We packed the pickles and the fried chicken and the rolls and the cocoa -- "Don't forget the donuts!" -- and set out for a Sunday picnic at Wheaton Regional Park.
The children hit the playground first, of course. "Bye, Mom," called Linda as she disappeared into a kind of upright tunnel, appearing a minute later at the top ("Yuck, it's kind of dark in there") and slid down a huge, twisting and turning slide, ponytails flying straight out behind her.
"Watch me, Dad," Jeffrey yelled as jumped onto a kind of four-seater cross between a merry-go-round and a see-saw. "Faster, push me faster!" he called as he went up and down and round and round at the same time, while my stomach did flops just watching him.
Carrie waited patiently for a swing -- they seem to be the most popular pieces of equipment -- and finally got one but swiftly deserted it, along with Linda and Jeff, to check out an addition to the park since our last visit: a monster combination of slides and poles and tunnels and stairs.
You could hardly see parts of it for the children swarming over and under and around it; you could hear them though, oh boy, could you hear them. So when our 17-year-old daughter Marci suggested a hike around Pine Lake my husband and I quickly agreed.
"This way," she said, "come on," and she led us up a hill through the woods. "Isn't this peaceful and pretty?"
It was quiet and peaceful, and we started on the path around the lake, "Hi, everybody." Jeffrey joined us, but only for a minute. "I'm going to fish," he announced."I found a piece of string and you never know, I might catch something." He joined a couple of other would-be fishermen on the shore. To my knowledge no one caught anything, "but there really are lots of fish in there," he insisted: "I almost saw one."
After the hike, which took about half an hour, we met Carrie and Linda at Old MacDonald's Farm, a small enclosure to the right of the playground.
"Oh the ducks! Look at the lambs, the chickens, the horse! Can we buy some food and feed them?" There are several machines right in the farm where, for a dime, a child can buy some food for the animals. Linda found a bit of wool on the ground, from the sheep, she said, and Jeff picked up several feathers. "The ducks must have lost them," he decided. We petted the donkey who ambled over to beg for food and admired the pigs and rabbits from a bit of a distance.
"Look at their house," we heard one little girl say, "It's got lots of rooms just like our house -- it's a split-level."
Wheaton Regional Park is a favorite place of ours: The play equipment is varied and imaginative, with everything from daredevil slides to Cinderella's coach to the more traditional swings and pony-swings for toddlers, the scenery is beautiful, and there's lots of room and lots of parking available. And right now you almost have the place to yourself.
After the farm we crossed over to the train station. "Tickets 25 cents each and climb aboard," said the engineer. The ride, a pretty one, circles the park and takes about ten minutes.
Picnic time was next, and we devoured every crumb -- even peanut butter and jelly sandwiches taste great outdoors.
After lunch we walked over to Brookside Gardens, also a part of the park, to see the plants and flowers, including a tree that produces "real bananas," said Linda. The conservatory ("It's too hot in here," the children said, and raced back outside) is filled with all sorts of exotic and tropical specimens but Carrie, Linda and Jeff weren't too impressed with it all: A little looking went a long way.
They were intrigued, though, by the Fragrance Garden, a special exhibit for the blind where all the signs are in Braille. "People really can read this?" they asked, running their hands over the symbols. They closed their eyes and tried to identify the different flowers by smell alone.
The conservatory and outdoor gardens at Brookside are lovely, but after half an hour the children were more than ready to head back to the playground for one more go-round on the equipment.
We were tired by this time and decided to skip the Brookside Nature Center, where there are sometimes movies and always exhibits and patient park rangers who will answer questions about the park and point out the various hiking trails.
To reach Wheaton Regional take Georgia Avenue to Shorefield Road for the park itself, or to Kemp Mill Road for the Brookside Nature Center and Botanical Gardens.
We have several other favorite parks, among them:
CABIN JOHN REGIONAL PARK -- This park has even more elaborate play equipment including Indian teepees and forts and stockades for playing cowboys and Indians. There is a Noah's Ark complete with animals, instead of Old MacDonald's Farm, a train ride, hiking trails and even a campground for tents. Both parks have indoor skating rinks for the winter.
Cabin John Regional Park is on Tuckerman Lane in Potomac. Take either Old Georgetown Road or Seven Locks Road to Tuckerman.
NEEDWOOD LAKE IN ROCKVILLE -- Besides a lake where you can rent rowboats, canoes and paddleboats in season (May through September), all year round you can use the play equipment in the woods, the ample picnic area and several hiking trails through the woods. There's also a golf course, a nature center and rides on the Needwood Queen, a replica of a Mississippi sternwheeler.
Needwood is on Avery Road. Take Georgia Avenue to Norbeck to Muncaster Mill Road to Avery, and go left to the park.
THE CANDY CANE CITY -- A smaller, more manageable-size park for young children, this park in Chevy Chase has special play equipment, ball fields, tennis courts and a recreation center.
Candy Cane City is on Beach Drive at East Leland Street.