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Saturday's Child

Rain, Rain, Don't Go Away

By Mary Jane Solomon
Special to The Washington Post
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page WE51

APRIL SHOWERS may bring May flowers, but downpours often put a damper on youngsters' spring fever. Not so at a new Arlington park, where a unique educational play area encourages kids to make the most of wet weather.

The Children's Rain Garden at Powhatan Springs Park, which opened in October, incorporates hands-on activities into a man-made wetlands designed to collect and cleanse rainwater through a process known as bioretention. The small, circular setting offers a tranquil contrast to the adjacent concrete skate park, which draws boarders and in-line skaters from across the region. While the big kids practice their ollies and kickflips, little siblings can have fun with raindrops.

Ricky Turcios, 9, above left; Ricardo Mestre, 5; and Eric Irizarry, 6, play at the water pump at the Children's Rain Garden in Arlington's Powhatan Springs Park. (Photos Nikki Kahn -- The Washington Post)

The rain garden concept stemmed from a public meeting at which residents talked about favorite childhood hangouts, says Robert Capper, project manager for construction at the park, operated by the Arlington Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. Many recalled playing along streams, "sort of unprogrammed, unstructured spaces where you created your own fun," he says. The area combines a naturally themed play spot with an environmentally helpful practice.

Large rocks scattered in clusters atop crescents of gravelly sand lend a Zen-garden ambiance, but strategically placed pipes speak to the spot's functionality. Rainwater from throughout the park flows through the underground pipes, while drops collecting atop the park buildings' slanted roofs fall into two eight-foot-high, rust-hued steel cones and drip one by one into the garden. The area's sand acts as a filter, while the roots of wetland plants such as spikerush, red iris and soft rush help stop and trap sediment.

"In one small way, we're doing our part to help the [Chesapeake] Bay," Capper says of the system, from which the purified water trickles into Reeves Run in the rear of the park. That water flows into the larger Four Mile Run, which connects to the Potomac River, which drains into the bay.

Children may take interest in an adult's explanation of the big picture, but they're more likely to concentrate on exploring the garden's features. "It's really all based on a child's creativity, and the area seems to lend itself to that," Capper says of the layout, created by environmental artist Jann Rosen-Queralt and landscape architectural design firm Oculus. Capper has watched youngsters, including his own 4 1/2-year-old daughter, Anna, entertain themselves by making water flow from a bright red pump, splashing in the droplets that collect atop round concrete basins and hopping from rock to rock.

While the garden proves wettest during or after steady rainfall, the design enables collected water to continue trickling in after the storm. A drip irrigation system releases continuous droplets from skinny pipes mounted atop the restroom pavilion roof, creating puddles in the decorative basins. Children like to play leapfrog between larger rocks and move smaller ones.

Rainwater also collects inside an underground storage tank connected to the old-fashioned pump -- "just like the one at my grandma's house," Capper says -- from which children can send a stream of water into a flume crafted from four concrete half-pipes adorned with little red and blue handprints.

Kids especially enjoy "finding little twigs or making little boats and floating them down the stream, or damming up the channel," Capper says. A path adjacent to the chute enables youngsters to follow an object's journey from beginning to end, a few inches from shallow Reeves Run.

Rosen-Queralt titled the project "Cultivus Loci: Suckahanna" a Latin term meaning "cultivated place" followed by the Powhatan Indian word for water. The garden features integrated artistic elements, such as a drainage ditch accented with leaf imprints, bits of copper wire and pale green river rocks. Decaying wood pieces embedded in the garden's concrete wall give the impression of falling sticks.

"Sometimes the art is so blended in with the site that you don't realize it's art," Capper says.

THE CHILDREN'S RAIN GARDEN AT POWHATAN SPRINGS PARK -- 6020 Wilson Blvd., Arlington. 703-533-2362. www.arlingtonva.us, click on "Parks and Recreation," click on "Parks" under "Outdoor Facilities" and click on "List All Parks" to find the Powhatan Springs link. The Children's Rain Garden is open from dawn to dusk. Free. (Hours of the neighboring skate park vary daily and seasonally; call for times and prices.) A free Earth Day celebration April 30 from 9:30 to 12:30, co-sponsored by the Kiwanis Club of Arlington -- which funded the rain garden as an educational community venture -- features interactive Rain Garden tours, face painting, storytelling and other children's activities led by an on-site naturalist. The event is geared toward children in preschool through second grade.

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