Foliage, teacher Ann Coren tells the children in the Audubon Naturalist Society's Fall Foliage for Little Folks workshop, is a big word for leaves. Then she gives them an assignment: Look for one of every different kind of leaf you can find.
We pause briefly in a clearing in the woods of the society's Chevy Chase sanctuary. The sun filters down through the treetops and leaves float softly, slowly to the ground. This is home base, says Coren, as parent-child teams fan out into the woods, up the paths and around the pond. When Coren calls "Allie, allie, in-free," they drift back to the clearing, carrying leaves, bark, soft pussy- willow branches, even a cricket.
"Conrad's not very good on different," apologizes Carol Risher, showing her three- year-old's collection of look-alike yellow tulip poplar leaves.
Four-year-old Kalle Magnani has a leaf that looks like lace. "That's beautiful," says Coren.
"It's mine," says Kalle, pulling it back.
"Animals have been eating holes in it, probably caterpillars," explains Coren.
"A very hungry caterpillar," adds Kalle.
After talking about the ways in which leaves are different and alike, the group emerges from the woods onto the lawn, where there's a Japanese maple.
"Everybody gets to pick one leaf," says Coren. "It will be your special friend in a game we're going to play."
Some children climb the tree. Others stretch to reach a branch. Each ends up with a leaf.
"Here's my friend," four-year-old Aaron Simowitz says waving his leafs of the river, which he christens Kirk. "It's my friend. It's not a leaf."
After getting to know their leaf-friends, the children give them to Coren, who throws them into the air. When they come down, the kids scramble to find their friends, and most of them do.
Now that they can see leaves as friends, Coren asks them to see leaves as characters or props in a story.
"This leaf looks like the waning moon," she suggests. "And this is the child in the forest."
Even before the group gets back to the classroom to make storybooks, the leaves have turned into dinosaurs and stars. There are markers, colored paper, white glue and hole-punchers set out, and most parents have to write fast to keep up with the plots.
"Let your child tell you the story," Coren instructs. "Just write one sentence on each page."
Soon the table is scattered with one-liners, illustrated by glued-on leaves. Two leaves holding hands, for example, illustrate the page that reads "One day a leaf went for a walk with his Mommy." On page 2, which reads "He saw a tiger coming after him," a little leaf is looking back toward a great big leaf. A random collage of reddish leaves illustrates "Mommy holding a baby and house near," while a single fish-shaped leaf illustrates a fish swimming in a pond. "They hugged each other" is aptly depicted by some clustered dainty green leaves.
"Once there was a haunted house," writes seven-year-old Adam Seeger on his first page. He brushes on some glue, then presses on a haunted-looking stick and a scary- looking leaf entwined with a shriveled cocoon. Then he starts page 2: "One day a monster came and knocked on the door. . ."
Some authors follow the old advice of writing about what you know. Louise Burton, almost four, is telling a tale of a baby who came out to play on a jungle gym.
"The moon came out," she dictates, illustrating that sentence with a lone red-and- green leaf. The next episode, where the baby falls off the jungle gym, has a fern for a picture.
Eric Sterne, five, leans more toward Gothic tales than simple domestic stories. For openers, Eric has the king eating dinner.
"This will be the queen," he says, selecting a suitable leaf for the page that reads "The queen is cleaning up with the baby."
"The wolf was trying to eat the moon," says a little girl who, after a blockbuster of a lead, gets writer's block. "Do you want to tell me more about the wolf?" coaches her mother.
LEAFING THROUGH A BOOK
Construction paper, white glue, markers, a hole-puncher and yarn or string are all the raw materials you need to make a leaf book. Be sure your child knows what poison ivy looks like and why it shouldn't be collected.
While the glue is drying, read "Down Come the Leaves" by Henrietta Bancroft (Thomas Y. Crowell) to find out why they're falling this time of year.