Summer, time to wonder in the park

A CASTLE rises like a stately gray dawn above smoke bushes and lush cattails. Redwinged blackbirds and dragonflies skirr through the brush and over a duckweed-patinaed lake. The hush here is breached only by a mallard hobnob, some distant din, and children running down to fathom the waters. A medieval relic in Aberdeen, Scotland? No, Belvedere Castle in New York's Central Park, a short sprint from the West Side subway and mid-Manhattan's multitudes.

Between 1919 and the early '60s, the United States Weather Bureau staffed and equipped the Castle as a forecasting station. In the '60s, the recording system was automated, eliminating the need for staff and making way for new building uses.

Since restoration was finished in 1982, Belvedere Castle has primarily been an education center, taking its place alongside other much-loved Central Park fixtures like the Carousel, Children's Zoo, rejuvenated skating rink, and the Delacorte Theater.

Castle education programs are run year-round by the nonprofit Central Park Conservancy, in cooperation with New York's Urban Park Rangers. During the school year, a staff of three manages to reach some 3,000 students with in-class natural science presentations and field trips to the Castle, as well as preparatory training for teachers.

Summers, the Castle's playfully quirky architecture - Gothic here, Norman there, Moorish at the bartizans (corner overlooks) - can be explored by the public daily. Saturdays in the summer, there are free programs for children aged 5 to 11 and their families. One Saturday a month, there are programs for four-year-olds and families. The only requirement is preregistration.

Each weekend's theme is based on some natural feature of Central Park. One afternoon, for instance, children and parents will build and sail simple boats made from Japanese knotweed, a bamboolike plant thriving nearby.

This particular Saturday's theme is ``Lake Investigation.'' Shortly after noon, two dozen children and their parents - mostly native New Yorkers, though a few are from Virginia and California - gather at lakeside for instructions from their Castle guide.

Dispensing strainers, the guide says today's mission is to scoop lake algae, etc., with strainers into buckets: ``You won't believe what you'll find. Be gentle. Don't squish anything.''

Scooping, plus comment, ensues. One small boy wonders if he can have a ``stranger'' (strainer); another is flabbergasted that he got so much ``allergy'' (algae) with a single swoop of the scoop.

Once enough bio-baisse has been amassed, the buckets are toted up the lawn and into the beturtled ``Discovery Room'' for inspection. Now, magnifying glasses are distributed, along with drawing materials. The object is to study and sketch your collection: snails, bugs, and all.

``What we do here is very simple, very basic,'' says center director Sally Austin, who arrived at Belvedere via the Children's Museum in Fairfield, Conn. ``We give them the time to wonder.'' Science and art are deliberately done as one, she explains, because combined, ``They're a way of seeing, a way of making sense of what's here.''

It must be stated that there were more ``Yucks!'' than accolades at Belvedere Castle this Saturday. Still, it's clear from faces and sketches that if algae soup seemed other than beautiful, the experience itself didn't.

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