Natural materials gathered on family walks this fall can be the beginning of craft activities lasting long into the winter days ahead. Dried weeds, leaves, nuts, seed pods, grasses, vines, and weathered wood are waiting to be found.
You needn't go far from home. Along sidewalks, roads, and fencerows, around abandoned houses and factories, in vacant lots at the edges of streams, lakes, and near the ocean, are fine places to forage.
Even the youngest members of the family will delight in the shapes, colors, and textures of nature's autumn harvest. So once you've brought your treasures home, let the children provide the creativity, while the adults give a bit of technical assistance when necessary. Here are a few ideas to get you started:
* Window hangings. Arrange leaves and grasses of differing sizes, shapes, and colors between pieces of waxed paper. Press with a warm iron until the wax melts , fusing the two pieces together. To frame the window, cut a rectangle from the center of a piece of construction paper and tape the window beneath.
* Note paper. Press leaves, grasses, and fine weeds between wax paper, as for window hangings. Fold a sheet of construction paper in half and glue the wax sheets to the front. Trim excess wax paper from around the edges. Use colored note paper with matching envelopes for fancier note paper.
Older children can glue flowers, weeds, leaves, or grasses directly onto the note paper and cover with a piece of clear plastic contact paper. This works best if the dried materials have first been laid between sheets of tissue paper or paper towels and pressed between stacks of heavy books for about three weeks or until flat and dry but not brittle.
* Bookmarks. Cut long pieces of narrow grosgrain ribbon. Glue pressed weeds directly onto one end of the ribbon and cover with clear contact paper. Materials ironed between pieces of waxed paper work well, too.
* Pod and seed jewelry. Use a length of fishline or buttonhole twist threaded through a large, sharp-pointed needle to string small pine cones, kernels of corn, acorn caps, squash seeds, and other sturdy materials for a necklace. Seeds are best strung when fresh and pliable. Shorter strings or loops of seeds can be tied to store-bought ear wires making pierced earrings. Use elastic thread for making bracelets.
* Fanciful animals. A flat stone becomes a turtle by glueing on an acorn for a head and four smaller stones for legs. Use a quick-drying, nontoxic glue, such as Aleene's Tacky Glue. Many an imaginary beast can be made from an assortment of stones, small pieces of wood, nuts, and seed pods together with toothpicks, bits of yarn, and cut pieces of cardboard. Detail can be added with felt tip markers.
* Arrangements. Tie sheaves of weeds, grasses, and seed pods together with raffia or ribbon to hang by the mailbox or on the front door. A small paper bag with the top turned down makes a fine ''flower vase.'' Place stones or sand in the bottom of the bag for stability. Arrange materials of differing textures to stick out of the top of the bag. Secure by tying ribbon around the outside of the bag.
* Wreaths. Grape, honeysuckle, or other vines work well. So do long rushes from marsh plants such as cattails. If the materials are very dry, immerse them half an hour in a gallon of warm water containing 4 ounces of glycerine to make them soft and pliable.
Take a long strand of vine or rush and at one end form a circle of desired size. Take the long end and wrap it around and through the circle every four inches or so to secure it.
The wreath is made wider by poking the end of a new piece of vine through it at any point where it will stay secure and wrap as before. Pods, sheaves of grasses, dried flowers, and clusters of berries can be glued or tied to the wreath for decoration.
* Table decorations/party favors. Large pods, such as those of the milkweed plant, make lovely natural containers. Clean out the fluff and fill the pods with nuts or small candies for party favors, or with bits of evergreen and berries for table decorations. They also make fine boats to sail in a pail of water, birdbath, or bathtub.
Two things to remember when foraging for natural materials: Do not pick any plant with dull white or creamy waxlike berries that has colorful leaves in groups of three; it may be poison ivy.
Since an abundance of plant materials can be found in many neglected areas, there's no need to pick in state parks or along any trails where people come to enjoy nature.