BY COLLETTE CAPRARA

FOR THE FREE LANCE-STAR

The estate of Gari Melchers' Home and Studio will serve as "exploration central" for area families this summer.

The folks at Belmont invite children and parents to join them in exploring new elements of the home, the estate's trails--and even their own creative genius.

Throughout the summer, special family tours are offered each day, providing a unique glimpse into the life and times of the Melchers, with free admission for two children with each adult.

"We always try to come up with a different theme for the tours so that if you come every year you'll be seeing and learning different things," said education coordinator Michelle Crow Dolby, who plans the activities.

This year's theme will be "What Is It?" To spark discussion and an interest in the history of the site, a different object from the past is featured in each room and visitors try to determine its use in days gone by.

Featured objects include a fireplace bellows and a mangle board--a wood plank, hand-carved with an intricate design, that was used to emboss linens.

An exploration basket is also provided--young children can select an object or stuffed animal related to the estate to carry throughout the tour.

For example, a small stuffed cow stimulates conversation about the butter churn on display and the two dairy cows the Melcherses owned.

A family-friendly tour of the works of art in the studio has also been developed with placards that explain artists' terms and ask questions as a focus for discussion.

"For children, the tour opens up the concept of then and now," said Dolby. "It helps them to appreciate our past, to see how far we've come, and to realize that we haven't always had iPods."

Exploration of Belmont's treasures continues with a Wildlife Walk through the property's woodland and meadow trails. The hikes, led by volunteers from the local chapter of Virginia Master Naturalists, are offered on the last Sunday of each month throughout the year.

This Sunday's hike will include a number of the estate's paths, including loops through the meadow, along the springs and ice pond, and at the river overlook.

Elaine Benzio Hild, who will be leading the walk, will be pointing out a variety of tree species along the way, including pawpaws, beech, sycamores, and sassafras.

Hikers will also be looking for animal prints--and are likely to spot geese, ducks and blue heron at the river's edge.

"Even the sounds are different when you are in nature," said Hild. "When we walk by the river, we always have a moment of silence when we just stop and listen."

The exploration of one's own creativity will be promoted through two series of art classes, offered for age cohorts ranging from pre-schoolers to adults.

This month's Preschool Palettes will include a story- time reading of "It's Not a Box"--the tale of a bunny whose imagination transforms an everyday object.

Participants will have a chance to decorate their own take-home boxes, making them into objects of their choice.

Art classes for youths, organized by the Virginia Museum of Fine Arts, offer daylong workshops guided by professional artists at a fraction of the typical cost of such sessions.

This Saturday's workshop will feature the creation of silk-screen designs.

Participants can bring multiple articles to decorate, ranging from T-shirts to tote bags.

A class on July 9 will focus on creating mixed media sculptures, incorporating 10 "found objects" that participants bring to the workshop.

Collette Caprara is a local artist and writer.

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