"AND AWAY they all flew like the down of a thistle . . . " That age-old line from my 4-year-old's favorite Christmas poem made a lot more sense this year after we had spent an afternoon on a Fuzzy Sock Walk at Wheaton Regional Park's Brookside Nature Center.
Seed-carrying down from cattails and milk pods twirled in the chilly breeze as naturalist Marta Dreier explained to the youngsters (and their parents) how seeds travel from one spot to another. Since preschoolers aren't exactly adept at sitting still long enough to absorb lengthy scientific explanations, Dreier used a simple athletic sock to demonstrate the process.
The youngsters, who came to the nature center event armed with adult-size white socks, giggled as she showed them how to turn the socks fuzzy side out and pull them on over their shoes.
One budding nature lover rejected his mother's attempts to slip a sock over his sneaker so Dreier diplomatically suggested using the sock as a mitten for a "fuzzy hand walk." Then the group set out for a hike around a nearby pond.
The naturalist told the kids that this was their big chance "to do all the
hings you normally don't do -- go off the trail, get dirty and put your socks on top of your shoes."
As the kids marched noisily down toward the water, Dreier asked them to think about what furry animal they'd like to be. Cries of "bear," "fox," "wolf" and "groundhog" filled the late afternoon air as the socks quickly faded from gray to black.
Dreier explained in simple terms that the furry animals in their imagination are some of the prime movers of seeds, which readily stick to their fuzzy bodies. While the kids crashed through the grasses and bushes, Dreier pointed out how tiny seeds were latching onto not only their socks, but also their coats, sweaters, hats, hair and scarves.
"These seeds can fall off and start new plants," she explained.
Meanwhile, and perhaps surprisingly, she had to keep reminding the children to walk through the brush instead of straying back on the well-worn path.
"They're so conditioned to stay on the trail," she said.
Dreier also demonstrated how some seeds, like those of the goldenrod, have little parachutes and are spread by the wind. She explained (to lots of shrieks) how others are eaten by animals in one location and "pooped out" in another.
After the kids managed to cover their clothing and fill their hands and pockets with seeds and weeds, it was back to the nature center where stacks of construction paper and lots of glue awaited young artists. As cattail fluff swirled around the room, the children fashioned collages from their natural treasures.
Dreier explained that she and a couple other naturalists started the walks a few years ago at the Merkle Wildlife Refuge in Upper Marlboro. She carried the idea with her to Montgomery County, where she runs the program for kids up to about age 8.
With older youngsters she can go into more detail about seed dispersal, fascinating them with the idea that the tiny hooks on the seeds of plants such as tickseed sunflowers provided the inspiration for the now ubiquitous Velcro.
The naturalists schedule sock walks in the fall and then again in late winter just before the new green shoots push through the earth. But, Dreier said, parents don't have to wait for a formal program to explain how the smallest seed can travel so far. They can do it in their own backyards.
"All you need is a fuzzy sock," she laughs. THE GOOD SEED
The final fuzzy sock walk of the winter is from 4 to 5 on March 13 at Brookside Nature Center, 1400 Glenallen Ave. in Wheaton Regional Park. Participants should be between 6 and 8 years old. Free; reservations required. Call 301/946-9071.
ROCK CREEK NATURE CENTER
in Rock Creek Park, 5200 Glover Rd. NW, is sponsoring a program for ages 5 and up called "Meadow Magic" at 2 on March 10 and 24. The dates include a romp through a field and a look at all the seeds that may hitchhike on your clothes. Free; no reservations required. Call 202/426-6829.
OTHER NATURE CENTERS
in Montgomery and Prince George's counties as well as in Northern Virginia also occasionally sponsor programs showing kids the traveling side of seeds.
Mary Anne Hess last wrote for Weekend about the Chancellor's Point natural history park in St. Mary's City, Md.