When kids 'don't have anything to do,' these books will give them lots of ideas


If your vacation plans involve visiting friends or relatives who have kids, take along a book that can help cure the "I'm bored" summertime blues. Here are a bunch of paperbacks packed with ideas for keeping children busy.

* Joanna Cole and Stephanie Calmenson have teamed up with illustrator Alan Tiegreen to produce some of the best books on old-fashioned ways to have fun, from "Anna Banana: 101 Jump-Rope Rhymes" to "The Eentsy, Weentsy Spider: Fingerplays and Action Rhymes."

Their two newest titles deliver, too. "Crazy Eights and Other Card Games" (Beech Tree Books, $6.95, 76 pages, ages 7 and up) is an excellent primer for would-be card sharks. It begins with the very basics -- what's a face card, how do you shuffle -- and progresses from simple solitaire games and Go Fish to beginning rummy and poker. I was disappointed it didn't provide a refresher course on how to play Hearts, but as usual, the authors provide a list of books for further research.

* "Pin the Tail on the Donkey and Other Party Games" (Mulberry, $6.95, 48 pages, ages 4 and up) is another back-to-basics source for games that have been played for generations. It's good to have on hand for the family reunion. Young cousins who see each other only once a year sometimes need an ice-breaker, such as a quick round of duck, duck, goose or a game of limbo.

As a bonus, the book includes a 16-by-19-inch poster of donkey on thick, glossy paper, complete with 10 tails to cut out.

* The best all-around book for stuff to do is "The Kids' Summer Handbook" by Jane Drake and Ann Love, illustrated by Heather Collins (Ticknor & Fields, $10.95, 208 pages, ages 8 and up).

Chapters are: shoreside, landside, after dark, hiking and camping, rainy days and cottage crafts. Kids can make sand castles to take home from the beach by following the recipe for "sand goop" -- a concoction of sand, cornstarch, alum and water that you heat until it becomes as pliable as Play-Doh.

Many of the projects require adult supervision. Gardeners can learn how to nail together a compost bin. There are loads of build-your-own plans for birdhouses, bird baths and bird feeders, plus a section on tree forts that will fulfill every kid's summer fantasy. A step-by-step guide to starting a campfire without matches will frustrate parents and kids alike, but when you give up and pull out the matchbook, you can find solace by following the recipe for S'mores.

* Outdoors types will also enjoy "Pet Bugs: A Kid's Guide to Catching & Keeping Touchable Insects" by Sally Kneidel, illustrated by Mauro Magellan (John Wiley & Sons, $10.95, 117 pages, ages 8-12).

Ms. Kneidel, an elementary school science teacher, provides fascinating information on everything from sowbugs and daddy longlegs to fruit flies and monarch butterflies. After you've caught an insect, the "what they act like" section suggests ways to observe what it does best. Turn a jar of fruit flies upside down, for instance, to see how they instinctively climb to the new top, away from the pull of gravity.

Budding entomologists will appreciate the glossary and index.

* Summertime scientists can dabble in astronomy, physics, biology and chemistry with "Janice VanCleave's 201 Awesome, Magical, Bizarre & Incredible Experiments" (John Wiley & Sons, $12.95, 118 pages, ages 8-12).

Some are quite simple -- blowing into a brown lunch bag and then popping it, to simulate how energetic waves of air produce thunder. Others are more complex, although most ingredients can be found around the house.

Two of my favorites involve raw eggs. First, you put the egg in a jar of vinegar and 72 hours later, the shell is gone and the egg is bloated inside its membrane. Then you take the naked egg and float it in corn syrup for 72 hours. It shrinks. The easy-to-follow explanation of osmosis and the semi-permeability of cell membranes makes perfect sense.

* Children with a literary slant can sit around and compose poetry and prose all summer. But if they need a break, they can enter their work in the National Library of North America Open Poetry Contest or the Morgan Horse Essay and Poetry Contest. They are two of the more than 100 contests in "All the Best Contests for Kids #4" by Joan Bergstrom and Craig Bergstrom (Ten Speed Press, $7.95, 280 pages, ages 6-12).

In addition to contests for photography, math and writing (there's a whole chapter on how to get published), this book includes listings for stuff such as the Odor-Eaters International Rotten Sneaker Contest, the National Model Airplane Championships, the McCall's Sew 'N Show Contest and the Elvis Art Exhibit and Contest (you've got to go to Graceland for that one).

If you don't have a hobby already, you might be inspired to acquire one after reading about some of the prizes offered by competitions.

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