Monthly Archives: July 2015

Behind the Scenes: What’s Inside the Interpreter’s Thing Bag?

Thing BagForget raindrops on roses and whiskers on kittens. If you want to connect kids to nature, favorite things might include crayons, clipart and clues. Whether at a camp or a campfire, Thing Bags create learning.

Thing Bags are my favorite interpretive tool. What’s a Thing Bag? It’s a bag. Full of things. Stuff. But this is cool stuff.

A Thing Bag is a collection of objects that represent an aspect of whatever we’re talking about in a park. If we’re talking about owls, our bag may include swim goggles to represent the nictitating membrane of an owl’s eye, a toy tiger to explain owls as tigers of the night, and a slip wrench to depict how an owl’s beak opens wide. We encourage each child at a class to blindly pull something out of the bag and think about how it is similar to what we’re talking about.

Hidden Oaks Nature Center keeps 13 Thing Bags at the ready. We also have additional lists and items that are ready to assemble so that we can create up to 20 interpretive bags. We’ve learned to be flexible with bag contents, and we’ve learned that we can learn along with the kids in a class.

Thing Bags inspire curiosity, anticipation, wonder, and excitement in children, and there are never any wrong answers. A prepared interpreter can spin any answer into an appropriate response. A child may select a neck-tickling party blower from a Frog Thing Bag and then state that a group of frogs is like a noisy birthday party. That works! The interpreter could add that, when blown, the party blower rolls out like a frog’s tongue zipping out to catch a fly. The children may have additional ideas. When pulling out a model T-Rex from a Snake Thing Bag, answers range from “Snakes are scary!” and “Snakes are reptiles,” to “Snakes are carnivores.” Asking everyone to wait for the child whose turn it is to answer first can be a challenge. By inviting each child to have their own turn to speak first, the activity becomes collaborative rather than a test.

During a summer camp on dinosaurs, a Thing Bag can recap an entire Mesozoic era! A Thing Bag can be taken out on a trail. A tip for parents – we often use thing bags as a calming device because they’re instantly popular. Children are willing to join a circle just to see what pops out next as they wait their turn.

Prior to a park program, Thing Bags are great planning tools. Our naturalists like brainstorming items for the bags. Surprisingly, having an actual thing is not critically important. Children love to pull out an envelope and slowly unfold the enwrapped paper containing a graphic. For an earthworm Thing Bag, we use the “No” symbol of a circle with a diagonal line over a cartoon of a hairy leg. Even preschoolers can guess that this means, “No Legs”.

By the time an interpreter has loaded a Thing Bag with clues, the salient points to make about the objects is loaded into memory. Since there is no particular order in which things may be drawn, the program leader needs to be ready with the relevance of the object and ready for different interpretations.

Thing Bag

At Hidden Oaks Nature Center, we have successfully used Thing Bags with children as young as four.   As children get older, at about six, they become worried about sticking their hand in a bag. Maybe it is because we have live snakes in the building! We find that by assuring everyone at the outset that no one will get hurt or surprised by reaching into the bag, we quell trepidations. We take volunteers first. The more gregarious children demonstrate the high success and low worry of plunging into a Thing Bag for the cautious who are risk averse. Typically, every child will join in by the end of the activity, and many beg for a second turn. We’ve seen returning campers cheer at the announcement of Thing Bag Time and proudly describe the process to new campers.

In preparing a Thing Bag, we let creativity run wild! We start with a list of characteristics we wish to review and unleash stream-of-consciousness. Once we start connecting meaning to objects, it is hard to stop. It is just the right thing to connect a visitor to a resource.

Here’s an example — our list of 12 items for a Snake Thing Bag:

  • Toy globe: Snakes live in most of the world, especially warmer climates
  • Fondue fork: Snake have forked tongues, but soft ones
  • Medal of Honor (clipart): Snakes are heroes for eating mice and rats
  • Plastic egg: Snakes typically hatch from eggs, which are not as brittle as chicken eggs
  • Inside-out sock: When snakes shed, the molt is turned inside out
  • T-Rex toy: Snakes are carnivores
  • Lizard toy or picture: Lizards and snakes are both reptiles
  • Baby’s rattle: Timber rattlesnakes. Discuss native species and the difference between neurotoxin and hemotoxin
  • Tuning fork: Snakes sense vibrations. Review senses as experienced by snakes
  • Balloon: Snakes have no breastbone, so ribs expand and the body can expand it eats
  • Small child’s jacket: The jacket would purposely be too small for a class participant. When a snake grows, the skin is too tight and is removed through a shed. Review how the growth of a reptile differs from the growth of a child
  • Sign: Fragile. Snakes’ ribs are thin and, even though surrounded by muscle and skin, can break easily under pressure

These are a few of our favorite things.

Author Suzanne Holland is the Visitor Services Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale.

A version of this story was originally published in the NAI Region 2 publication Chesapeake Chat.

Learn, Play, Discover! Discovery Trail Map 2015!


Discovery Trail MapWe love nothing better than exploring and learning about the great outdoors.

Gwendy Cheek agrees, and her children were the first Fairfax County residents to discover parks on The Discovery Trail this summer.

What’s Discovery Trail? Family adventures in 12 distinct parks. A garden. A farm. An historic mill. A wetlands. Three lakes. A river. Historic houses. Wooded paths. Nature centers.

Green Spring Gardens

Green Spring Gardens

We’ve picked a dozen distinct parks out of the more than 400 sites overseen by the Fairfax County Park Authority, and youth under age 18 who visit eight of them before September will walk away with a pocketful of freebies.

Gwendy is an adventure-loving mom who took her two sons to eight parks in just two weekends. She knows her parks and all they offer, and said among the favorite activities are “the great trails, the nature centers, and the playgrounds for my boys to play on. There were activities for both my sons and I.” She took note of Burke Lake’s many activities, listing the playgrounds, train, carousel, picnic area, boat area and more. Her family enjoys going to parks several times a week because her sons enjoy playing outside, and she gets her exercise. She said Frying Pan is close to their home and has “lots of activities for my young sons. They love the playground, carousel, and animals, and I enjoy the Farmers Market.”

Frying Pan Park

Frying Pan Park

Gwendy learned about Discovery Trail at the Chantilly Library and saw that further exploration of Fairfax County parks would be a great way to get her boys interested in the great outdoors. They headed to Sully Historic Site, Ellanor C. Lawrence Park, Burke Lake, Huntley Meadows, Hidden Oaks Nature Center, Green Spring Gardens, Frying Pan Farm Park and Hidden Pond Nature Center. She timed her Frying Pan visit to the site’s Farmers Market schedule. That means not only did her sons hit the playground, ride the carousel, and pet the animals, but she enjoyed eating fresh produce from the market.

Discovery TrailDiscover Discovery Trail

Just for visiting eight parks this summer, we’ll give youngsters 17 and under a prize package that includes a free round of mini-golf, a carousel ride, a wagon ride, a train ride, a tour boat ride, a boat rental, a pedal boat use, a camping site, and a RECenter visit. All free. In addition, you’ll be entered into a drawing in which we’re giving away three bicycles and helmets courtesy of Spokes, etc. and the Fairfax County Park Foundation.

Here’s how it works.

Drop by a county library, community center, or a staffed Fairfax County Park Authority park and pick up a 2015 Discovery Trail Map. You also can download the map online. Then visit the parks. While you’re there, get a stamp or a stamp code that you will enter on your map. When you visit your eighth park, hand in your map at the park or submit it, with the codes, online. You’ll receive your amusement prize package via U.S mail.

The 12 parks that are part of the Discovery Trail are Green Spring Gardens, Hidden Oaks Nature Center, Hidden Pond Nature Center, Huntley Meadows, Lake Accotink, Lake Fairfax, Burke Lake, Riverbend, Sully Historic Site, Colvin Run Mill, Frying Pan Farm Park, and Ellanor C. Lawrence Park.

Lake Accotink Park

Lake Accotink Park

Twelve parks that will have you saying, “I didn’t know Fairfax County had that!” Yeah, Fairfax County does have that. There’s a reason the Fairfax County Park Authority has been named the nation’s best park agency three times. Great parks.

Make this the summer you discover your parks.