SEE MONKEY, DO MONKEY: THE YEAR OF THE MONKEY, at the Freer Gallery of Art, through November; THE MONKEY HOUSE at the National Zoo, daily, 9 to 6:30.
"If they must go on outings, those outings should be fraught with purpose," decreed Mary poppins' employer.
Sage advice. After you've exhausted all the available Vacation Bible Schools in your neighborhood, you don't want your kids to loll around the swimming pool sunburning their brains for the rest of the summer. To be sure they'll be up to the coming school year, jog their minds with meaningful summer outing.
How many kids, for example, realize that this is the Year of the Monkey on the Lunar Calendar? And how many parents realize what great opportunity this fact affords for a cross-cultural, mixed-media experience in both the arts and the sciences?
The outing begins at the Freer Gallery of Art, normally one of the Mall's few refuges from kids, which is honoring the Year of the Monkey with an exhibit of Chinese and Japanese depictions of that animal. According to the introductory panel, Orientals considered monkeys clever but lacking wisdom -- sort of like Americans. A 15th-century Japanese legend tells of 500 monkeys who saw the moon's reflection in a well and thought they could reach the moon by jumping in the well.
They drowned. The two largest paintings in the exhibit are variations on this theme: In one, a monkey hangs from a branch trying to touch the reflected moon; in the other, a wave has temporarily obliterated the reflection, to the monkey's bewilderment.
Even after I explained the two paintings to the kids -- my own two plus one friend each -- they put their own refinements on the story.
"One of the monkeys is having a birthday party, and they're all having fun looking at the reflection of the moon in the water," began seven-year-old Emily.
"And they think that's his birthday cake," continued six-year-old Tabitha. "No, those two are having a war and he's trying to reach the moon so he can throw it at the other one so he'll burn."
"They're not monkeys," corrected four-year-old Caroline: "They look like cats."
I decided to let the kids interpret the rest of the paintings.
No, strawberries," interrupted Caroline. "And then the bees came --"
"No, they're wasps," corrected Emily reading the title of the painting: "Monkeys and Wasps."
"When we were leaving our house, I saw a wasp eating a cockroach," added four-year-old Annie.
"And the mother's comforting the babies because they got stung," continued Tabitha, getting back to the painting.
"That could be the grandma," cautioned Caroline.
Having exhausted the possibilities, we moved on to another painting. At least I did.
"In this one, the father's carrying the baby to the doctor but they stop to eat berries," explained Tabitha.
"Why the doctor?" I asked, resisting the temptation to point out that her father never took her to the doctor.
"Because he got stung by a wasp," she replied, not caring that the pictures were painted by different artists a century apart.
Since art is in the eye of the beholder, I just let them go on in this vein. Although the gallery's explanation of an 18th-century Chinese painting entitled "Gibbons in a Landscape" involved the apes' forming a chain to catch a crab, the kids agreed that "the mommy is spanking the monkey because he fell in the water."
Another Chinese painting, this time from the 15th century, was entitled simply "Monkeys in a Loquat Tree," but the kids elaborated.
"Two monkeys are doing a dance because they finally got the moon," concluded Tabitha.
"That's just what I was going to say," agreed Emily.
Having successfully intertwined the melange of paintings into one unified epic, we made our way across town to the zoo for the "hands on" part of the outing. Equipped with watercolors, pastels, markers, crayons, paper and the knowledge of how the Oriental artists had portrayed monkeys, we were going to see how four Occidental kids could depict them.
Before deciding on the species of monkey to be so immortalized, we toured the Monkey House, inside and out.
The inhabitants of the Monkey House seemed to be competing to offer us lively subjects. The Celebees mascaques played with a tire. An adult lion-tailed macaque stood majestically on a pedestal. A mother gibbon groomed her offspring. A baby Barbary ape urinated into its water bowl.
Although the baby Barbary ape was a tempting subject the kids opted for some black spider monkeys. First of all, they were inside, where the artists could labor in airconditioned comfort. The spider monkeys also seemed keenly aware of their surroundings.
"See, that lady there is chewing gum and the monkey is imitating her," observed Tabitha, pointing first at a human and then at a monkey behind the glass making similar mouth movements.
After we had sat down on the floor and fought over the art materials, the kids began to appreciate what the Oriental artists had been up against.
"They're sort of like racoons," said Annie. "Can I do an elephant?"
To put off the difficult task of drawing the monkeys, the kids first concentrated on the elaborate, pipe-like equipment in the spider monkey quarters. This was a real confidence-builder, and they soon put in the monkeys. Tabitha's swung upside down on the play equipment, looking at what turned out to be the moon's reflection. Annie, who didn't see why a yellow marker should go to waste, gave hers some bananas.
By this time, almost as many people were watching us as were watching the monkeys, and some other kids wanted to draw, too.
A four-year-old named Christopher was unfamiliar with pastels, so the other kids showed him how to use his finger to get the smeared look.
"You know what?" asked Annie, rhetorically. "Friends who come to stay the night sometimes just use their finger like that with toothpaste to brush their teeth."
Some of the monkeys, too, were curious about these small humans sitting on the floor. One of the monkeys pressed its nose against the glass and stared at us curiously. Caroline knew why:
"He's wondering if he could do better than us."