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Playing to Their Strengths

Off the beaten path of most any family is a public park with something extra and unique.


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.

"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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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