"I feel them with my feet," says seven- year-old Maggie Nowak, revealing her secret of how to find sweet gum balls hidden under a carpet of dry leaves in Fort Dupont Park.
Maggie and 15 other children are rummaging around the base of a sweet gum tree gathering its prickly droppings and depositing them in a large plastic bag. Most of the gum balls are brown and dry, but someone finds a bright green specimen.
"That's a ripe one," explains park ranger Lori McKenzie. "We'll talk more about them while we're working on our project. But let's move on. We have plenty of these now."
The foraging army moves down a hill, across a meadow and into a grove of pine trees.
"Look what I found -- a penny!" shouts six-year-old Corinna Hill, but the actual quarry is pine cones. When another bag has been filled with these, the foragers scramble up a hill at the fringe of the woods to gather the fruits of the oak tree. But while the older children are scooping up acorns and acorn hats, three-year-old Danny Chapman is wondering why there are bugs on the fallen leaves.
"They're making homes there for the winter," McKenzie tells him. Then, surveying the harvest, she tells the group they have enough material for their projects -- Christmas decorations, table centerpieces, paper weights for Daddy's office or presents for Grandmother, according to the creator's whim.
Back at the park's activity center, there are long tables set with tree sections, glue, small rocks and Popsicle sticks. The pine cones, sweet gum balls and acorns are divided among the tables and the kids get straight to work on a wood collage. McKenzie pours a glob of glue in the center of each child's tree section and the children spread the glue with Popsicle sticks. While they work, she suggests, "Let's talk about what we use wood for."
"Popsicle sticks," says six-year-old Katherine Wildt, and others add such uses as desks, tables and chairs. There's a brief discussion of tree products other than wood -- fruits and maple syrup -- but most of the children are focused on a stickier problem: How to get the pine cones to stand up.
"Break off the stem and take a few rocks and put them around the bottom to support it," advises McKenzie. "The glue isn't going to dry until sometime tomorrow, so you need the rocks. But you don't have to make your pine cones stand up. They'll look just as pretty lying down."
With a large pine cone standing upright in the center surrounded by smaller pine cones, sweet gum balls and acorns, the wood collage looks like a mini-forest. The places where the white glue isn't covered look like snow-covered ground. But not everyone produces a snowy forest scene.
"I'm going to make a sad face," decides Corinna.
Mary Tuck Welch, six, glues a row of tiny pine cones and acorns around the rim of her wood section.
"Nice sequence," comments McKenzie.
Katherine is incorporating the ripe green gum balls into her collage.
"The seeds fall out as the sweet gum balls die," explains McKenzie. "This is food for birds, chipmunks and squirrels."
"Now it's a giant evergreen bush," says Katherine.