I’d been thinking about hitting the SciFest Family Fun Night at the Saint Louis Science Center tomorrow (Oct. 16), and I’d stashed away a discount coupon to help with admission. Turns out I won’t need it — an anonymous donor has sponsored free admission for everyone!

SciFest’s “Transform Your Reality” turns out to be pretty apt. Its local tie-ins this year include sports teams, farms, pets and restaurants, and the presenters go into the science behind those everyday topics. I like that my kids will think about the physics behind baseball pitches the next time they watch a Cardinals game.

Family Fun Night goes from 5 to 10 p.m. — but of course you can also buy tickets to the two remaining days, Saturday and Sunday, for the presentations and performances. See stlscifest.org for details.

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I love, love, love morel mushrooms. I love them sliced, battered and fried. I love them diced and cooked with mixed vegetables. I love them baked onto savory onion tarts. I love them with a creamy sauce over pasta. And lo and behold, my kids actually kind of dig them too.

Apparently my neighbors think I’m a sucker for paying a gazillion dollars an ounce for them at the Soulard Farmers’ Market when I could just, you know, drive over to Illinois and get them myself.  Yeah, if I knew where to look …

And now someone’s going to tell me. For free. The Spring & Mushroom Festival at Pere Marquette Lodge is Sunday (Apr. 11) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. An actual hunt begins at 12:30 p.m.  Woohoo!  There will be other stuff going on too, like live music and artisan crafts for sale. For details call 618.786.2331.

We spent spring break in Louisville, so I should not have been surprised when M. today noticed a truck that had “Louisville, KY” painted on the side and announced “Maybe it’s hauling bourbon!” Yes, we did tour a fine distillery at Buffalo Trace, all for the edification of the youngsters. Actually, it was pretty informative and they both got a kick out of seeing it, in a boy-and-machinery sort of way.
But now we’re back in town, heading into Easter weekend (already!?!?) and I have to note the beautiful weather — it seems custom-tailored for the opening weekend at the Doris I. Schnuck Children’s Garden at the Missouri Botanical Garden. Today was the actual opening, but festivities continue through Sunday, 9 a.m. to 4 p.m. daily. My pick for “best time to go” is Saturday (Apr. 3) from noon to 3 p.m., when there will be live music from the Ryan Spearman Trio.

As usual, city and county residents receive free admission to the Botanical Garden on Wednesday from 7 a.m. to noon, which saves you a little on admission (but you’d still pay at the Children’s Garden). However, on Saturdays from 9 a.m. to noon, you’ll pay regular admission to the Botanical Garden but get in free at the Children’s Garden.  You’ll have to do the math based on the composition of your group, but if you’re coming with a posse of kids, Saturday mornings are the time.

Unless you have a really good excuse to stay indoors, get out and enjoy the fabulous 50-degree weather predicted for this weekend! Two free options I like are:

  1. The Moolah Shrine Circus Parade along Main Street in St. Charles, Saturday (March 6) at noon. I admit to being a fan of the little cars, but what I really dig are the marching bands, and this parade promises to have some good ones.
  2. The Maple Festival at Pere Marquette Lodge in Grafton, Ill., on Sunday (March 7) from 11 a.m. to 3 p.m. This is a first-time event at this particular location, but we’ve attended the one at Rockwoods Reservation in Wildwood and had a great time.

If nothing else, check your yard for signs of spring (buds on trees, daffodils poking up through the dirt) and have your kids record their findings in a nature journal.  You can buy these with observation suggestions built in, or you can make your own by simply arming your child with a notebook and some crayons or colored pencils and asking him some leading questions.

Doesn’t it feel fabulous outside? The sunshine, the temperature … OK, it’s not quite tropical, but it’s definitely an improvement on what we’ve been experiencing. Last night I was talking with some friends about what we have planned for today. Sledding and hiking were on the list for several families, which played right into my current state of mind. I’ve been reading Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature Deficit Disorder. There’s an updated version out, and if you haven’t read it, do.  I guarantee it will have you bundling up your kids on even the nastiest days for a few minutes outdoors.

In the December issue of the Missouri Department of Conservation magazine, the author of the article titled “Get Out!” has dozens of seasonal tips for outdoor activities. The piece is a fitting introduction to the department’s new kid-centric magazine, Xplor, which launches its first bimonthly issue in February. Click here to sign up for free delivery.

You know, it amazes me each the amount of money Americans will spend to speed up the course of nature. There’s a great Wall Street Journal article online about a new generation of compost bins that takes the time and work out of biodegrading food scraps. And I’m in total agreement that turning a compost pile is a big pain in the hiney. Which is why for several years we’ve been vermicomposting (that is, composting with worms) in the back yard, in a repurposed plastic storage tub with air holes (price: free) supplied with shredded newspapers and red wigglers from Paul’s Bait and Tackle in South City, where we’re proud members of the Worm Club (buy 10 containers, get the 11th free).

Back on the farm where I grew up, my mom would simply bury the fruit and veggie scraps in the garden and let the worms have at it. While I disliked the chore of digging holes for it, especially when the ground got cold and hard, it was an absolutely free way to generate compost with no follow-on work needed.

One trend the article mentions is certain cities’ mandating that residents separate their “bio,” as we call compostable material in my house, as they do their recycling and place it in separate curbside bins. This sounds like rocket science on a municipal level, but when we moved to a German apartment in 1998, the system was well in place, and though it was voluntary, it was socially taboo to use up communal general refuse space with your “bio.”

So while I’m happy about anything that encourages people to compost their own waste — or at least separate it for the city to haul away — I’m a little bemused that some of these units use electricity to make compost. Doesn’t that sort of defeat the “green” purpose?

And now for the moment you’ve all been reading for … yes, Starbucks does indeed offer 5-pound bags of used coffee grounds for free under the tagline “Grounds for Your Garden.”

In the nearly two years I’ve been doing this blog, I’ve noticed that four or five times a year there is one weekend that’s crazy-full of events. Usually they fall early in February, April, June, September and December. Something about seasons changing, I suspect. The coming two days are perhaps the most crazy-full ever, and it’s impossible for me to choose which events to highlight because so many sound so good:

  • The Hispanic Festival is back downtown at Soldiers Memorial Park (closer to me, so I’m happy, but probably the folks in North County feel differently!) with food and crafts and music and activities for the kids.  I like the schedule for the stage — bands are interspersed with dancers and other performers so there’s no time lost to breaks. Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 12-13)
  • Due to a my own crazy-full week, I wasn’t able to promote the Best of Chesterfield as I should have, because the organizers were asking anyone interested in attending the free event in Herman Stemme Office Park to register in advance. So … it runs from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. tomorrow and it’s worth a late-notice effort, because the music lineup is great, and the food samples are only $2 to $7. Proceeds benefit the Howard Park Center, which helps kids with disabilities. Saturday (Sept. 12)
  • Another festival that’s near and dear to my own heart (seeing as how it’s put on by an employer of mine!) is the St. Louis Kids Magazine Health and Education Expo at the St. Peters Rec Plex, a fabulous facility that’s open all day for free classes and activities as part of the Family Fitness Festival and Fun Run. Saturday (Sept. 12)
  • The parade season is winding down, but there’s still one more chance to do your beauty queen wave at passing floats during the Fenton Founder’s Day Parade at 1 p.m. Saturday (Sept. 12)
  • If you want more fire trucks than a parade has to offer, check out the Great Fire Engine Rally at the Arch grounds. The parade is at 10 a.m., but the excitement level rises at 11 a.m. when the firefighter challenge begins. And there are demos throughout the afternoon. Saturday (Sept. 12)
  • Also at the Arch grounds is the annual ParkPalooza. It’s a weekend celebrating all our national parks, and activities are tailored to the locale — in our case, the Jefferson National Expansion Memorial. There are 10 interactive stations about outdoor recreation, Mississippi River culture and history, fitness and nature. Saturday and Sunday (Sept. 12-13)
  • And if NONE of those events float your boat, hope is not lost — there’s also a free outdoor samba concert in Benton Park at 5 p.m. on Saturday (Sept. 12). It looks to be cooler than the last one, so people may not confine themselves to the shade along the basin’s edges — maybe folks will get up front and center by the band, Samba Bom, and dance! There’s food available for purchase from local restaurants as part of the Taste of Benton Park event, which benefits the park itself.

It’s nearing the time of summer when I start to write about events and places that are winding down for the season … but not quite yet! I have one more kick-off announcement first: the World Bird Sanctuary’s Birds In Concert, featuring birds of prey demos and live bands every Thursday in August.

I’ve heard three of the four bands, and I can almost guarantee that kids will love The Raptor Project (environmental folk/rock), Javier Mendoza (funk/flamenco) and Babaloo (children’s music). Based on those acts, I bet the Tyson Valley Ramblers (bluegrass) are top-quality entertainment too. The only downside for my family is that the evening begins at 7 p.m., making for a late night.

Due to the live animal component of these free show, no pets are allowed. For details, call 636.225.4390.

We drive the stretch of northbound I-55 between Loughborough and Arsenal several times a week, and the boys never paid much attention to its excellent view of the Mississippi River until after we toured a towboat in Grafton earlier this month. Now they’re craning their necks and scouting for barges as soon as we hit a break in the trees.

On a towboat in Alton, Ill.

On a towboat in Alton, Ill.

In the city, the best view of the barge traffic can be had at Sister Marie Charles Park, just inside the city’s southern limit, east of Broadway on Elwood Street. Don’t be scared off by the park’s unsavory reputation as an anonymous pickup joint — it has a lovely view and deserves to be frequented by towboat-loving kids, especially during daylight hours.

A mom from the Illinois side of the river told me what a great visit her boys had to the Melvin Price Locks and Dam in Alton, and I’ve been thinking it’d be fun to take mine over there … someday. Thanks to Sunday’s (Aug. 2) Towboat Open House there, we now have an excellent excuse. The event features the Army Corps of Engineers’ largest diesel towboat, the Mississippi, which will be open to the public from 10 a.m. to 3 p.m. (For details, call 618.462.6979.) In addition, the National Great Rivers Museum at the lock and dam is open from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. that day (and every day) with free exhibits on Mississippi River aquatic life, river flow and soil formation, native cultures, river pilots’ training and much more. While you’re there, sign up at the museum desk for free tours of the locks and dams.

You may be surprised, as I was, how immaculate everything is on a towboat. The best part by far is talking to the crew — this will be possible on Sunday too, and don’t be shy about asking questions! It’s a fascinating world out there on the river, and I’m glad our family has finally started to learn about it.

I have a love-hate relationship with our backyard fountain. When I bought it four years ago, it seemed like such a good idea. M. loved to play in it, and I loved the gentle gurgle of the water. We soon realized that birds loved it too. Really loved it. And do you know what? Birds have no compunction about pooping where they drink. Consequently, the fountain soon needed to be cleaned. And that’s where the hate part comes in. It’s a –tch to clean. For a while I tried discouraging the birds with anti-algae tablets, but the guilt was actually worse than the cleaning.

So now I’m trying to look on the bright side. We have a whole lot more birds in our yard than we used to, and I’m trying to figure out what they are so I can teach the kids. Last year we even had hummingbirds, for the first time I can recall (or perhaps for the first time I noticed).

We don’t have a hummingbird feeder because I’m afraid I’ll forget to clean it and inadvertently make them sick. (Why is cleaning always tied somehow to guilt??) But they’re so cool to watch that I’m sort of rethinking that too. I definitely have some questions for the folks at the Hummingbird Festival this Sunday (July 26) at Pere Marquette Lodge in Grafton. The Illinois Audubon Society will be there banding the birds from 1 to 4 p.m., and while they’re at work spectators will have the opportunity to get very close to — perhaps even touch — the tiny creatures. For a small fee, you can sponsor a bird and find out where it is throughout the year, courtesy of the society’s updates.

For details on the festival, call the lodge at 618.786.2331 ext. 338.