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Free entry to Muir Woods, Point Reyes, Golden Gate Recreation Area, and all National Parks this week

April 17 - 25, 2010, is National Parks Week. Entry fees at all National Parks and Recreation Areas will be waived. And, Saturday April 24 is National Junior Ranger Day. So what's available to North Bay families?

Marin Headlands: Download a free 16-page activity booklet pdf (from the Golden Gate National Recreation web site) to take along on a walk to the Marin Headlands. Print and give your child only those pages with age-appropriate activities. Later, turn your hike into the first step of an art activity.

Point Reyes: Bird-a-thon for Kids on Sunday April 25. The Point Reyes National Birding and Nature Festival will be running. Though most events are full, Sunday's free Birdathon for Kids is still open to children 8 to 14 (birding experience required). Reserve a space here.

Children whose inspiration has not yet been crushed by the cookie-cutter crafts most often offered to them in day care and school setting are enthralled by the creative possibilities that found objects from nature offer them. The more experience handling prickly oak leaves, smooth driftwood, or sun-warmed beach stones they have, the more enthusiastic they become.

However, children can't collect grasses, rocks, or any natural environmental object from a National Park to take home for artistic purposes. Along with the negative effect on the environment, it's frankly illegal (and exceptions are not made for cute children with pockets stuffed full of stones).

3 easy art connections that respect the Earth

1. Litter collage and sculpture: Children may collect paper and plastic trash in a National Park. Take along clear plastic produce bags (one for each child). Decomposing paper and cardboard litter can be sorted at home (unused colors go in the recycling bin). Use blue, green, and transparent paper or plastic to make a collage of the sea or the sky. Or, poke objects (bottle tops and CDs, for example) into florist foam or air-hardening clay. Who knows, a spontaneous "pick up the litter" poster or art exhibit may even emerge!

2. Temporary art with natural materials. They key is collecting without harm and then leaving artwork there to decompose. Most children can twist grass into a ring or hoop -- add a found feather and hang it from a tree. Assemble interesting twigs into a boulder with a hole in it (or a line of twigs to follow a crack) -- hang bits of moss, kelp, upended shells, or flowers on the sticks to make them into flags. Stack stones into towers. Use acorns, sticks, bark, and ferns to build a fairy house into the roots of a tree. Make Field Grass People.

TIP: Be careful not to destroy a habitat by pulling plants out by the root. Show children how to snap (or cut) one stem at a time, while leaving the base plant intact. Never strip all the flowers or leaves from a single plant or take from the only example of a particular flower or plant in the area. Help kids identify the most abundant plant life in the area and tell them to think like a grazing deer "A little bite here, a little bite there..." Plan to supervise collecting until you can see they understand how to do so without harming the environment. Kids will collect twice as much as they need, so be prepared to set boundaries.

3. Sand sculpture: Forget about the plastic molds and shovels. There's no beach in Northern California that doesn't offer plenty of digging tools (sticks, pieces of shell, flat stones) and (unfortunately) trashed containers. The hunt for containers is a neat way re-use a bit of litter (and haul it out with you). Wet sand is best for sculpture. Find some containers that still hold water and fetch seawater in them, so kids can wet the sand where they are (rather than parking their project in the tidal zone where it's not safe). Avoid the word "castle" and kids will use their imaginations to craft dragons, hearts, words, airplanes, and so much more. Feathers, kelp, shells, stones, and driftwood are at hand for decoration.

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