Tag Archives: Santa Barbara

Explore Math, Photography and Observation Skills at your Local Botanic Garden


I like botanic gardens.
With assorted plant species, winding paths, infinite colors, and interesting creatures, botanic gardens can easily meet the expectations of everyone in your family. Gardens can be mysterious places to explore, quiet spaces to reflect and relax, a photographer’s playground, a laboratory for learning and much more.

Here are a few botanic gardens I have visited:

  • San Diego Botanic Garden
    In addition to 2 children’s gardens, there are 37 acres and 4 miles of trails to explore at this Encinitas attraction. For my ideas on visiting the Hamilton Children’s Garden, check out my playgrounds post.

    Balboa Park Botanical Building

  • Balboa Park Botanical Building
    This building is one of the largest lath structures in the world. Together with the Lily Pond that lies directly in front of it, this area is the most photographed in the park.
  • The Huntington
    San Marino, California
    In addition to a library, art galleries and tea room, there are more than a dozen themed gardens spanning 120 acres at The Huntington.
    For more ideas on visiting The Huntington, check out my repetition and playgrounds posts.
  • Santa Barbara Botanic Garden
    This garden is a great place to explore on a hot day, and dogs are permitted too. Ask for a mystery scavenger hunt especially for kids.
  • Lotusland, Santa Barbara
    Exploration of this garden is by tour only, but groups are kept small and families are grouped together to provide the most enjoyable experience.

    Conservatory of Flowers

  • Conservatory of Flowers
    San Francisco
    Located in Golden Gate Park, this iconic piece of architecture is the oldest wood and glass conservatory in North America.


Try This:
1. Grab a camera for macro photography practice. This is a great activity for children and adults alike. Each season offers different subjects, so visit often and compare photos throughout the year.

2. Enhance observation skills with a scavenger hunt or I Spy. How many shades of green can you find? What shapes do you see in the cacti? What is the most unusual plant name you read?

3. Pick up a garden map and have the kids plan the visit. Will you start at the desert or topiary garden? How will you get there? Introduce or reinforce the concept of cardinal directions.

4. Draw a visual representation of your visit. Use a ruler to measure from the entrance of the botanic garden to your first stop of the visit. Hint, if the path isn’t straight, try a string or piece of yarn to measure the distance against a ruler. Record, then measure the distance to the next stop of the visit. Create a scale for the map or write about your visit using these measurements.

5. Explore patterns by designing a dream garden. Create a blueprint for your garden. Instead of a tissue paper Christmas wreath, use those same materials (colored tissue paper, glue, pencil with eraser and paper plate) to create a pattern of tissue paper flowers for your garden. First, cut the tissue paper into various sized squares. Next, wrap and twist one piece of tissue paper around the eraser end of a pencil. Then, dip the flat side into the glue and tap the paper plate where you want to place the tissue paper. Finally, release the paper and remove the pencil. Repeat until the entire plate is covered.

Check out this great blog for 10 children’s books about gardening.

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Art Museums that Incorporate Interactive Exhibitions

I like art museums, especially those with interactive spaces for kids. My previous post introduced 14 ways to engage kids at an art museum, but some museums take on this challenge themselves by providing art trading cards, scavenger hunts, family backpacks, children’s audio tours, or family guides. It is always worth asking museum staff about special resources and activities created specifically for families visiting the museum.

There are a number of art museums that have incorporated entire galleries of interactive experiences for kids and families. Here are interactive art museum spaces I have visited.

  • Dayton Art Institute (Ohio) – Experiencenter
  • Getty Center (Los Angeles, California) – Family Room
  • Mint Museum Uptown (Charlotte, North Carolina) – Lewis Family Gallery
  • Santa Barbara Museum of Art (California) – Children’s Gallery
  • Skirball Cultural Center (Los Angeles, California) – Noah’s Ark

If visiting an art museum is not in your foreseeable future, check out one of these interactive art museum websites for kids.

“It took me four years to paint like Raphael, but a lifetime to paint like a child”
– Pablo Picasso

Playgrounds as Tools to Teach Play

I like playgrounds, a.k.a. magical spaces for children and the young at heart. Playgrounds originated in Germany as tools to teach kids how to play. They build social skills, self-esteem and imaginations! My all time favorite playground feature is the swings, where I would belt out songs in unison to pumping my feet!

In elementary school, my friends and I started a playground tradition of pole competitions. There was a symmetrical play structure with a pole on each side of the unit. During recess, we would assign a judge to determine who gave the most creative performance sliding down the pole. The poles extended a few feet beyond the play structure, which gave us plenty of space to swing around in creative ways.

A few of my favorite playgrounds are listed below. My descriptions will not do them justice, so please Google them for photographs that will make you want to be a kid again!

  • Dennis the Menace Playground at Lake El Estero
    Monterey, California
    This playground includes a sunset bridge, hedge maze, tunnels, a locomotive to explore, and many more unique features designed by a cartoonist.
  • Kids’ World at Alameda Park
    Santa Barbara, California
    The City of Santa Barbara is home to more than 50 parks. I knew I had found the right park when I turned a street corner and saw a castle, need I say more! This 8,000 square foot playground is across the street from Alice Keck Gardens – home to koi, turtles and trumpet shaped flowers!


The next two examples are actually children’s garden playscapes, which are playgrounds that have a natural look and feel of the environment.

  • Children’s Garden at The Huntington
    Los Angeles, California
    This garden incorporates scientific principles for little ones to explore. The Huntington website is a great resource, breaking down the exhibits into the four elements of fire, water, earth and air, with descriptions and a garden map. Don’t forget to check out the adjacent conservatory with hands-on exhibits to help kids learn what makes plants unique.
  • Hamilton Children’s Garden at San Diego Botanic Garden
    San Diego, California
    The Hamilton Children’s Garden is unlike any children’s play area I have ever experienced. Within the garden there are a number of exhibits, such as Incredible Edibles, Spell & Smell Garden, Arts Garden, Garden Rhythms, Toni’s Tree House, a sundial and more. There are so many opportunities for learning, but a child would never know it! The best part is that throughout the season, the landscape may change as different plants come into bloom, thus creating a different experience each time you visit. Don’t miss the Seeds of Wonder Children’s Garden on the other side of the grounds and check out the topiary figures in the Mexican Garden along the way.


Try This:
1.     Favorites Poll: Have your little learner create a poll to find out family and friends’ favorite playground activity. Is it the slide, swings, monkey bars, pole, seesaw or something else entirely? After collecting responses, create a visual representation of the results like a graph or collage.

2.     Obstacle Course: Visit your local playground and create an obstacle course. Who can be the first to swing back and forth 10 times, take giant steps to the monkey bars, swing across the monkey bars, climb the rope ladder, go down the slide and touch the pole? Phew, need a break, sit on the bench and draw an aerial view of the course in a notebook. Create a different course each time you go and add it to your notebook. You can even log course completion times and try to break your records.

3.     Named in your Honor: As the champion of playground obstacle courses, a playground is being designed and named in your honor. Create your own 3-dimensional playground. Use any materials you can think of. Here is a list to get you started.

  • Craft supplies: construction paper, pipe cleaners, yarn, felt, corrugated paper…
  • Organic material (depending on the artwork’s life expectancy): grass, twigs, sand…
  • Other: cereal box, straws, toothpicks, pieces of broken toys, corks, bottle caps…

“All the world’s a playground!”

Book Museums & Book-Making

Create your own monster!

I like books…especially picture books. My childhood favorite was Each Peach Pear Plum because I could recite the rhymes as though I were actually reading the book. As a teacher, one of my favorites was Diary of a Worm by Doreen Cronin. When I taught second grade, my students created their own diaries as an animal of their choice. We started with a group brainstorming session to identify factual characteristics of the animals, such as their habitat and food. The students then incorporated these details into their fictional stories and added illustrations with captions. The results were so creative! I think every picture book has a creative, hands-on way to engage children beyond simply reading. See my ideas below.

Did you know there are picture book museums and exhibitions? I have seen a couple of exhibitions of children’s book art, including Over the Rainbow and Down Rabbit Holes at the Santa Barbara Museum of Art in 2008 and Monsters & Miracles: A Journey through Jewish Picture Books at the Skirball Cultural Center in Los Angeles in 2010. These exhibitions were completely different and both have moved on from these museums, but what I loved about them were the interactive elements. There were audiobooks playing from tall, green hedges, picture book libraries, and hands-on activities like designing book character masks and writing/drawing prompts to inspire your creativity. I even wrote my own library catalog card to file away for other visitors to discover. Plus, I got to create a monster!

Japan has about 20 museums that celebrate picture book art, but the U.S. has a limited number. One is the Eric Carle Museum of Picture Book Art in Massachusetts, which has more artwork than just that of Eric Carle. ImaginOn in North Carolina is a collaboration between the award-winning county library system and the Children’s Theatre of Charlotte with the mission of bringing stories to life. What picture book art exhibitions and museums have you seen?

Try This:
1. Make a Book: As a kid I would staple together pieces of paper to create books.  My favorite kind to make was a tiered, flap booklet where each flap was a little shorter than the next one so that a portion of each page of the book could be seen when closed.  Unfortunately, I cannot find directions or a template on the Internet so here is my attempt.

  • Cut a piece of paper in half lengthwise (hot dog).
  • Fold one of those pieces so that 1 inch of the paper is exposed (half A).
  • Fold the other piece so that 2 inches of the paper is exposed (half B).
  • Line up the seams so that half A is inside of half B and staple at the seam.

2. Rhyme Time: Read Each Peach Pear Plum or another rhyming picture book. Create new rhymes for the story using your homemade booklet. The rhymes can be written on each tier.

3. Write your own Diary of a ___________ [hamster, hawk, lizard, etc]: Start by brainstorming factual characteristics of the animals that can be written into the stories, such as the animal’s habitat and food.

4. Act it out…have each family member choose a favorite character (from different stories) and act out what happens when these characters meet.

5. Create your own book museum!

  • Choose 3-5 favorite books for your exhibit.  (Older kids can try to design their exhibit based on a theme).
  • Visit Amazon.com to find the cover artwork for your books and print them out OR draw them.
  • Glue each little artwork on an index card and write a label for the book.
  • “Hang” these artworks in a shoebox museum. You can even paint the walls first and add benches.

Itinerary: A Day of Dr. Seuss (San Diego)
Background: Theodor Seuss Geisel lived in La Jolla, California atop Mount Soledad. In 1954 he wrote The Cat in the Hat using only 236 words for beginning readers. His illustrations were said to have been inspired by the unique plants of Balboa Park’s cactus and desert gardens.

  • Pack a picnic lunch, a few Dr. Seuss books, a sketch pad (one per child/person) and possibly a camera.
  • Take a stroll through the desert garden or the cactus garden – grab a map from the Visitor Center for directions.
  • Find a comfortable place to picnic and read Dr. Seuss classics.
  • Using the illustrations in the books and your imagination, match the drawings to plants in the gardens.
  • Sketch or photograph the actual plant that may have inspired Dr. Seuss OR let the plants in the garden inspire your own magical shapes and creatures.

Optional Excursion: Drive to the top of Mount Soledad in La Jolla, the site of Dr. Seuss’s home. Do you think he was inspired by these surroundings? Visit Geisel Library at UCSD. Check the exhibits calendar to see if his original artwork will be on view to the public.