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Almost Like Recess

Thanks to a wide range of activities offered during spring break, it's possible to keep the kids entertained--and have them learn a few things at the same time.


One thousand butterflies will be released in an instant and, with luck, thousands of grunion will run at the right late-night moment. Hundreds of bubbles will pop as countless baseballs pop up. Dozens of sleeping bags will be unfurled in darkness near wild animals living and long dead.

It all takes place in the name of science during the last two weeks of April, when local institutions have planned a variety of educational opportunities to help fill spring break. With vacation looming, the kids anticipate their brief taste of freedom while parents may dread a stretch of time that cries out for a battle plan that will keep the kids' brain cells working.

"A lot of the things we do at our sleepovers are fun and educational so the kids don't feel like they are in school. They are with their parents, learning informally, learning together," says Mary Baerg, youth and family programs curator for the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles, which will stage a "Butterfly Dreams Sleepover" among the animal exhibits. (One highlight: a flashlight tour of the insect zoo.)

"The big buzzwords are 'informal science education,' " Baerg says. "Nontraditional learning helps kids make a deeper connection to what they are studying in the classroom. Instead of just reading about it, they can touch the tooth of a [Tyrannosaurus rex] or see that they are only knee-high to an apatosaurus."

For spring break, museums have dressed up the learning experience as daylong or overnight adventures, staging butterfly and bubble festivals or offering a class that examines the physics of playing baseball, complete with a trip to a Dodgers game. A zoo camp-out provides a window into a seldom seen--or heard--animal world, as does a grunion run at Cabrillo Beach.

"It's a real 'wow' thing," says Larry Fukuhara, of the Cabrillo Marine Aquarium in San Pedro, commenting on people's reaction to seeing the grunion sail onto the beach to spawn. "It's one of those wonders of the world, and it happens in our own backyard."

There's no shortage of ways to insert a little wonder, and a lot of stealth learning, into spring break. (See accompanying list for registration details and other venues with spring break programs.)

Kidspace Museum Butterfly Festival

Caterpillars that are adopted as part of the sixth annual Eco-Arts Butterfly Festival will emerge from their cocoons in style in "butterfly bungalows" in honor of the architecture that surrounds Pasadena's Kidspace Museum.

At butterfly adoption days from April 14 to 16, the public is invited to build the bungalows that the future painted lady butterflies will live in before their mass release April 29. Children are provided with information on how to care for the insects and what to do for the butterflies as they emerge from their cocoons. With luck, they'll pop out at the right moment.

"The kids get these caterpillars in time to see them go through their life cycle. If they emerge before the festival, we encourage their release, but we try to get them from the company at just the right time," says Roy Mueller, director of education for Kidspace Museum. (The caterpillars are donated by a Shafter, Calif., butterfly supply business.)

The other centerpiece of the April 29 festival, which runs from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., is a butterfly school set up in a tent on a field. Children can "earn their wings" by engaging in science, art and music activities. During "recess," they can play games that show how insects communicate. For instance, in the bee dance game, kids will learn to wiggle their behinds in imitation of bees signaling how far away a food source is.

At 1 p.m. on the day of the festival, 1,000 butterflies will be released.

"It's truly a magical event because they don't all fly off en mass quickly," Mueller says. "They kind of flutter here and there. A cry goes out, then it's very hushed. It's a quiet celebration even though there may be 1,000 people here. For a moment, it sounds like one person."

California Science Center Baseball Physics

Looking for a way to tie science to a classic parent-child interaction, the California Science Center turned to baseball.

"Most children can remember the first time they went fishing or to their first ballgame, so we decided to focus on the physics of baseball," says David Combs, deputy director of education for the center in Exposition Park. (The science of fishing had already been dissected for a Father's Day class.)

A high school physics teacher and coach will teach a class called "Take Me Out to the Ballgame!" that culminates at a Dodgers game against the Cincinnati Reds.

The physics of baseball--trajectories, flight or why balls curve--will be explored through hands-on activities and experiments at the all-day April 16 class that begins at 9 a.m. at the center. Students should be at least 8, and anyone under 18 must attend with an adult. At 1:15 p.m., the science of sport will come to life at the Dodgers game, to which students will travel by bus.

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