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.

Copyright 2009 Kristen Morse All Rights Reserved