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.

Tuesday, February 9, 2010

Passing Snow Days with Paper Cranes and Snowflakes

My 14-month old son has learned a new word, "Snow!" This comes as no surprise as the District looks like the shaken interior of one of those plastic snow globes from the DCA airport gift shop.

The city has been crippled by seasonal record-breaking snowstorms that buried the Washington, DC, metro area last Saturday and again mid-week just as we were beginning to see light. The federal government, public schools, and many businesses are closed and may remain that way through the weekend. Markets and drug stores are open intermittently but lines are long and the shelves picked over. Driving is treacherous, and public transportation service is limited to the main bus routes and below-ground train service. Sidewalks are unshoveled and icy in places forcing pedestrians to walk in the streets. The mail has not been delivered in days. A historic mess, yes, but we feel very fortunate to have power and water. Some of our family and friends in the suburbs have not been so fortunate.

My sister made a mad dash for groceries as soon as her street was plowed after Round #1 in anticipation of the next blizzard headed this way. Her 6-year old son asked why they were buying even MORE brownie mix, then paused in revelation and said, "Does this mean we're never going to be able to go outside again?" Collectively, Washingtonians are showing signs of "snow stress", and parents are facing the additional challenge of keeping young children stimulated and entertained while home from school. After several days, even new toys and books have lost their novelty and favorite television shows and video games have grown tiresome for kids. But if you keep paper of any kind in your house, you're still in luck- the kind of luck you grant yourself by folding paper cranes.

You may once have learned the concept of origami (from ori "fold" + kami "paper") from a school teacher; math teachers often use the exercise of folding paper to illustrate geometry. John Montroll, an American origami master with several books to his name, teaches at a local boys' school. He has gained the kids' admiration for his remarkable ability to improvise imaginative three-dimensional forms, such as a 3-headed dragon or a framed image of George Washington, out of a single uncut square or rectangle sheet of paper, as he sometimes does with a napkin from the cafeteria or a dollar bill from his pocket. If you were to tour the school, you would discover origami animals of different forms, patterns and size created by his students perched upon bookshelves and in unexpected little nooks across campus.

A childhood friend, whose mother was a 7th grade math teacher, learned paper-folding at home and eventually introduced it to her own elementary school students. Her "Introduction to Origami" intersession is one of the most popular offered. When my high school photography students mentored her 5th graders in a "Literacy through Photography" program, the youngsters expressed their appreciation by making origami cranes for us. We subsequently donated the cranes to students in the Japanese Culture Club who threaded together hundreds of them collected by the student body. The hand-made cranes were presented as a gift of encouragement to a classmate tragically injured in a swimming accident. In Japanese culture, this magnificent bird has been considered a symbol of loyalty and honor for thousands of years. Because of the strength of this symbol, Japanese tradition holds that a person who folds 1,000 paper cranes will be granted his greatest wish.

A few years ago, my same teacher friend took a trip with her Mom to their maternal homeland in Italy where she brought decorative 6" x 6" squares of paper in a small travel bag and created paper cranes as a gesture of goodwill to the people she befriended along the way. At one small outdoor cafe in Sicily, she began folding a crane for a curious school girl who approached her in hopes of practicing English with an American. Before long, several of the girl's classmates had joined in the conversation and were asking to see the origami demonstration again and again.

Origami may not be your cup of green tea, but these anecdotes suggest that young people do love the challenge of crafting new things with their hands from a familiar material like paper. In retrospect, you may fondly recall how to make paper fortune tellers, footballs, airplanes, boats or doll chains from your own childhood. If you need a quick refresher, there are a number of how-to books and websites dedicated to origami and other paper crafts for children. Look for additional resources that describe the history and cultural significance of the craft in the countries where different traditions, like origami and kirigami in Japan and papel picado in Mexico, have evolved. Also, choose age appropriate projects if your goal is for your children to play on their own. Easy origami is appropriate for children as early as four years of age, but they will still need your help getting started.

When the snow first began falling heavily five days ago, I initiated a week-long project to revisit some of my favorite paper crafts. AS is much too young to make them on his own but enjoys watching his father and I construct things, contributing where he can, and playing with them afterward. With Valentine's Day just around the corner, we first created cards with leftover construction paper and scrap paper from an old address book. I drew bluebirds on the cover of each card with crayons and, afterward, AS added his own crayon markings to help personalize them. On day two, I taped four 8 1/2" x 11" sheets of notebook paper together to fold a large paper hat for AS. We passed the afternoon trading the hat back and forth, taking turns wearing it and striking silly poses in attempts to make each other laugh. By Monday, we were in the mood to race. Our newest creations, origami jumping frogs, hopped two-by-two to cross a finish line at the end of the coffee table.

Inspiration came the next day from Snowflake Bentley, a children's book we borrowed from the library. This Caldecott Medal Book by Jacqueline Briggs Martin is about a 19th century farmer from Vermont, Wilson Bentley, who created the first close-up photographs of individual snowflakes. I read AS the story and showed him the beautiful photographic images of snowflakes reproduced in the back of the book. He then watched as his father and I folded and cut white computer paper, creating large snowflakes to hang on on his bedroom window like talismans against the next impeding storm (Round #2 of the so-called "Snowtastrophe"). The little diamond-shaped cut-outs from the snowflakes made snow-like confetti which we sprinkled over AS's head in flurries. While AS is too young to wield a pair of scissors himself, he loves to crumple paper. I gave him his own white sheet of paper so he could form a "snowball" to complement our snowflakes.

Creating paper crafts with your children is an inexpensive hobby and takes little planning. The process is fun, perhaps even therapeutic, and can help children pass time indoors in a quiet, constructive way. Projects such as paper bag puppets can be easily stored and recurrently enjoyed. Others can be pressed into scrapbooks as keepsakes once they have outlived their use. You may also use the opportunity to educate your children about recycling by reusing paper from shopping bags, magazines, and computer printers or notebooks.

This week local headlines in DC once again became national news thanks to the Blizzard of 2010. But rather than grow discouraged by another grim winter weather forecast and the prospect of additional snow days, we plan to re-purpose those newspapers and make the most of our time indoors.

Tuesday, February 2, 2010

The Free Aquarium and the National Aquarium

Bret: She works down at the cheap zoo.
Jemaine: The pet store?

Fans of the HBO comedy series "Flight of the Conchords" will recognize this dialogue from the Season 2 episode "Wingmen" in which clueless Bret confides to his slightly more perceptive roommate Jemaine about his new crush, a pet store employee. This struck me as especially funny since AS and I are in the habit of visiting the "free aquarium" on a regular basis. We shop at Petco primarily for our cat's food but always expect to stay a while so AS can watch freshwater fish, especially fluid little fan-tailed carp, and turtles swim in aquariums. From as early as just a few months of age, he has been fascinated by the colors and movement of aquatic animals and the sight and sound of streaming bubbles as oxygen is pumped in their tanks.

I grew up in a family of "animal people" and had pets of every persuasion from dogs to rodents to fish. Becoming a caretaker at a young age taught me responsibility and compassion for living things, and I want to foster these traits in my son as well. But I buried one too many goldfish as a young person to entertain buying one for AS. At the very least, he is too young for the "What happens when we die?" discussion, and I can't justify stealthily swapping out a dead fish for an identical live one every time something inevitably goes wrong. Fish in aquariums tend to thrive better than those in fishbowls, but setting up a large tank is not an option in our apartment building due to the possibility of water damage. So when we need our fish fix (or invertebrates, amphibians and reptiles), we enjoy the free experience at the pet store or take a trip downtown to the National Aquarium for a real scholarly water adventure.

You won't find fan-tailed carp or goldfish at the newly renovated aquarium, nor can you view the exhibits for free, but you will encounter over 250 amazing species to mesmerize the marine life enthusiasts in your family. Located in the lower level of the Department of Commerce Building at 1401 Constitution Avenue, NW, the National Aquarium in Washington, DC, is the little sister to a larger venue of the same name in Baltimore's Inner Harbor. While the DC space, and therefore the collection, is scaled down, the location is conveniently located near the Federal Triangle Metro station and general admission tickets are only $9 for adults, $4 for children (ages 3-11) and free for tots up under age 3. Baltimore tickets will put you back $29.95 for adults and $24.95 for children ages 3-11, and, of course, it's a long drive to get there.

Established as the nation's first (...another first for DC! woot!) aquarium in 1873, the National Aquarium in DC has been located in the Commerce Building since 1932. To make your trip more enjoyable, be prepared to pay by cash or check as they are unable to process credit cards. Strollers are permitted but difficult to lug down the interior stairs of the Commerce Building to the aquarium entrance. Ask the security personnel where to access to the full-service elevator instead. Also, the Aquarium is open daily 9 a.m. to 5 p.m., but last admission is at 4:30 p.m.

The Aquarium is promoted as the place to take a "refreshing" 45-minute self-guided tour and perfect for a short break from the office on a busy work day due to its proximity to offices downtown. But I was reminded by a local NBC news feature that we hadn't returned since it received an "extreme makeover" in 2008 and a new exhibit, America's Aquatic Treasures was introduced, so we made an effort to take the Metro bus there the following weekend. After passing through a metal detector and descending several flights of steps, we paid our admission fee and entered into the dim, otherworldy halls of the exhibit galleries. In fact, it is so dark that I considered the benefits of a Kinderkord toddler leash for the first time.

The National Marine Sanctuaries and National Parks gallery highlights marine animals and habitats that the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) works to preserve and protect across our nation. The mission of the NOAA National Marine Sanctuary Program is to educate the American people about our marine heritage and to help "balance enjoyment and use with long-term conservation" through increased public awareness, scientific research and monitoring of these national treasures. Folks hailing from the eastern half of the country, as we do, will likely appreciate the Florida Everglades and Gray's Reef National Marine Sanctuary exhibits. The spacious Everglades exhibit features the American Alligator (once near extinction due to habitat destruction and poor water quality), Scarlet King Snakes, and a relative of scorpions called the Vinegaroon. AS stood with hands pressed up against the glass and followed turtles and 3-foot gators swimming past at his eye level. Gray’s Reef, located in the Atlantic Ocean off the shores of Sapelo Island, Georgia, is one of the largest sandstone reefs in the southeastern U.S. and is home to a rich collection of fascinating invertebrates, such as sea stars, urchins and anemones, and impressive vertebrates like the moray eel. We were also pleased to see that local environments, including the Potomac River, are featured in the American Freshwater Ecosystems gallery. The notorious Snake Head Fish, invasive to the Potomac and impacting its native species, can be seen here.

While we were visiting on a Sunday, a child's birthday party was in progress. Kids, under adult supervision, were zooming up and down the halls making stops along the way to point out something cool they had just discovered. The group of ten was eventually rounded-up and seated on the floor in the Amazon River Basin Gallery to anxiously await a Piranha feeding demonstration before returning to the special events room for cake and gift-opening. But you don't have to attend a birthday party to observe a feeding demonstration and hear live commentary from an aquarist. The piranhas are fed every Sunday, sharks are fed Monday, Wednesday and Saturday in the Patch Reefs Gallery, and alligators are fed every Friday at 2 p.m. for public viewing. Leopard Sharks, dainty yellow Longsnout Seahorses, an Electric Eel, and technicolor Poison Dart Frogs are other crowd-pleasers.

The Aqua Shop is located across from the aquarium entrance, and we couldn't leave without taking a quick peak. We browsed the assortment of shells and sharks teeth, children's science books, t-shirts and posters, but didn't see any "must haves" for AS at the gift shop's prices. We did discover some relatively affordable original art for sale. Small white canvases were painted in vibrant non-toxic water-based paints by "Picasso Turtles", Map Turtles and Red-eared Sliders supervised by trained herpetologists at the aquarium. To my somewhat discerning eye, it appeared as though the reptiles had first crawled through paint and then across the canvas, leaving colorful, abstract markings in their wake. In the end, we refrained from buying anything but instead considered requesting a gift membership or adopting an animal to directly help the National Aquarium save endangered wildlife. The Aquarium is a nonprofit organization funded through private and public support and admission revenue; public donations and volunteerism help the National Aquarium Institute in their mission to inspire people "to enjoy, respect, and protect the aquatic world".

Copyright 2009 Kristen Morse All Rights Reserved