Just Streetcars: The National Capital Trolley Museum

Photo: A Dutch electric streetcar with a Dutch and American flag on top; Text:

“I love things that drive and move and moons,” Sprout announced to me the other day. When you’ve watched trains and ridden the Metro so many times you’ve lost count, what’s the mom of a transit-loving kid to do? Bring them to the National Capital Trolley Museum in Colesville, MD!

While the D.C. region has a wealth of museums, none of the others have trolleys (aka streetcars) you can actually ride on. If the idea of a 15-minute trolley ride through the woods doesn’t thrill you, this museum probably isn’t for you.

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Montgomery County Had Some Farms – E-I-E-I-O: Montgomery County Farm Tour

“Eat your vegetables!” is a stereotypical parenting phrase, but I want my kid to not just eat them, but also know where they come from. While we’re farmers’ market regulars, the Montgomery County Farm Tour offered a unique opportunity last weekend to get hands-on with some plants and animals.

Of the 19 farms participating, we decided to visit just two, considering limits on time and toddlers’ attention span.

Our first stop was Homestead Farm, which offers pick-your-own fruit, as well as a number of vegetables at its farm market. While they offered produce for sale, they also had quite a few animals, which were a big hit with the kiddie set.

A goat on a bridge above the picture-taker

I especially loved the set-up they had for their goats. Goats are known for their climbing skills and complete lack of fear. They’re notorious for scrambling up on roofs. Rather than fighting this instinct, Homestead had the brilliant idea of giving them something to climb onto. Above our heads were two platforms connected by a walkway. There were even little baskets that visitors could use to haul food up to the goats!

Other animals at the farm included chickens, pigs and a llama. Sprout gave us a running commentary – “Chickens inside!” he’d proclaim. They seemed to be his favorite for some reason – perhaps the crowing or their feathers’ pretty colors. I tried to use this fondness to convince Chris we should raise chickens, but my suggestion was thoroughly ignored.

Several ripe peaches hanging from a tree

The orchard was next up, ready for all of our peach-picking needs. To keep him busy, I assigned Sprout the responsibility of placing – not throwing or dropping – the peaches into the box. Of course, it took a couple of tries (and then a couple more) before he moved from violently bruising them to putting them down gently. Despite his assignment, he wanted to actually pick some peaches himself. Thankfully, a lot of the peach trees were short, with fruit within his reach. While I was highly skeptical of his peach selection abilities, he picked quite a few that were perfectly ripe. There must have just been so many that it was hard to go wrong. Like any time you go fruit picking, our hands were bigger than our stomachs. Peach jam and cobbler, anyone?

Our second stop on the farm tour was Star Gazing Farm, a sanctuary for abused and abandoned farm animals. As the animals roam very free there, we were allowed to walk right up to them. Again, the chickens were popular, with Sprout exclaiming, “Chicken, chicken!” and looking interested when the guide showed us a freshly-laid egg. I took the opportunity to connect it to one of his books, Me…Jane, which shows a young Jane Goodall watching a hen laying an egg.

The farm must have made him feel safe, because Sprout even worked up the nerve to touch one of the animals. Every time we’ve seen farm animals, he’s been perfectly content to look and not touch. He backs off quickly if the animal even looks at him. But for whatever reason, he judged the sheep was unthreatening and gingerly reached out a hand to stroke its wool. After a few pets, he declared, “Soft.”

Woman demonstrating how to shear sheep

Besides looking at the animals, the farm also had a sheep shearing demonstration and offered a variety of knitted goods made by volunteers for sale. The hats and sweaters were ridiculously inexpensive for hand-made goods, probably less than the price of the wool. I got winter hats for myself and Sprout for $25!

We rounded out the day with a little picnic of PB&J sandwiches, lemonade and watermelon. Our tour of local agriculture offered a small taste of the many farms in our area and what they produce.

A Puppet Show for the Tinest of Tots

When I was a little girl, my mom brought me to the summer home of the New York City ballet every year. At a young age, Chris knew the Phantom of the Opera soundtrack and was in three high school plays. So it was inevitable that we were going to introduce Sprout to the theater. I found the perfect opportunity at a local children’s theater company, which puts on shows for little ones called Tiny Tots. The shows are a half-hour long, the lights stay on, they understand if you have to leave in the middle of the performance, and tickets are only five bucks a person. As I wanted to do one, single family holiday activity before Christmas, their presentation of “Nutcracker Fantasy” was perfect.

Evidently, we weren’t the only parents with the same train of thought. There was a whole mess of toddlers (clearly the correct word for a group of toddlers) with their parents in the theater’s lobby. They were quite well-behaved, even when we had to wait in line to get in and again for the show to start. The theater was small, with a carpeted floor with a single long step across the room and bench seating along the wall. The stage was simple – curtains on the sides and a draped balustrade along the back.

As everyone finished settling in, our puppeteer came out for a brief introduction. Explaining that he used to work on Mr. Rogers’ Neighborhood (!) and The Muppets (!!), he said he was familiar with all sorts of puppets. While describing the difference between mouth puppets that talk and marionettes on strings, he demonstrated of how to construct a muppet of the Nutcracker King. It was a nice introduction to the kids who had only seen mouth puppets (otherwise known as muppets) and held everyone’s attention while they seated a few more families.

He then moved on to the actual show, which mainly consisted of the fun dance parts of the Nutcracker. One marionette was a snow lady with naughty little snowflakes that ran away. A poofy poodle juggled snowballs. A Chinese acrobat did flips and balanced a plate on his head. Individual round, green puppets (“I think they’re trees?” I whispered) came together to form a Chinese dragon. A turtle on roller skates jumped and flipped. Elegant plants swooped to the famous Dance of the Flowers.

As his background would suggest, the puppeteer was very talented. His fluid, tiny gestures made it appear as if the puppet itself was doing all of the work. Even though they didn’t speak, each character had a distinct personality and interacted with him in their own unique manner.

Each section followed the same pattern, so it was easy for the little ones to follow along. The puppeteer gave a short introduction to each character, often referring to them as “my friend.” He then brought out the marionette, who did some sort of trick. In several cases, the character was “not very good” at the trick, so they had to try it a couple times with the puppeteers’ encouragement. While most of the puppets’ incompetence was on purpose, one of the dog’s strings broke and a snowball actually fell into the audience. In the end, the character succeeded at the task and moved off-stage. Each vignette was only a few minutes long.

Despite the simplicity of the set-up, there seemed to be a level of confusion among the adults. I heard at least one person say, “Where’s the Nutcracker?” I suspect there were also some parents who agreed with a Yelp review that complained you could see the puppeteer. Neither of these things bothered me though. The plot of the Nutcracker is notoriously thin and toddlers wouldn’t be able to follow it anyway. While some of the characters weren’t in the original story (I don’t recall any frogs on roller skates), the kids didn’t seem to care. Being disappointed at seeing the puppeteer I think is due to a bit of a lack of imagination on the adults’ part. I’m not a great puppeteer and I’ve had children much older than toddlers talk to a puppet I was controlling as if I wasn’t present at all.

In contrast to their parents, the kids were totally mesmerized. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a group of calmer, quieter non-sleeping toddlers. Sprout watched the whole thing on my lap, thoughtfully chewing on his hand. The kids started getting a little antsy towards the end, but even that was limited to a few comments and squirms. Parents in the audience only brought a few kids out into the hallway, which was impressive for a packed house.

Overall, I was quite impressed, although there were a few things I would change. The design of the Chinese acrobat puppet played off unfortunate racial stereotypes. While I understand that communicating facial features of people of color can be particularly challenging in a puppet, I wish it wasn’t so Fu Manchu-esque. The other thing that grated to me just a bit was that the puppeteer was somewhat demeaning to the puppets who didn’t “want” to try their trick. As the characters were a bit kid-like, I thought he could have a more encouraging tone.

Considering that the show was a great introduction to the theater, Sprout loved it, and it was cheap, we’re sure to be back to the Tiny Tots show in the future.

An Autumn Extravaganza: Halloween at Butler’s Orchard

Photo: Child walking through a tunnel framed by a jack-o-lantern. Text: "An Autumn Extravaganza: Halloween at Butler's Orchard."

Autumn is my favorite season, with the changing leaves, the cooler weather, the fall harvest, and Halloween. Oh, Halloween – a celebration of imagination and as much candy as you can mooch off the neighbors. A perfect chance to be someone else for a night and engage with the not-so-scary monsters of the world before you have to face the ones in the real world. So of course, I’ve looked forward to celebrating Hallowern with Sprout. And you can’t have a good Halloween without a high quality pumpkin. So off we went to the local orchard to pick a pumpkin and attend their fall children’s festival.

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Old-School Childhood: Cabin John Regional Park

Old School Childhood_ Cabin John Regional Park

I’m a pretty radical progressive in a lot of ways, but I have serious nostalgia for a lot of kids’ activities. I believe children should spend lots of time exploring and that playground equipment is meant to be used “creatively.” I’m also a fan of kitschy stuff from the 1950s and 60s. So it warmed my heart to visit Cabin John Park last weekend with Chris, Sprout and my in-laws.

Cabin John Park is old and shows it. While the surrounding area is one of the richest regions in the country, you wouldn’t know it from the park. It’s neither shiny or trendy. Which is not to say that it’s dilapidated. Rather, it feels worn and comfortable, like a well-used armchair.

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