to appreciate this form of imaginary kinesthetic play, I began to deconstruct his crib bedding. The lightweight mattress, fitted sheets and flannel blankets would serve as our building materials along with a small easy chair and cushy ottoman. Memories of a former college professor provided added inspiration; he once recalled from his days as an elementary school art teacher transforming the infrastructure of his classroom with sheets and desk chairs to introduce students to architectural design elements, such as form and space. Imagine a child's wonderment as they entered this fantastic environment, crawling on hands and knees like hamsters in a Habitrail through an improvised tunnel that magically appeared one day where they expected to find the door to their classroom. One at a time, they channeled through a maze of cloth partitions sweeping from the ceiling and, at last, joined their classmates in an open area carpeted in floor pillows for the remainder of the lesson. These children had already internalized the contrasting concepts of open/closed and inside/outside before their teacher even said word one about form and space.

Of course AS's humble fort was built on a smaller scale, but the outcome was the same. He had the added benefit of seeing the theory of cause and effect in action as he gleefully took a flying leap on top of the structure and brought it down around him. The fallen mattress and ottoman provided soft surfaces of varying heights to climb and tumble across. Then AS rolled to a stop on his back wrapping himself in one of the sheets, handy for the ensuing game of "Peek-a-Boo". By the end of the day, we'd almost forgotten we weren't feeling well.

Wednesday, January 6, 2010

Lions in Winter

There is something especially wonderful about being one of the few people strolling on a quiet city street early on a Sunday morning, or in an empty movie theater watching a weekday kiddie matinee, or at the zoo in the calm chill of January. It is the illusion of feeling as if the world just exists for you and your child.

At the Smithsonian National Zoological Park during less crowded visitation times just after the gates open or before close, especially on a winter's day, AS and I have observed the most remarkable animal behaviors. A drop in temperature seems to invigorate animals native to cooler climates, such as the Andean Spectacled Bears, and at dusk nocturnal animals begin to rouse from their daytime slumber. We have had the fortune of hearing the unmistakable whooping of acrobatic White-cheeked Gibbons and the howling of fox-like Maned Wolves and of seeing a deft Fishing Cat tap a paw into a pool of water to lure and catch its own meal. I watched breathlessly as an orangutan scaled a tower at the Great Ape House and traversed the O-line, the zoo's highwire Orangutan Transport System, directly above our vantage point on the Olmsted Trail, and AS beamed to behold six Asian Small-clawed Otters cavorting along the bank of a stream where they mostly pass their lives basking together in a charming heap.

Indoor exhibits, like the Reptile Discovery Center or the Small Mammal or Bird Houses, provide the perfect place to warm up. These exhibits and the animals that inhabit them tend to be smaller in size, so it is easier for small-fry to observe them more closely. Staff members and knowledgeable volunteers are happy to answer questions and encourage children to touch and interact with curious objects (such as plant seeds or fragments of bone, horn or fur) on display. You may also watch keepers feed the animals throughout the day. The daily schedule of activities and demonstrations on the zoo website lists animal feeding times for the minutest insects to the greatest mammals so you can plan your visit accordingly. Activity sheets, such as scavenger hunts and "Zoo-per Bingo", may be printed from the website ahead of time to help enrich your child's experience. In the Science Gallery adjacent to Amazonia, an exhibit highlighting species from the tropical rainforests of the Amazon River, children may emulate research scientists in the field and lab by viewing specimens through microscopes side-by-side with zoo staff conducting actual scientific research. Strollers are not permitted in some buildings due to space limitations, so pack light and bring your old umbrella stroller (not the fully-equipped SUV model you'll be anxious about leaving outside).

Outdoor exhibits are also built with the youngest zoo-goers in mind. The Great Cats enclosure features kid-size windows for better views of the lions and tigers. The Kids’ Farm provides opportunities to groom animals such as cows and donkeys in the Caring Corral. Small children may play in the Pizza Garden on a giant rubber pizza playground and learn about the origins of food. Watch in surreal delight as your tot crawls through an enormous olive, stacks larger-than-life mushroom slices and clambers up wedges of cheese like an ant at a picnic.

On Sundays from January to March, bring your family to National Zoo's Visitor Center Auditorium at 11 a.m. and 1 p.m. for the Wild Side Stage performance series for children. These winter performances include "entertaining and educational shows by acclaimed, award-winning musicians, dancers, storytellers, and puppeteers from around the country" followed by special visits to animal houses to meet keepers and animals. Tickets are $7 for adults and children age two and older. Wee ones under age two are admitted free!

Enjoy Halloween by safely Trick-or-Treating together at Boo at the Zoo. Or celebrate the winter holiday season at the annual ZooLights event, an occasion to amble through the zoo after dark to experience dozens of colorful flashing light displays, animal exhibits and live entertainment.
Children especially love to see baby animals at the zoo. A highlight for us this past year was getting to know, Kibibi, the Western Lowland Gorilla born at the Great Ape House on January 10, 2009. The public was even invited to vote on her name. Information regarding animal arrivals, births and hatchings is updated on the website monthly. Some new arrivals to the zoo's animal family are raised at the Conservation and Research Center in Front Royal, Virginia, but photographs by the zoo's professional photographers and webcams trained on the babies are a welcome representative until the animals are ready for their big debut at the zoo.

I was dismayed to read a recent newspaper article in which parents residing outside the beltway resolved never to return to Washington, DC for their children's entertainment after spending $100 at the zoo in one day. What was intended to be a cheap daytrip for the cost-conscious parents became increasing expensive as they found themselves paying for parking, treating their family of four to lunch then ice cream and coffee at a restaurant, and lured to the call of the gift shop.

It is possible to spend $20 or less for a family of four if you plan ahead. Admission to the animal exhibits is always free, and public transportation to the zoo is cheaper than parking there and more convenient. The Woodley Park-Zoo metro station is a short walk to the main entrance on Connecticut Avenue. Pack a bag lunch; there are plenty of shaded picnic tables or sunny, grassy areas to spread out a blanket in the warmer months. During winter, benches indoors are a convenient spot for enjoying a PB&J sandwich and slurping a juice box with your child.

Joining Friends of the National Zoo (FONZ) is an initial investment of $60 for a Household (two or more people living at the same address) Membership but worthwhile if you plan to visit the zoo often and are eager to take advantage of free parking, 10% discounts in National Zoo stores, a complementary subscription to Smithsonian Zoogoer magazine and discounted tickets for special events. These include annual member events, previews of new exhibits, summer camps, classes and workshops, and Snore and Roar overnights. Snore and Roar overnights? Yes, from June to September you and your Mini-me can camp out under the stars listening to the roars of lions and tigers nearby! FONZ members also enjoy free or discounted admission to other zoos and aquariums nationwide.

Check out the online calendar and website to see when special events are scheduled. The zoo is open every day of the year, except December 25th. Animal exhibits are open from 10 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. November to March and from 10 a.m. to 6 p.m. April to October.

Copyright 2009 Kristen Morse All Rights Reserved