Sharing My Love of Nature with Preschoolers in Morocco

Fairfax County Park Authority naturalists share their love and knowledge of nature with thousands of local children each year. In the summer of 2017, one of them took that love overseas. Here’s her story:

Morocco 1Over this past summer, I contacted a non-profit organization based in Tangier, Morocco. The group helps at-risk youngsters and women with children to learn skills such as cooking, weaving, and pottery making. Their members provide short-term preschool for children of families with little income.

I wanted to share the love I have for nature with the children of the organization by developing nature-based programs I could present to them. Having conducted such programs as an assistant naturalist at Hidden Oaks Nature Center, I was more than ready to share this love of nature with children in Morocco. After exchanging emails with the organization’s leader and confirming the volunteer work I would be doing, I packed. Luggage, a couple of teaching materials, and my hopes set off to North Africa.

Shortly after arriving, the organization scheduled a time for me to meet my new students, and so came the day where I joined 21 beautiful children between the ages of four and six sitting at a table. Their teacher introduced me in Darija, or Moroccan Arabic. In turn, they greeted me with a “Sbah al khayr,” which translates to “Good morning!” What a joy to meet such resiliently radiant children! The language barrier only slightly befuddled things, and we quickly picked up speed with hand gestures, facial expressions and body language.

The teacher and I agreed I would either teach the lesson in Spanish, my native language, or English, and she would translate it into Darija. I planned my first lesson on basic plant studies. We would learn how seeds grow, create arts and crafts, and conduct small experiments.

The day of our first lesson, I was a bit nervous but excited at the same time. I arranged props at the front of the classroom, decorated with books on plants, toted in an apple and an orange, and hung a few posters showing how a seed grows. During the presentation, the children were intrigued and attentive, curious to learn how a plant transforms from seed to sapling to plant. At one point, I took out the orange and apple, slit them with a knife, and removed the seeds. The children were eager to see those seeds. Next was a craft, and the children were invited to take parts of a growing plant I had sliced from construction paper and glue them under the correct labels on a project titled, “How Plants Grow.”

From that day forward our bond grew strong. The very next day they hugged me and called me ‘Teacher Cesia’ in Darija as I entered the classroom, which was sweet to hear. We continued our nature lessons and projects. Most of these children had never been part of activities such as experimenting with food coloring to observe how plants take up water, or watching how a seed wrapped in wet paper towels can grow in a clear bag that’s kept under sunlight. I wanted them to be as hands-on as possible. For example, when the seeds began to germinate, I encouraged them to hold or touch the growing stem and leaf to reinforce how a plant grows.

Morocco 2For a month and a-half, we learned about animal habitats, mammals, made animal finger puppets, painted, worked on art projects, and played bingo. All in all, the experience was more than wonderful. Thinking back, the most memorable lesson I learned from volunteering is that when you share your heart and passion for things you care about with others, not only do they benefit from learning and discovering new things, but you learn and discover new things about yourself too.

I wish nothing but the best for these children and hope their love and curiosity lead them to a bright future!

Author Cesia Lobo is an Assistant Naturalist at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, Va.

Monarch Butterflies Developing at Hidden Oaks

Butterfly 2A natural wonder that typically enjoys great favor with humans is the monarch butterfly. An “ambassador” insect, or one that represents a genre such as pollinators, these striking beauties make headlines across North America. Ask any second grader, and she will tell you about the struggles of this tenacious insect that depends on one plant, milkweed, for survival.

As wild milkweed decreases, national organizations and neighborhood nature centers encourage people to plant milkweed varieties to support monarchs and other pollinators. With their widespread popularity, there’s no surprise in seeing the delight in children observing monarch caterpillars being raised at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, Va.

Hidden Oaks has championed monarch butterfly awareness and stewardship since 1996. Currently, the center hosts more than 45 caterpillars munching their way through native common and swamp milkweeds. The first adult butterflies were tagged the week of August 22, 2017. Campers assisted releasing a boy and a girl monarch and cheered the two on their way southwest with a loud, “Adios Amigos!”

Unlike past years, these are not the first monarchs reared at Hidden Oaks in 2017. Naturalists were surprised to have three monarch caterpillars donated to the center in late April. Monarchs usually do not arrive in the Washington area before July. Journey North, an online science education project, records the first spotting of monarch eggs throughout the country. Normally, the D.C. area spots monarch eggs on milkweed after June 20. Recently the date has been creeping earlier on the calendar, with this year’s mid-April sighting the earliest on record.

That poses the question of why monarchs are turning away from their historic path of repopulating the Gulf States and the Midwest in favor of heading our way. Whereas bountiful fields of welcoming milkweed and nectar plants would be an ideal reason, we cannot boast of such bounty. The area experienced a warm spring, which could have confused the wandering monarchs. Possibly a few monarchs zigged when they should have zagged, and they ended up in the mid-Atlantic region. Likely the stress of not finding enough milkweed in their normal climes made the pregnant monarchs push further on until they found milkweed just a couple of inches high anywhere.

Monarch caterpillars need approximately 18 inches of plant to develop from egg to chrysalis. Monarchs only eat milkweed, and their eggs can only be laid on milkweed. The mom butterfly tastes plants with the tarsi, or hairs, on her feet, to assure her eggs are on the correct plant. Laying eggs on recently emerged milkweed, rather than mature milkweed, is a sign of stress.

Usually the monarchs winging their way through the D.C. area are the last of four generations produced over a calendar year. The last generation is physiologically different from the previous three. This last generation does not typically have the benefit of fresh milkweed and is generally in a nonproductive mode until after their “diapause,” or overwintering, in Mexico. The previous three generations, which can mate within a week of emerging from their chrysalides, have a life span of about six weeks. The fourth generation, which can live six to eight months, mates after spending months resting – with millions of other monarchs – in the Transvolcanic Mountain range about 60 miles northwest of Mexico City.

Butterfly 1The monarchs raised at Hidden Oaks in April reached adulthood but failed to mate in captivity, so they were set free. Tagging is only done with the final generation of the year, so those monarchs flew off with no identifying features. Hidden Oaks’ current batch of monarchs will be tagged and released over the next few weeks during monarch tagging programs.

This year, the monarch caterpillars at Hidden Oaks are sharing the spotlight with spicebush and black swallowtail butterfly caterpillars, who are busily crunching their own favorite leaves, spicebush and parsley, respectively. Monarchs and other butterfly species amaze us with their seemingly magical transformations and their grace of flight.

Visit Hidden Oaks to pick up a free packet of native swamp milkweed seeds to attract these and other pollinators to your backyard or school. Share the joy of wonder with your family and friends by getting first-hand experience with the variety of native butterflies, and marvel at the mysteries of monarchs that scientists have yet to completely unravel.

Author Suzanne Holland is the Assistant Manager at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, Va.

Parks are Good for your Health

Logo_060517_blueDid you know?

People exercise more when they have access to parks and trails. Physical activity helps people maintain good health, and parks provide a place for all community members to be active. Regular physical activity has been shown to reduce the risk of diseases such as heart disease, hypertension, colon cancer, and diabetes. Exercise, active li21 - trail features wild and or invasive_0072festyles, and spending time in nature also provide psychological benefits, improve mental health, and alleviate symptoms of depression and anxiety. (Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Recreation and Parks Association)

This is among the many reasons that great parks lead to great communities. It is also among the trends and research the Fairfax County Park Authority is considering as we create our first ever Parks and Recreation System Master Plan. 

This comprehensive park system master planning effort builds on the findings from the Parks Count! Needs Assessment that was completed in spring 2016. With a 10-year time horizon, the Great Parks, Great Communities Parks and Recreation System Master Plan will guide the agency to meet growing and changing community needs.

Looking to the future, the Fairfax County Park Authority wants to do more to improve access and 3 - Gum Springs Fitness_061816_0086opportunities for healthy and active lifestyles. Check out the Great Parks, Great Communities Parks and Recreation System Master Plan website and draft master plan and supporting appendix to learn more and tell us what you think!

The draft master plan is available now through September 22, 2017 for public review and comment. Submit your comments via , on the project website, or at the public input meeting on Tuesday, September 12, 2017 from 7 to 9 p.m. at Green Spring Gardens in the 3-healthy-strides_042217_0228-e1504116407365.jpgMulti-Purpose Room. Green Spring Gardens is located at 4603 Green Spring Road in Alexandria, Virginia.  

We welcome your thoughts and questions on the draft plan. For more information about this initiative contact Samantha Hudson, senior planner at or 703-324-8726.


Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority Adopts and Beautifies Providence RECenter

Sorority blog

Pictured left to right are: LaVerne Buchanan, Project Chair; Beth Gallagher, Providence RECenter Volunteer Manager; Deidre Bland, First Vice-President; and Sabrina Mays-Diagne, Chair-Social Actions Committee.

Providence RECenter was thrilled and honored to welcome a service project from the Lambda Kappa Omega Chapter of Alpha Kappa Alpha, Inc. sorority, whose mission is to be the premier sisterhood of college-educated women working together to improve the quality of life for citizens of Fairfax County, Va., while fulfilling Alpha Kappa Alpha Sorority, Incorporated’s® mantra to be supreme in service to all mankind through exemplary service initiatives and progressive, award-winning programs.

The sorority members, in conjunction with their Educational and Charitable Foundation’s National Impact Day Project, brought almost 40 volunteers during April and May and selflessly gave their time and service to restore, refresh and renew the grounds of Providence RECenter. Their herculean efforts were in honor of the sorority’s National Impact Day on May 20th, although this dedicated group prepared and worked hard leading up to this day as well.

In addition to providing all of the labor, sorority members visited the site multiple times to best assess the needs and inspect the current condition of the landscaping. They took it upon themselves to go beyond the initial tasks at hand and began brainstorming about how to best make their impact within a modest budget. After looking at the existing planters lining the entrance, they researched refurbishing them and sourced out the appropriate sorority volunteers to add that to their growing task list. After their chapter meeting, the group generously offered to not only supply materials needed for the refurbishments but to donate all of the necessary mulch and flowers for the beautification project.

Highlights of the project included refurbishing the entrance around the RECenter, trimming the hedges, mulching, staining and repairing the existing planters, creating a bed area and planting flowers around the entrance sign, cleaning the sitting areas and planting flowers in the planter beds. Upon completion, the RECenter’s exterior was glowing.

As a result, Providence staff is currently in talks with this wonderful group to potentially “adopt” the RECenter for future projects and cannot begin to show their appreciation enough for all of the love and attention received.

Author Debbie Lodato is the Volunteer Program Manager for the Fairfax County Park Authority. Co-author Beth Gallagher is the Providence RECenter Volunteer Manager and managed the beautification project from start to finish.

Park Authority Long Range Plan Highlights Importance of Parks to Environment

BlueHeron500Did you know?

Parks and open space networks conserve natural resources and wildlife habitat, protect air and water quality, and preserve open space for current and future generations. Protected green spaces are essential to preserve scenic vistas, maintain healthy ecosystems, and provide carbon‐reducing sustainable landscapes. Through stewardship programs, parks can engage the public in conservation efforts and increase awareness of environmental sustainability needs.

This is among the many reasons that great parks lead to great communities. It is also among the trends and research the Fairfax County Park Authority is considering as we create our inaugural Parks and Recreation System Master Plan.

BoardwalkFamily500This comprehensive park system master planning effort builds on the findings from the Parks Count! Needs Assessment that was completed in spring 2016. With a decade-long horizon, the Great Parks, Great Communities Parks and Recreation System Master Plan will guide the agency to meet growing and changing community needs.

Looking to the future, the Fairfax County Park Authority wants to do more to improve and promote natural resource protection and management. Check out the Great Parks, Great Communities Parks and Recreation System Master Plan website and draft master plan and supporting appendix to learn more and tell us what you think!

The draft master plan is available now through September 15, 2017 for public review and comment. Submit your comments via , on the project website, or at one of the open house sessions slated for September. More details on dates, times and locations to come.

For more information about this initiative contact Samantha Hudson, senior planner at or 703-324-8726.


Do You Know Your Fairfax County Geography?

Image8aGPS spoils us. Then again, Americans have a long-established reputation for being poor at geography. A 2015 federal report says most eighth-grade students do not demonstrate “solid competence in the subject.” In a 2006 National Geographic study, more than one-third of Americans couldn’t find Louisiana or Mississippi on a map.

So, how’s your knowledge of geography in your backyard? It should be strong. After all, there’s a historical marker honoring the U.S. Army Map Service for its huge contribution to the development of GPS at Turner Farm, right here in Fairfax County. So take the quiz. We’ve added a little history, too, just for fun. Some of the links provide hints.

How much do you know about Fairfax County?

A. Scott’s Run flows into what body of water at Scott’s Run Nature Preserve?Img2873

  1. Chesapeake Bay
  2. Occoquan River
  3. Potomac River
  4. Burke Lake

B. Which park was the site of the only major Civil War battle that took place in Fairfax County?

  1. Sully Historic Site
  2. Ox Hill
  3. Lane’s Mill
  4. Fort Hunt

C. Which of these historic structures is celebrating its 40th year on the National Register of Historic Places this year?

  1. Sully Historic Site
  2. Dranesville Tavern
  3. Historic Huntley
  4. Colvin Run Mill

D. What county pathway can you travel by bike or foot through varied terrain for more than 40 miles from the Potomac River to the Occoquan River?

  1. Capital Beltway
  2. Cross County Trail
  3. Fairfax County Parkway
  4. W&OD railroad trail

E. Where is the highest elevation in Fairfax County?

  1. I-66 Transfer Station
  2. Mount Air
  3. Mercer Lake
  4. Dulles International Airport

F. Who lived at Sully Historic Site? Sully_060217_0102

  1. George Washington, president
  2. Thomas Jefferson, president
  3. George Mason, author, Virginia Declaration of Rights
  4. Richard Bland Lee, congressman

G. What is the largest watershed in Fairfax County?

  1. Pohick Creek
  2. Difficult Run
  3. Scott’s Run
  4. Four Mile Run

H. What is the longest stream in the county?

  1. Occoquan River
  2. Accotink Creek
  3. Difficult Run
  4. Scott’s Run

I. Which of these parks abuts the Potomac River?Survival Badge_0011

  1. Hidden Pond Nature Center
  2. Clemyjontri Park
  3. Green Spring Gardens
  4. Riverbend Park

J. What is the largest lake in the county?

  1. Burke Lake
  2. Lake Fairfax
  3. Lake Accotink
  4. Twin Lakes



(Click the links for more information)

A. 3  Scott’s Run empties into the Potomac River just downstream from Great Falls Park.

B. 2  The Battle of Ox Hill took place September 1, 1862.

C.  4  A little tricky. All four are on the National Register. Colvin Run Mill is celebrating its 40th year on the list in 2017.

D. 2  The Cross County Trail crosses the county.

E. 1  The highest natural elevation in Fairfax County is 566.9 feet above sea level at the I-66 Landfill, 4618 West Ox Road. The lowest elevation is slightly above sea level along the county’s tidal shoreline.

F. 4  Richard Bland Lee, who was General Robert E. Lee’s uncle and Northern Virginia’s first representative to Congress.

G. 2  At 57.7 square miles, Difficult Run is the largest watershed in the county. It stretches from near Wolf Trap Farm Park to the southeast corner of Great Falls Park, where Difficult Run flows into the Potomac River.

H. 2  Accotink Creek stretches from the City of Fairfax to Gunston Cove in the Poto mac River.

I. 4  The well-named Riverbend Park sits on a large bend of the Potomac River.

J.  Burke Lake, at 218 acres, is the largest lake in the county.

Do You Know Why There Are Leash Laws?

Don’t worry. He’s safe. My dog’s never hurt anyone.Dog 2 - Obedience

If we only had a nickel every time for that one, huh?

You know the rules and laws about dogs. Have a license. Keep dogs on a leash. Scoop the poop. Those are county and state laws.

Do you know the reasons behind them? Read on. You may learn things that will surprise you.

No matter how well trained a dog is, it still possesses the instincts of a dog. You can’t change that. Dogs will, at some point, react on instinct in ways people simply don’t expect.  Immaculately trimmed and superbly trained dogs have snapped at judges and pooped on center stage at dog shows. Telling yourself and others that “my dog doesn’t do that” is kidding yourself, because under the right circumstances, it will.

Dogs of all sizes will chase animals they view as prey or as a threat to themselves or their owners. Sometimes they investigate out of curiosity or out of a desire to play. We have seen the most mild-mannered, low-key dogs you can imagine bolt with explosive speed and power when a fox trots into their field of vision. We have seen dogs break into sprints when they catch sight of another dog they know, tragically without paying attention to the cars on the street they’re crossing. We know of unleashed dogs that have been bitten by snakes and chased by coyotes.

Dog 1 - AgilityThen there is simple courtesy. No other person knows what you know about your dog, and you can’t assume that other people think your dog is friendly. They don’t know if your dog is trained, or how well it is trained. There are people who don’t like dogs and who are afraid of dogs. You’re spoiling their park visit if they must stop what they’re doing because your dog is moving toward them. Someone else may be walking a dog that is smaller than your dog, and you’re not making any friends if that bigger dog is scaring another dog-walker’s pet.

There are people unfamiliar with dogs. They haven’t grown up with dogs or been around them frequently. They may intend to be friendly toward your dog, but they may do something the dog interprets as aggressive, such as place their face directly in front of your dog’s face. That’s inviting an instinctive attack. You can’t control what other people do around your pet, so you must control your dog to avoid conflicts.

Parks are filled with people of varying sensibilities taking part in different activities, and dogs off leash and running amid other park user activities isn’t neighborly. Without a leash, dog owners can’t restrict a dog’s movement, and some of those movements are risky and end in tragedy or, at the least, irritating inconvenience. We have heard of off-leash dogs returning to their owners for loving scratches and snuggles, and the owner has no idea the dog just romped through poison ivy. That spreads to the owner. Ouch!

And then there’s poop. This isn’t just about people stepping in dog poop, although that certainly is a factor. Someone else shouldn’t have to pick up your dog’s feces with a shoe because you didn’t pick it up with a plastic bag. Not scooping your dog’s poop is against county and state law. But there’s more to it.

A dog off leash is free to defecate in areas that the owner doesn’t see or can’t reach. Wildlife views your dog as a predator, and the scent of your dog’s feces affects wildlife behavior.

Parasites carried by many animals are left behind in feces and can cause diarrhea, stomach cramps, nausea, dehydration, rash, fever, cough, and even vision loss. Bacteria can be transmitted to animals or people who have open wounds or depressed immune systems. Feces wash into creeks and streams, causing contamination issues. Nutrients from dog feces add to weed and algae growth, which reduces water quality and threatens fish and invertebrates. If you or your dog wades into a stream, you have no idea what’s entered the water upstream and, unfortunately, many flowing streams in Fairfax County are environmentally-compromised in some way. The Fairfax County Health Department discourages the use of streams for contact recreational purposes because of potential health risks. A 2014 State Department of Environmental Quality report says that fecal bacteria are the most common pollutants in Virginia waters. Much of that is related to farms, but dogs adding to the problem doesn’t help. The county’s website says there are an estimated 87,000 registered dogs in Fairfax County. Imagine if there were no leash laws for them.

Some of those fecal bacteria problems can be avoided by the simple stewardship act of picking up the poop with a plastic bag. Throw the bag in an appropriate trash can, or flush the poop – not the bag – down a toilet. Water that goes down a toilet is later treated.

IMG_3515-editThis isn’t about writing tickets. It’s about stewardship – caring for your neighbor and your natural resources. The Fairfax County Park Authority welcomes dogs and cats on leash in parks. Walking in a park with a dog is an adventure for you and your pet, and you might see the park through new eyes. Your dog benefits from new smells and socializing with other dogs, and the time together is quality time that reassures your dog about its place in the home pack. FCPA’s off­leash areas are a great resource for exercising your dog in a safe, fenced environment.

In summary, keep your dog and others safe by keeping dogs on leash. Dogs off leash:

  • Can be injured
  • Can injure other dogs, wildlife, or people
  • Cause or contribute to accidents
  • Can approach small children in strollers in a manner that puts the child at risk
  • Chase, harm, or kill wildlife
  • Are breaking the law
  • Are more likely to be exposed to disease and infections caused by ticks, insects, water borne infections, and wildlife (i.e. rabies) or be sickened by chemicals (i.e. antifreeze on a parking lot), roadkill, insect stings, snake bite, or plant poisons.

Leashes are an easy way to avoid problems.

More info about dogs in parks

 The Fairfax County Park Authority hosts classes on dog obedience and dog agility. Search Parktakes for scheduled classes.

 Author John Shafer is the Park Manager at Ellanor C. Lawrence Park. Co-author David Ochs is the Manager of Stewardship Communications for the Fairfax County Park Authority’s Resource Management Division.