Friday, April 16, 2010

Picnics at the National Mall: Every Day is the 4th of July!

Every Spring locals in Washington, DC, observe a phenomenon on the first warm day of the year akin to a flutter of butterflies simultaneously emerging from their cocoons. Outdoor dining chairs and tables suddenly appear on sidewalk patios of restaurants and are quickly filled by cheerful patrons enlivened with good food and restorative doses of sunshine and fresh air. Before our son was born, my husband and I certainly enjoyed our share of outdoor dining experiences just a few blocks from home. While our restaurant budget has since diminished, we happily still find ways to dine alfresco with a picnic in the park. Whether its a little snack for our immediate family or a larger potluck meal with friends, its always worth the extra time it takes to pull it all together.

There are so many pluses to having a family picnic that I even saw a chapter devoted to it in a parenting book. Of course the main benefit is sharing time with friends and family in a relaxed setting that is conducive to quiet conversation or active play, whichever fits your mood. It is also an opportunity for your child to experience the outdoors, possibly exploring part of a park you have never visited before, and develop friendships socializing with children of other families. And from a thrifty parent's standpoint, a potluck picnic is a great way to save a few pennies while exposing your child to new culinary adventures.

Most Washingtonians have celebrated at least one Independence Day down on the National Mall, but we assert our constitutional freedom to peacefully assemble (with family and friends for a picnic) there on a more regular basis. We have three favorite picnic spots near the National Mall, all within easy walking distance of the Smithsonian Metro station. One is on the grounds of the Mall itself, close to the Smithsonian Carousel at 1000 Jefferson Drive, SW. This is the best place to throw down a big blanket and cooler for a large group picnic. A few large trees provide shade here, but it is smart to pack sunscreen as you will likely spend time in the sun. Wide grassy areas lend plenty of room for kicking around a soccer ball, throwing a Frisbee or even flying a kite after lunch. Kids can be kids and make as much noise as they like in this vibrant public space. Leashed dogs are welcome, too. Tickets for the carousel, open 10-5 daily (except Christmas), are $2.50 per rider and worth every penny to a child. The carousel features sixty Dentzel horses, two chariots, a spinner tub, and one very popular dragon. It was built in 1947 and relocated to the National Mall from Baltimore, MD in 1981.

The National Gallery of Art Sculpture Garden, across the National Mall opposite the Smithsonian Carousel, at 7th Street and Constitution Avenue, NW, offers shady picnic spots appropriate for small groups. Enjoy your lunch while sitting in the grass under a canopy of flowering trees, shrubs and perennials within view of modern and contemporary sculpture installations, including Roy Lichtenstein's illusionary House I and Louise Bourgeois' colossal, bronze Spider. A cooling fountain at the center of the Garden is surrounded by additional seating areas. We spent a few minutes tossing pieces of leftover sandwich bread to the Mallard ducks swimming there. You may also take advantage of the public restrooms at the Pavilion Cafe, a pleasant alternative to the portable toilets available on the Mall grounds. Pets are not permitted, so leave Fido at home if you choose to picnic here rather than on the Mall. Sculpture Garden hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 to 5 and Sunday from 11 to 6, mid-March to Memorial Day.

My last recommendation is for the public gardens behind the Smithsonian Castle. Picnics are not permitted on the grass to protect the delicate plants, but plenty of outdoor seating on benches is available for a brown bag snack with your immediate family. Take the time to stroll along the garden pathways to choose the perfect seating area and admire the elaborate flower beds and hanging baskets, 19th century cast-iron furnishings and reproduction lampposts and the turn-of-the century urns in the Haupt Garden. Consider resting along pink granite benches in the Moongate Garden, inspired by Chinese gardens and architecture, or upon one of four Victorian benches surrounding a cast iron fountain in the sweetly fragrant Folger Rose Garden. As you tour the Haupt Garden, it is fun to realize that you are actually walking atop the roof of the subterranean National Museum of African Art and Sackler Gallery.

Admission is free to all three locations, so don't wait until July to start planning a family picnic!

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