Part of the reason I like living in Barrow County is that we are central to many great locales to take kids. Though we travel in all directions, we venture to Athens the most. A few weeks ago I discovered that a local friend with young children had never been to my four-year-old’s hot spots. Since there may be other families here unfamiliar with the offerings in Athens, I thought I’d tell you about them. The best part is that these have FREE admission everyday! One of our favorite places, which has been a special place for me ever since I moved to Georgia in 1996, is the State Botanical Garden of Georgia. When I was single and living in Athens, I used to walk the five miles of wooded trails there once or twice a week, but now I take my kids and ramble around the beautiful International Garden and the new areas that lead to an outdoor stage and the Day Chapel.

My son loves to look at the flowers, run around the open spaces and stop at the fountains. His favorite part is the Kugel or the world globe. He loves to spin it and splash the water around. According to the Garden’s website, the “Kugel (from the German word for ball) is a perfectly balanced and polished black granite sphere…which fits into a socket (base) carved to the exact curvature of the ball. [It] revolves 360 degrees in all directions and actually floats on a thin film of water. Once started, the ball continues to spin until someone, even a child, stops it....”

The Garden also offers educational programs for adults and children. You can check out their website at http://www.uga.edu/botgarden/.

Our favorite park in Athens is Memorial Park and Bear Hollow Zoo. The park is 72 acres, and my son loves feeding the geese and watching the turtles in the small lake. There’s a nice playground, and I appreciate that most of the park is shaded with trees.

The best part is the free zoo. Bear Hollow is a treasure, and whether or not you have children, you ought to go there for the afternoon and take a walk around the beautiful, wooded area where you’ll find several animals native to Georgia.

My son likes the new black bear cubs, the birds of prey, and alligators, just to name a few. On Sundays from 1-4p.m. the exhibit hall is open to the public and it gives children a chance to do some projects and touch live animals.

I have saved the best for last. At least, my four-year-old thinks it’s the best place because he loves snakes and fish.

The Environment, Natural Science and Appropriate Technology Center or ENSAT Center is off Highway 441 North, not far from the 10 loop. It’s also known as the Sandy Creek Nature Center. It offers a room with some aquariums and cages with live snakes and a gopher turtle.

My favorites in the aquarium are the puffer fish and baby sea turtle. I think my son likes the fresh water aquarium better because it has a snapping turtle, eel and catfish. There are several other small aquariums too.

After we spend some time inside, we like to visit the garden in the back of the building and then walk on the boardwalk through the woods. The boardwalk was created to make nature accessible to physically challenged visitors, and I find that it’s a perfect distance to go with a 4-year-old and 20-month-old. When my boys are bigger, there are miles of trails around Sandy Creek, including Cook’s Trail, which connects the Center with Sandy Creek Park.

Right now there is a lot of construction going on at the Nature Center because they are making it bigger! We can’t wait to see the new exhibits when it’s finished sometime in late 2011. In addition, we love Snake Day. Ever since we went last year, my son has asked me every month when it’s going to be again, so you can bet we’ll be attending this year’s Snake Day on June 4.

To learn more about Memorial Park, the little zoo, or the nature center, go to http://athensclarkecounty.com/ and type in the location’s name in their search box. Parents need a lot of outlets for their young children, so we can’t ignore these wonderful places that are only a thirty-minute drive away.

For a more extensive list on cheap and free places to take kids around Athens, including restaurants, you can check out the blog http://tractorsandtireswings.blogspot.com/. Local homeschool mom, Dawn Chandler, is working on a post on this very topic that will come out in the next week or so.

Shelli Bond Pabis is a Winder resident and columnist for the Barrow Journal. You can reach her at writetospabis@gmail.com.

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