Category Archives: Outdoor Fun

Dog Mountain–St. Johnsbury, VT

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Remember when we talked about Dogtown, the local place that sounds like a dog park, but isn’t really a dog park–the name has historical origins–but so many dog lovers are drawn in by the name that in some ways it might as well be?

This shows part of the gorgeous mountaintop view.  The view of Moxie isn't so bad, either ;)

This shows part of the gorgeous mountaintop view. The view of Moxie isn’t so bad, either ;)

Well, Dog Mountain, in St. Johnsbury, Vermont, has an equally convoluted description.  It DOES define itself as a dog park.  But it has so much more to offer, from miles of hiking trails, to an art gallery and shop, a chapel, and multiple local festivals–so much so that dozens of non-dog owners visit every year as well, and everyone is equally welcome.

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Folk artist Stephen Huneck (raised in Sudbury, MA) and his wife Gwen were inspired to open the place on their Vermont property in the mid-90s.  The chapel was an integral part of the original idea.  Everyone is welcome to leave a memorial note for their pets, and it is wallpapered in them.  Even the most stoic will find it difficult to leave with dry eyes.  Sadly, the memorial has wider implications now, because after a lifetime struggle with physical and mental illness, Huneck took his own life in 2010 and his wife later followed.  But they’ve left a beautiful legacy, and and supporters claim to want to keep it open and free, and donations (either direct or through the online store) and volunteers are always welcome.

Up the hill...

Up the hill…

...and down.

…and down.

Last week we were on Craig’s family’s annual camping trip and decided to check it out.  The entire property is off leash if you desire, and dogs are allowed in the buildings as well.  Huneck’s sculptures adorn the property, the area is full of wildflowers, and there seem to be water bowls set around.  There is a doggie play structure and a pond where swimming is welcome–if you have four legs.

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The St. Johnsbury area is pretty kid-friendly otherwise, as well.  There is a lot of stuff to do mentioned in our more general write up from last year.  In that article, I neglected to mention it is also near the home base for Circus Smirkus.  Although you don’t have to go to Vermont to see them; they are in Waltham next weekend!

Moxie on the porch of the gallery and shop.

Moxie on the porch of the gallery and shop.

Despite the bittersweet history, this is a happy, peaceful place where community and common interests come together.  We love traveling New England and finding places where art, nature, play, and kid-friendly stuff come together and Dog Mountain is a great one.

 

 

 

 

Wolf Hollow–Ipswich, MA

“What do you think is in this bucket?” asked Z Soffron, Assistant Director of Wolf Hollow, as he emerged through the pack with a large orange pail.  “Raw meat?”

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He dumped it on the ground and we saw large red dripping chunks, which the wolves excitedly started lapping at.  Nope, it was homemade apple and watermelon “popsicles” (just fruit pieces frozen in water, an appropriate summer snack for your canines, as well).

While verbally reminding us that they are wild keystone predators, by serving what is basically a healthy version of the snowcones featured at the festival’s entrance, they made these creatures  instantly relatable as well.

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And that seems to be the point of Wolf Hollow’s Free Family Fun Fest.  Wolf Hollow is a non-profit wolf education center, and an affordable day trip any season ($7.50 adults, $5.00 children and seniors).  But once a year they open their gates for free so newcomers can check out what there is to learn, and old fans and new friends can enjoy the celebratory atmosphere.

It was very crowded–not overly so or in a bad way–but one could see how taking in these fascinating animals in their multi-acre sanctuary like atmosphere would take on a whole different tone on a quieter day, and I’m sure many first-time visitors (like us!) are now eager to have that experience as well.

But the Family Fun Festival is a good way to do it once a  year, too.  The usual hour long presentation was cut in half.  While it was well done and made me curious about what else there is to learn, the shorter time is great for the younger children.  As were the games and activities, including a coloring contest, puppet making, tye-dying, Pin the Nose on the Wolf, and more.  There were food and drink vendors, and if you saw the post I made on the Facebook feed, the free Ipswich Ale Brewery samples for the adults did not disappoint!  I recommend the summer ale!

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The rest of the year they have hour presentations on weekend days (going down to Sundays only during the thick of winter) at 1:30pm.  They are occasionally cancelled due to bad weather or special events so it is good to call first.  Groups of 20 or larger, like school field trips or camp groups, can schedule presentations by appointment on weekdays.

Wolf Hollow supports its wolves and their habitat through their modest admission fees, gift shop sales, private donations, special fundraisers, and their Adopt a Wolf program so if you go and enjoy it, support them!

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When I ask a small child what their favorite animal is, I find I often get one of several answers: dinosaurs (a lot to learn but sadly extinct), unicorns (imaginary, but many great creative myths) or wolves.  With the latter, you’re in luck.  Two local non-profits aim to feature them and educate us about them.  There are the Mexican Grey Wolves at Stone Zoo and the the British Colombian Timber Wolves at Wolf Hollow.  We’ve got easy access to these popular but occasionally misunderstood animals, so take advantage of it!

 

Danvers-Wenham SwampWalk

“Hey, mommy!  We’re bringing you to the swamp today!”

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Some mothers might hear those words Mother’s Day morning and wonder if the kids were exacting revenge for having been subjected to that celery-parsnip soup last week:  “You want green sludge! We’ll show you green sludge!” At the very least they might wonder if they are allowing one too many screenings of The Princess Bride.

Yeah, I essentially got to view a skunk cabbage bouquet for Mother's Day--but liked it!

Yeah, I essentially got to view a skunk cabbage bouquet for Mother’s Day–but liked it!

But no, my kids know they have a nature geek mommy and that I’d be genuinely pleased and excited to hear those words as part of their Mother’s Day plans for me.

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We’d been wanting to check out the Danvers-Wenham SwampWalk for a while, so we met up there with some friends, who had originally recommended it: Daryl, Emmaline and Gideon.  Sadly their mom Meghan had to miss it due to her obligations as an emergency services pediatrician.  I figured she could rescue the kids who were already sick, while we’d work on her kids’ base immunity by smearing them around in some dirt.

The swampwalk is a loop off the Danvers Rail Trail, and a great place to see some of our local wetland plants and animals.  If you do decide to tour it as part of your bike trip, you’ve got to park the bike at the entrance to the boardwalk section, but they’ve got bike racks set up there.  It’s also accessible by foot, just a short ways in from a parking area.  It’s dog-friendly (on leash, of course), so we brought Moxie and our friends’ dog Scout.

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At about a mile and a quarter, it is a relatively short doable walk for kids, and our 2-year-olds walked the whole thing without struggle. That said, much of it is an elevated boardwalk, so gauge whether you think your little one will be careful when it comes to staying on it when you are deciding between babywearing and toddling.  Because the water is shallow and we’re not in alligator country, risks are probably more  unintended mucky mudbath related than immediate danger related, but you might want to read up on some safety practices first anyway.

Okay, okay, so they did get rests and shoulder rides near the end…

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There are several beaver lodges along the walk, and the 4-year-olds thought they spotted one bobbing along but it was too far away to get a definitive sighting.

We saw probably about a dozen common brown water snakes, both on land and swimming, so if you’ve got ophidiophobia, you might want to sit this one out.  I love snakes, but would not want to go on a goose-ridden hike, so I understand.  They greatly interested the kids, and thankfully did not interest the dogs one bit.  They get quite large and thick; we saw ones at least three feet, and they can get to nearly twice that.  They are non-venemous and avoid you when crossing paths, but are quick to bite when handled, so be cautious that way.

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Check out the big guy in front of that large tuft. Sometimes we look for letter shapes in nature. It’s easy to spot Ys, but Ss can be a bit tougher. This friend helped us with that! Thanks!

It was a gorgeous sunny day, so we were a bit surprised we didn’t see any turtles out basking.  The pre-schoolers are both little chatterboxes, which is sometimes not conducive to spotting wildlife, but is thankfully very conducive to engaging them deeply and educationally on wildlife when we do see it, so it evens out.  But apparently turtles don’t have great hearing, especially when it comes to high pitched noises like 4-year-old voices, so it was probably just co-incidence.  We also didn’t see (or feel) excessive bugs, surprisingly, but we put on our repellant and sunscreen ahead of time just to be safe.

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We DID see a wide variety of birds, and you bird watchers among us will lament that we are not great at identifying them.  I’ll have to be sure to bring along my trusty Audubon Guide to New England next time.

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We were excited to get another great local outdoor destination off our bucket lists. Any requests for a future write-up?

 

 

Sap in Making-Do Collector

Drink your Trees – making maple syrup

I won a maple syrup making kit at a charity auction. AND GOT VERY EXCITED. I had never made maple syrup before, so I was super glad the kit came with these three books (pics link to amazon.com).

The kit I got came with a metal spile, a hook, and an aluminum bucket and lid – like this kit on amazon.com :Maple Sugaring / Syrup Tapping Starter Kit with Metal Buckets. The only other thing you need is a drill to make a hole in the tree. 7/16th drill bits are a bit hard to find, but that’s what the old fashioned metal spiles need.


(Aside: there are lots of different spiles, taps, lines, and collection vessels available on Amazon.com. For two spiles we used sand buckets, for one a plastic drinking jug – just need something to catch the sap)

I used my cordless power drill to drill into the bark. You’re supposed to do it between a big root and the first big branch, because that’s where the sap will flow the strongest. I kinda just drilled in where it was convenient to stand. The hole is supposed to be 1-2 inches and angled slightly upwards. I think I got that more or less.

I cleaned to drill dust out of the hole and was pretty much amazed that sap started leaking out immediately. I guess I got there just at the right time. Stuck the hook over the spile and hammered the whole thing into the hole. Attached the bucket and lid, and then waited.

The sap flowed at different rates over the next few days. A couple of days it filled the whole 2 gallon bucket, on others 1/4 or 1/2 a gallon. The sap flow is super dependent on the air temperature. For the sap to flow well, it needs freezing temperatures at night, and about 40 deg F during the day. There seems to be some wiggle room. I just checked the bucket a couple of times a day (mostly because I was curious about what was going on).

Turning Sap into Syrup

So maple sap only has a slight sweet taste (that’s me drinking it straight from the pot). It looks and tastes like water otherwise. If you collect it in the morning and some of the sap has frozen, that is the BEST! The ice is mostly water, the sweet part gets concentrated in the part that hasn’t frozen.

Then I filtered all the sap through a cheese cloth into a giant pot and boiled it. A lot. It’s a huge reduction and quite steamy.  I’m trying to work out how to do it in the crockpot, so I don’t have the gas stove going so much.

The books say to reduce the sap until it looks like syrup – light brown-ish, slightly sticky. And if you want to get precise, you can use a thermometer and hygrometer. I have a candy thermometer so I used that to heat the syrup to about 215degF. I also took some of it higher to make maple candy – mixed success there, though all was delicious (just some was too soft, and some too hard).

I then poured the boiling hot syrup into clean mason jars and sealed them up. They seem sterile and nothing has grown in the first batch, which has been at room temperature for over a week.

Things I learned: sap is yummy, and there is a lot of it. Maple syrup is much yummier but more precious that platinum. You just need a way to make a hole in a tree and a way to catch the copious amounts of sap.

And here are some photos of me making maple syrup:

Outside

I want Alex and Jen to WANT to go outside. I’ve taken them to hikes with Babes in the Woods (Friends of the Fells), classes at Mass Audubon Ipswich and at Drumlin Farm. I take them for walks, kayaking, and to plenty of playgrounds. Each has been fun and mostly rewarding, but depending on the day, each activity meets with some resistance: too cold; too hot; don’t feel like walking.  But then…

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BoatCampLogoThen I enrolled Alex and Jen in Forest Kindergarten at Boat Camp Nature School. I have never seen my children so happy and at peace with the universe. When I pick them up after 3 hours in the forest, they are happy, calm, and dirty. And full of stories of pirate ships, and chipmunks, and poison ivy, and Ducky Debbie. The other teacher, Andrew, doesn’t seem to have a camp name yet.

The Forest Kindergarten is for children 4-6 years old and the entire three hour session is spent outdoors at a property they own with a diverse scenery. You sign up for the school-year, though they (weirdly) have a couple of spots left in Forest Kindergarten.

Outdoor classrooms naturally create endless learning opportunities for our children to nurture their own curiosity, perhaps by following animal tracks and sign, making wild crafts with leaves and treasures found on the forest floor, or using fallen logs as balance beams. Adult mentors assist in the learning, rather than lead the teachings. This is different from a “nature preschool,” which infuses lessons with nature-inspired themes and balances indoor time with outdoor time, as we will be outside the ENTIRE time in all but extreme weather conditions. Proper dress and an adventurous, curious spirit is essential… and we know that’s what kids do best!

Each day we’ll embrace the weather, the forest, and our friends with songs and greetings of thanks. Then we will embark on our time together with natural hands-on learning, storytelling, and exploring the world around us. This is a great opportunity for children to spend quality kid-time enjoying freedom outside and connecting with our natural world, their own self and each other.

The rather lovely people at Boat Camp don’t know I’m writing this post. But, since they do such a great job at providing the most wonderful outdoor experience for my 4 and 5 year olds, I thought they deserved a gigantic public thanks. Also, the several hundred followers of this blog seem to be fairly outdoorsy and might want to check out the classes and summer-camps they offer. :-)

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I won’t re-hash all the arguments for why children should spend time outside. Many people write blogs and books on the topic.  If you think your child would like to spend some super quality time outside, check out Boat Camp Nature School. And if you are keen to find out more, grab a copy of Last Child in the Woods.

 

Reading MA Recreation

We live in Stoneham, MA, which abuts Reading and it turns out Reading has a very active recreation department and a bunch of great activities and playgrounds. Woot! Stoneham doesn’t have a Rec Department (sob :’-( ), but please post in comments if your town has one and where to find their events and resources.

This from Jenna Fiorente, the Reading Recreation Program Coordinator

Dear Playground Hunt Families,

Reading Recreation is a self-supporting Division of the Department of Public Works. The mission of Reading Recreation is to provide the community with year round recreational activities. The Division believes programs should be broad based to meet the recreational needs of all segments of the population.

We have several programs, workshops, and free events throughout the year. For the little ones, we have just started Super Soccer Stars and Babies & Books. We hope to grow our toddler programs based on feedback from our parents.

We have several parks and playgrounds here in Reading as well. For information on all of our programs, events, and facilities, please check out our website at www.readingrec.com . Please also feel free to call us at 781-942-9075.

 

Reading Recreation Department Links:

 

Playground Hunt Treasure Hunt

Printable Fall Treasure Hunt

Someone requested a fall treasure hunt (after some prodding on Facebook). So here it is: my first printable treasure hunt for roughly 3 to 5 year old preschoolers for FALL STROLLS. Please let me know what you think and what other kind of treasure hunt I could make. They take a couple of hours to get pictures, resize, make look pretty, etc. So I don’t want to make them just willy-nilly. FallTreasureHunt - links to pdf file

Enjoy! And let me know what you think – and join us on Facebook if you haven’t already – thanks!

FallTreasureHunt FallTreasureHunt - links to pdf file

Explorer Kit Give-Away

I’ve been playing with the Explorer Kit, and thought you might like to as well. Enter the raffle below and spread the word – you even get 5 entries for signing up to help on our Build Day on August 24 to rebuild A.P. Rounds Playground.

Explorer Kit

 

This is a big kit filled with a bug hotel, magnifying glass, books, ball, flying disc, playing cards, bubbles, crayons, sand shovel, glowsticks, and carrying bag.

a Rafflecopter giveaway

Log bridge crossing

Camping in Maine

We (Alex, Jen, Mama Angelika, and Bella the dog) went for a 7 day camping trip to Maine. This post is a cross between telling the stories, writing down the suggestions for making it work as a resource, and memos to myself for what to do different for the next time.

Driving

Google said it would take just under 4 hours to get from our house to the campground. It took 5 1/2 with pee stop, snack stop, pee stop, ice-cream stop, pee stop. That’s a long time for two active kids to sit, so I had prepped heavily with a lap table, picture books, coloring books, treasure hunt, and audio books.

The car tables I got were the Star Kids Snack and Play Travel Tray - which just sits on their lap and buckles around the back of the car seat. I loaded up the pockets on either side with drink bottle, snacks, crayons, and small coloring book.

The audio books I had with me were Bad Jelly The WitchandMagic Tree House Collection: Books 1-8on CD on loan from the Library. Alex in particular was very interested by the Tree House books and listened to the whole lot over the week.

Hint: I also found lots of audio books that could be borrowed for 2 weeks through the online loan system that lets you download files to your media player.

The drive went really quite well. The trickiest part was getting everyone to agree they had everything packed. Bella the dog had the front passenger seat and tried to lie down – often pushing the gear stick from D to N. I initiated a pit-stop every time they got restless, which is a change from other travels where I tried to make it to a certain place before stopping. Here I just figured that the main goal was to keep everyone happy – even if it took us an hour longer.

Campground

Several friends had recommended Searsport Shores Ocean Campground as a child-friendly, fun place to take young children. The more I read on their website, the more excited I got – they were writing about their goats, organic gardens, resident artists, and activities on the beach.

Wobbly bridges at the playground

Wobbly bridges at the playground

And it was even better than I had hoped for. There was a huge playground they had built themselves, and which was therefore interesting. There was a really nice play room with a cozy book corner (if you can call that many shelves a corner) with good books, a fireplace, and a shop for ice-cream (and various fiber arts and camping supplies).

The bathrooms were spotless, there were free hot showers, and even a handicapped stall, which is good for wrestling kids into the shower. There are also lots of washing machines and dryers. Turns out this is very useful if your theoretically potty-trained 3 year old has an accident and pees in her sleeping bag. Sigh.

The campground also has lots of gardens full of interesting plants for eating and dyeing. There are lots of sculptures, wood carvings, and little treasures to discover in the forests. And an amazing art studio occupied by a rotating cast of artists-in-residence.

Campsite

I chose a campsite where we could also park. The campground has sites where you have to walk a couple of hundred feet from car to campsite, but this seemed like a lot of hassle with little kids. Our campsite was shaded and all round really lovely. It had several trees where we built Fairy Houses, a fire pit (wood for sale at office), and a water faucet 10 yards away. The toilets ended up being a little bit too far for us. Next time we’ll get a closer site, and with electricity so I can recharge my phone.

Good things I brought for the campsite:

  • potty – even though both Alex and Jen are totally potty trained, sometimes we still get the “I have to go potty NOOOOWWWWWW!” and then it was good to have only a couple of feet to go. I have the Kalencom 2-in-1 Potette Plus, Blue with disposable inserts.
  • 10 different flashlights – variety is the spice of life here, apparently
  • 100 glow sticks – each kid got 4-6 glow sticks each night as a night light
  • wet wipes for when the kids refused to get washed in the shower
  • bikes – Alex tore up the campground riding back and forth and we managed to get to places (bathroom) without spending 30 minutes trying to drag dragging feet.

Arts

Turns out the Searsport Shores Ocean Campground has artists that stay there for a whole week and provide activities for the whole family in the custom Studio.

Check out the schedule for this year:

Week of: Artist in Residence Activities
June 23-29 Tom Cote Wood carving and whittling
June 30-July 6 TBA Ocean learning adventures
July 7-13 Barbara Andrus Weaving a Shorefront structure from twigs and driftwood
July 14-20 Blake Henderickson Wood Block Buffet
July 21-27 Susan Tobey White & Jeannie Painting, drawing and seeing
July 28- Aug 3 Ellen Mason Playing with Dyes and Yarn and Fabric
Aug 4-10 Steven Scheurer Chain Maille, Macramé & Caricatures
Aug 11-17 Maryly Mathewman Seaside Quilting and Color play for all ages
Aug 18-24 TBA
Aug 25-31 TBA
September 1-8 Fiber College 4 days of amazing fiber classes, demos, vendors and happiness

Pretty awesome!!!

Dyeing with EllenWe got there halfway through Ellen Mason‘s week, but she had us promptly dyeing, stitching, cutting, etc, although she also does a lot of knitting and designs patterns. She was super fun and engaging and both kids looked forward to going back to the studio – sometimes we went twice a day :-)

Next artist-in-residence was Steven Scheurer, a.k.a. Santa. He looks like Santa, and does a lot of volunteer work and charity stuff as Santa, and as an all-round nice guy taught us how to make survival bracelets and chain mail. This was a bit above Alex and Jen, but I (and all the older kids) had a great time making bracelets and dog collars.

Beach

The campground has it’s own private beach, and they ran several activities during our time there: seining – catching little fish with a net for the kids to look at and crab hunting  (for an invasive species) were the ones we made it to. They put a lot of emphasis on conservation and the ecology of the beach and made it fun and education for all.

Tide pools

Tide pools

It’s a rocky beach with a pretty big tide difference. That meant that at low tide we could find lots of different shells, look at the rock pools, wade around looking for green crabs, and chase the occasional little fish in clear cold water. It’s not a sandy swimming beach and Alex and Jen asked for one of those a couple of times before they got used to the rocks and being interested in the animals there.

Another blog post will follow about what the camping experience meant to us personally, but meanwhile here are some pictures:

Figment Boston 2013

Do you want to mix your outside time up with some art and culture? Art museums are fantastic, but are they sometimes too hands-off and enclosed? Is, um, er, Burning Man too far away, pricey, and not quite kid-friendly enough?

Check out the Figment Project!  It’s a yearly FREE art festival on the Rose Kennedy Greenway and the whole point is for artists to come up with art projects and installations that are participatory and interactive.  Wonderful for kids, but many adults go on their own every year.  It’s affordable and kid-friendly, but the art is serious enough to satisfy adults.

Figment is in nine international cities around the world so far and we were actually introduced by our friend Ashley who lives just outside New York City.   New York hosts theirs on another great urban green space, Governor’s Island.  So check dates if you’ll be state hopping or globetrotting, but it is a regular annual event, so you can just watch for Figment Boston 2014.  Better yet, volunteer or, if you’re an artist, submit an idea.  (The link is actually for last year’s, but I’m assuming they’ll be reopening it there in late winter, as usual, so start brainstorming already!)

But, ironically, it had never worked out timing wise (what with summer so full of travel and barbecues and whatever else) to make it to the one in our very own city.  Well, this year it lined up perfectly, and we’re glad it did.  We had a great time.

Here’s Bridget enjoying the Hedgecone ring toss!  She made a ringer, and won a lollipop from inside one of the safety cones.

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Fiona’s vocabulary is still burgeoning.  But, charmingly, one of her favorite words is love.  She and Craig are a bit squirmy so it was hard to line ourselves up correctly in the thought bubble booth, but we thought this was appropriate:

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Bridget made me a crown we later hung from the Sustainabilitree (made completely from found objects) behind me:

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Some of the projects were edgy and some of them were sweet, and some, like the armpit-smelling booth called Bring a Pheromone and this farting dog sculpture called Amelia’s Angry Stomach involved enough bodily function humor to make grandma tut-tut.  But going with kids of a certain age and phase?  There’s a market for that!

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Bridget’s favorite was Lend Me a Sound.  We don’t have any photos of the booth because it was basically just a woman sitting at a computer, but she’d take sound samples from passers-by and make songs out of them.  Bridget’s squeaky “hello!”, her duck noise (in honor of Fiona’s favorite animal) and her pretty trill went quite nicely with the other participant’s meows, yodels, and twangs.

Fiona’s favorite was String Theory.  Relatively simple in concept (unlike the theoretical physics string theory) it was basically just hundreds of yellow strings suspended from a frame in a 28′ wide circle, increasing in density and length near the middle.  It was indeed fun to run through (Imagine running through a hundred beaded door curtains from the 70s in a row!  And odd but accurate description.)  and it was quite gorgeous.  IMG_9132

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And finally, the girls hula hooping with the Boston Hoop Troop in front of the famous Os Gemeos mural in Dewey Square:

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We hope you enjoyed us sharing our day.   Our favorite part of Figment, which also has a Facebook page?  Just like Outside the Box, last week’s brand new and highly acclaimed new arts festival on the Common, Figment Boston is  incredibly creative community use of park space!  Inspired?  Come help us finish rebuilding Rounds Playground and park space in Stoneham August 24th.  See if we can pretty it up even more and attract some fun cultural events there.  See you there!

Sign up here!

http://www.slyreply.com/app/sheets/4jie8nj1h0gt/

Thank you!