HIKE THROUGH a forest with your child and you'll probably notice such familiar sights as trees, plants, bugs, sticks and fallen leaves. Add a scavenger hunt to your trek and suddenly your youngster will home in on "granddaddy" oaks and "baby" saplings, poison ivy, patent leather beetles, fungus-covered logs and foliage reshaped by tiny bite marks.
"Kids really learn through discovery . . . and it's multi-sensory," Rock Creek Park ranger Anne O'Neill says of the scavenger hunts at the park's nature center. "Each new thing is so exciting."
Rock Creek -- one of several area nature centers that include scavenger hunts in their programming -- offers a ranger-guided hunt at the start of each season, as well as seasonal scavenger-hunt sheets for self-guided hikes. Summer visitors can pick up checklists designed for use on the stroller-accessible Edge of the Woods Trail but suitable throughout the park. Families search for objects such as a granddaddy tree so large you can't completely wrap your arms around it and a baby tree that you can. Critters to find include a worm or beetle, a squirrel, deer, ants, a raccoon and snake.
The guided fall walk in September will focus on signs of autumn as well as signs of the impending winter, O'Neill says, citing such examples as acorns, a green tree with red berries, a tree with no leaves, animal tracks, birds flying in a V-formation and a tree trunk with a scrape caused by a buck's antler.
Looking for specific items helps hold youngsters' interest.
"Children like to have some kind of goal as they go," says Merry Breed, assistant park manager at Claude Moore Park in Sterling. The park's visitors center offers a checklist with drawings of 36 items, including a bird, a chewed leaf and an acorn. Breed recommends that families take the half-mile, looping Hickory Nut Trail or search around the park's two ponds, where kids enjoy looking at fish.
At Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, a self-guided scavenger hunt is "set up kind of like a laminated bingo sheet," says John Shafer, assistant manager. Kids use wipeable markers to cross out 12 items represented by color digital photos. Sometimes participants have to do more than just look to discover an object, Shafer says. To find a patent leather beetle, for instance, they might have to roll a log and peek underneath, before rolling the wood gently back into place.
"It encourages them to do a little bit of interacting with the environment," he says. Summer scavenger hunters also seek rust spots on mountain laurel, a sassafras sapling, a wood poppy seed case and a bat box, an artificial roost for bats. So as not to discourage the littlest participants, the sheet also includes a picture of the nature center's front entrance sign.
"Instant gratification for a really young child is always great," Shafer says.
Unlike traditional scavenger hunts in which participants must find and gather assorted objects, nature hunts rely on observation. Guidelines encourage kids to be "bug watchers, not bug squashers," Shafer says.
"They don't collect the items -- they just mark them off as they find them," he says.
Nature scavenger hunts give parents and children ages 3 and older an opportunity to interact and make discoveries together. Hidden Oaks's hunts are geared toward a parent visiting with two children, Shafer says. "That's what our main demographic is."
Youngsters about ages 4 and 5 especially enjoy nature scavenger hunts, O'Neill says. "They're so excited that they stop every four or five inches!"
O'Neill says she finds that some inner-city children who take nature scavenger hunts are timid at first but that "by the end they're enthralled with being in the park. The idea is, they're having fun and they're learning without knowing it."
ROCK CREEK PARK NATURE CENTER -- 5200 Glover Rd. NW. 202-895-6070. www.nps.gov/rocr/naturecenter. Open Wednesday-Sunday from 9 to 5. Ranger-guided scavenger hunts, geared toward ages 3 to 8, take place at the start of each season. The autumn scavenger hunt is Sept. 22, the first day of fall, at 4. Free; no reservations required. Rangers also periodically lead scavenger hunts built around such themes as flowers, animal habitats or Earth Day. For a self-guided scavenger hunt, pick up a seasonal checklist at the center's information rack.
BROOKSIDE NATURE CENTER -- Wheaton Regional Park, 1400 Glenallan Ave., Wheaton. 301-946-9071. www.mc-mncppc.org/parks/nature_centers. Open Tuesday-Saturday from 9 to 5. A guided "first day of fall" scavenger hunt, featuring signs of autumn, is Sept. 22 from 3:45 to 4:45. $4; registration required at www.parkpass.org.
CLAUDE MOORE PARK -- 21544 Old Vestals Gap Rd., Sterling. 703-444-1275. www.loudoun.gov/prcs/parks/claude.htm. Park open daily dawn to dusk; visitors center open daily from 9 to 5. Free. Pick up a "Discover Hike Treasure Hunt" leaflet in the visitors center lobby at the Loudoun County park. Other fliers and activity sheets feature such topics as animal tracks and tree leaves.
HIDDEN OAKS NATURE CENTER -- Annandale District Park, 7701 Royce St., Annandale. 703-941-1065.
www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/hiddenoaks/index.htm. Open Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9 to 5, and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5; closed Tuesdays except for scheduled programs. Free. Self-guided scavenger hunts along the Fairfax County Park Authority site's one-third-mile, looping Old Oak Trail can take place whenever the center is open. The activity is free (donations accepted) during August, but costs $1 beginning in September, when the program will be expanded. The center also offers free (donations accepted) discovery bags featuring interactive activities for parents and children to do along the trail.
JEROME "BUDDIE" FORD NATURE CENTER -- 5700 Sanger Ave., Alexandria.703-838-4829. ci.alexandria.va.us/recreation/nature/buddie_ford_center.html. The nature center is under renovation and is scheduled to reopen in September. Seasonal scavenger hunts open to the public will probably resume in the winter; groups may schedule such events in the interim.
RIVERBEND PARK AND VISITOR CENTER -- 8700 Potomac Hills St., Great Falls. 703-759-9018. www.fairfaxcounty.gov/parks/riverbend. Grounds are open from 7 a.m. to dusk; visitors center hours are Mondays, Wednesdays, Thursdays and Fridays from 9 to 5, and Saturdays and Sundays from noon to 5; closed Tuesdays. Free. Visitors of all ages can check out scavenger-hunt packets from noon to 4 at the visitors center. A short hunt takes place in the picnic area, while a larger version takes participants on a hike through the park. The park also offers "Duff and Stuff" activity bags (reservations suggested and donations appreciated) from noon to 4 for families. Free Nature Escapes, from noon to 5, feature self-guided, hands-on activities built around a monthly theme.