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Playing to Their Strengths

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Quickly now, in this sliver of time between the too-hot-to-move end of summer and the too-busy-to-think holiday hurricane, gather the kids and go play outside.

At a public park, that is. They’re free, nearby and devoid of video arcades. And if you choose a park outside your stamping ground--or where you haven’t sat through 232 soccer games this year--it will feel like a day trip into someone else’s backyard.

It is autumn, and fall in California has its own charms. The leaf thing is a minor show in most local parks, but there’s the light thing, says Eric Jessen, chief of Orange County Harbors, Beaches and Parks.

Jessen just returned from a trip to Italy, where he observed no Italians standing around whining about the lack of amber leaves littering the landscape. They’re too busy enjoying the autumn sunlight--that angled, sharp gold that makes shadows lean and fall gardens glow. We’ve got it here too, Jessen says.

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“The way the sun’s rays are this time of year . . . I could go on and on,” Jessen says.

Granted, kids need more than a Mediterranean-style sunset to make their day. So we visited a few parks with something extra.

They’re little getaways that fit into an afternoon. Some such less crowded parks offer historical insight or a unique geographic feature, so we’ve added a suggested reading list intended to enrich a visit. Titles are courtesy of Lynn Eisenhut, director of Children’s Services for the Orange County Public Library. After all, autumn is also the season of book reports.

LANTERN BAY PARK, Dana Point Harbor, just off Dana Point Harbor Drive.

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Bring kites, in-line skates and picnics to this stunning bluff top. This relatively new park is one of several along the coast created in the 1980s on land that developers gave to the county as part of business agreements.

Only the folks paying top dollar to stay on the top floor of the luxury hotel behind the park have better views--if the kites don’t get in the way. This is a prime spot to launch kites in the late afternoon breeze. Even young kite fans will find easy flying from this wide, grassy bluff.

The park offers a view of the coastline made famous in Richard Henry Dana’s book “Two Years Before the Mast,” plus the Dana Point Harbor and its sailboats.

There’s also a fitness cluster, basketball court and playground. Skaters should be experienced and well-padded to they take on the park’s hilly paths.

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Suggested reading

* “Two Years Before the Mast,” by Richard Henry Dana, abridged and adapted by John M. Hurdy. A simplified version of the book describing life at sea in the 1830s.

* “Catch the Wind: All About Kites,” by Gail Gibbons. Two children who visit Ike’s kite shop learn about kites and how to fly them.

RALPH B. CLARK REGIONAL PARK, 8800 Rosecrans Ave., Buena Park.

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Try to imagine Imperial mammoths, ancient camels and tree sloths lumbering around on land now dominated by softballs fields and a fishing pond. At the heart of this park’s many athletic and picnic facilities is a small but informative museum with displays and collections describing the prehistoric animal life of Orange County.

Thank the freeways for these fossils. Most of the artifacts come from the rich fossil beds in the park, uncovered by Caltrans in the 1950s when it began excavating the area for sand and gravel to build the Santa Ana and Riverside freeways.

The museum is also home to Joaquin, a fossilized whale skeleton unearthed during construction of the San Joaquin Hills Transportation Corridor.

Children can try their luck at fossil hunting during one of the park’s special Family Fossil Days, but any visit is worthwhile. On a recent visit, a friendly ranger grossed out two boys I know with a hunk of pond turtle coprolite. Translation: fossilized turtle poop.

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The interpretive center is closed Mondays, and hours can vary by season. Information: (714) 670-8045. (Bring a current state fishing license if you plan to fish.)

Suggested reading

* “Saber-Toothed Tiger and Other Ice Age Mammals,” by Joanna Cole.

* “Fossils Tell of Long Ago,” by Aliki.

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HUNTINGTON CENTRAL PARK and LIBRARY, 7111 Talbert Ave., Huntington Beach.

It’s big and has enough trees for a small forest, plus walking paths, nature trails, a playground, a cute outdoor restaurant, fountains and a spectacular city library. This, true to its name, is a proper city central park.

It’s not as big as the Big Apple version. Still, children accustomed to playing in the numerous little parks that dot planned communities might like to know there’s more than one way to build a park.

Plenty of grassy room allows for open-ended play. Wide, smooth paths are ideal for bike riders fresh off training wheels. Shipley Nature Center’s trails are open daily; its hours vary according to ranger availability.

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Leave plenty of time for a visit to the library’s large children’s room. Its special design begins at the entrance with a large round aquarium and an arch of bubbling water tubes at the doorway.

A play boat anchored in the middle of the children’s room doubles as a reading nook. School projects decorate the shelves; computers are available, and Internet access can be arranged with parent permission. Best of all, though, is the treehouse feeling created by its second-floor windows, which look out onto the treetops.

In summer, take a change of clothes, and, for $2, children can explore the Adventure Playground. Play in mud, hammer away on a warren of never-ending forts and punt on rafts, a la Tom Sawyer, in a shallow pond.

Suggested reading

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* “The World’s Best Street and Yard Games,” by Glen Vecchione. Instructions for about 100 outdoor action games filled with chases, surprises and good-natured roughhousing for all ages.

* “Nature Crafts for Kids,” by Gwen Diehn. Instructions for 50 craft projects, including kites, kaleidoscopes and clocks, that use leaves, twigs and shells.

HERITAGE HILL HISTORIC PARK, 25151 Serrano Road, Lake Forest.

This quaint park, tucked behind a neighborhood shopping center, is a popular field-trip destination. But it’s always worth a second visit, especially if the most you hear about all those field trips is how the bus smelled or how the lunches got attacked by ants.

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With its four well-restored and furnished buildings, the park feels like another place in time. Each building represents a period of Orange County history, from the days of the grand Spanish ranchos to the beginning of the citrus industry.

The oldest is the Serrano Adobe, built in 1863 by Don Jose Serrano on his 10,688 acre Rancho Canada de los Alisos. The others are the one-room El Toro Grammar School, St. George’s Episcopal Mission, a church built for English settlers and the Craftsman-style Bennett Ranch House, built in 1908 by a citrus rancher.

Excellent free, docent-led tours are given Wednesdays through Sundays at 2 p.m. and at 11 a.m. on Saturdays and Sundays. (949) 855-2028.

Suggested reading

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* “Tilda From Tustin: A Schoolgirl’s Journal, 1892,” by Inez Skrede Pierson. The diary of a young local girl chronicles the activities that made each day important.

* “Games From Long Ago,” by Bobbie Kalman. A look at the games children played in the 19th century, describing rules and play in detail.

HERITAGE PARK, 4601 Walnut Ave., Irvine.

Some playgrounds are too daunting for toddlers. Others are ho-hum city for bigger kids. At the north end of this large community park is a colorful playground that can satisfy those of several ages and climbing abilities.

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The landmark is the water tower slide, so steep even parents clamber up for a ride. A few steps away is a large array of bright red, orange, blue and yellow wooden play equipment imported from Denmark. Kids especially enjoy climbing along the rope chains that link the play structures. Sand-scoopers attached by ropes and pulleys to a small fort spark imaginative play.

Another side of the play area is ideal for toddlers, with little swings, ride-on animals and sand-sifting gadgets built into a playhouse. Older siblings who want a break from the tots can boost their egos on a nearby basketball half-court where the hoop is set at an attainable 8 feet.

The entire complex overlooks a lake, home to many ducks, geese and occasional migratory birds.

Suggested reading

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* “The Real Hole,” by Beverly Cleary. With suggestions from his sister, 4-year-old Jimmy sets out to dig the biggest hole in the world.

* “Have You Seen My Duckling?” by Nancy Tafuri. A mother duck leads her brood around the pond as she searches for one missing duckling.


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