In short

Think outside the box for family fun

By August, many parents may be struggling to find ways to keep their children occupied. Author Stacy M. DeBroff offers many ideas in "The Mom Book," new from Simon & Schuster. Here are some of her suggestions.

Announce that your family is going on a spontaneous road trip. Pack everyone in the car and head off to a surprise destination within a few hours of your house. Make guessing where you're going and the anticipation part of the fun.

Visit an art museum or a historical site. Start your visit in the gift shop, and purchase a few post cards with exhibit items, such as mummies or samurai swords. Search for those items throughout the museum and turn the whole visit into an elaborate treasure hunt.

Make a project of finding your favorite local playgrounds, and give your child the job of testing every swing, slide, and jungle gym before getting his expert opinion on the best. Bring a ball, kite, or Frisbee along, and have a picnic.

Head to the nearest trail for a hike, or go on a nature walk in your own neighborhood. Bring a baggie to collect outdoor treasures: leaves, acorns, rocks, flowers, sticks, stones, fallen birds' nests, and take plenty of time to talk about everything you see.

Play balloon tennis with long-handled spatulas.

Fill a shaker with cornstarch and let your toddler sprinkle everything in sight in your backyard for "summer snow." The next rain will wash it away.

Peel the paper off old crayons. Arrange them in a small metal pan and melt them in a 350-degree oven for 15 minutes, or in your microwave in a glass pan. Watch closely and remove them as soon as they melt together. After the rainbow mass cools, cut the wax into long pieces and give your child crazy multicolor crayons with which to draw.

Paint the back of a door, section of a playroom, or part of your child's wall with chalkboard paint for drawing. Let this be the one spot where your child is actually allowed to draw on the wall.

Have your child polish spare pennies with a mixture of salt and vinegar.

Fill a bucket with water and hand your child a paintbrush. Let him "paint" the side of your house, deck, or the driveway.

Birds that make gardeners sing

Birds can be a gardener's secret weapon against numerous insects that devour plants. A garden that provides a welcoming environment for birds will naturally moderate garden pests, according to experts at the National Wildlife Federation.

The key is to create a complete habitat, including food, water, cover, and nesting places. Here are 10 of the most common and helpful bug-fighting birds:

• The house wren ranges throughout the lower 48 states and dines almost exclusively on insects and spiders.

• The purple martin is an aerial feeder that eats a variety of winged insects. It is also drawn to wetland areas.

• Red-eyed vireos are deciduous tree-dwelling birds, and feed mainly on crawling insects, especially caterpillars.

• The chipping sparrow typically eats insects from the ground, shrubs, and trees.

• Downy woodpeckers eat primarily insects, but also like the berries of mountain ash, Virginia creeper, and poison ivy.

• The yellow warbler's diet is mostly caterpillars, but it also likes moths, mosquitoes, and beetles.

• The Eastern bluebird eats insects but is also attracted by elderberry, hackberry, dogwood, and holly.

• The common nighthawk, which is not a true hawk, eats a variety of flying insects.

• The Eastern phoebe depends on insects for a large part of its diet. Provide a nesting platform, a water source, and native hackberry or serviceberry to attract it.

• Colorful Baltimore orioles have a diet of insects, fruit, and nectar.

To learn more about bug-eating birds native to your area and how to create a backyard habitat to accommodate them, visit the National Wildlife Federation website at:

www.nwf.org/backyardwildlifehabitat

Cut down on excess emissions by following these lawn-mowing tips

Emissions from outdoor power equipment can be reduced by as much as half, according to the Professional Lawn Care Association of America and the Partners for Clean Air.

Here are some ways homeowners can reduce emissions from outdoor power equipment:

Fuel tips:

• Fill the fuel tank only three-quarters full, allowing room for expansion without overflowing.

• Use a nonspill gas container to prevent the release of fumes and spills.

• Reduce fuel evaporation by closing the container's vent and keeping it out of direct sunlight.

Tuneup tips:

• Clean or replace the engine's air filter every three months or after 25 hours of use.

• Keep the engine tuned, which can add years to a mower's life and help reduce its emissions up to 50 percent.

• Change the engine oil after 20 to 25 hours of use, and recycle the old oil according to your community's guidelines.

• Keep the mower blade sharp, the underside of the deck clean, and the engine's running time to a minimum.

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