By Patricia Hall, Fairfax Family Fun
You spent a nice day outside with the kids, exploring nature at a local park. Your kids are enthused about the activities you were doing, and you’d love to keep the interest going, but it’s time to go home. Maybe tomorrow you’ll come back, or you’ll just find something books and other items on the subject. Or maybe you don’t need to do any of that at all… maybe someone has already put all that together for you!
In fact, Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale has done just that. Since December 2012, this Fairfax County Park Authority site has offered take-home backpacks you can rent full of activities on various subjects. Each backpack is filled with learning tools – books, hands-on experiments, field guides, videos, games, and more – focused on a subject such as geology or dinosaurs. For a small fee, you can rent the backpack, take it home, and enjoy the items for a week.
We recently rented our first backpack and it was a nice way to focus on a subject at our own pace and with minimal cost. While we did this as a fun family activity, there’s no question this was an educational experience that was like an extension of our visit to the nature center. And that’s the intent of the program, which sprang from kits Hidden Oaks would prepare for visiting groups.
“We saw an opportunity to create extended-learning kits based on material that the naturalists at Hidden Oaks use for onsite programming. We had envisioned these backpacks to be used by scout and school groups, but recently more families enjoy learning about the topics at their leisure at home and in their neighborhoods,” said Suzanne Holland, Visitor Services Manager at Hidden Oaks.
What’s in the bag?
Each backpack has multimedia components plus interactive materials. We started with the geology backpack, both because of the age recommendation (our son is age 9) and the fun he’s had in the past with gem mining. Our backpack contained five books (one of which had 50 hands-on activities to try), a geology DVD, a “Rock Re-cycle” game, experiment instructions, a case with rock and mineral samples, a fossilized vertebra, and activity sheets to keep.
While most of the materials and specimens (such as the rock samples in our kit) must be returned to the nature center, each backpack also has activity sheets for the children to keep. Some of these activities are games while others are recommendations on how to creatively expand upon the material learned.
The Nature Backpacks rent for $10 per week. Currently Hidden Oaks offers eight Nature Backpacks. Recommended age ranges vary by topic. Preschoolers especially enjoy those marked with an asterisk, Holland says. The other nature backpacks are best for an elementary-age audience, up to age 10 years old, but could be used for younger children with adult support. The Nature Backpacks are:
- American Indian: A Child’s Life of the 1600s
- Bird Explorer
- Dinosaurs Rule*
- Nighttime Fun
- Under the Sea
- Woodland Animals*
Hidden Oaks also offers two Adventure Backpacks designed for older children (ages 8-12 years). These backpacks, which rent for $20 per week, include a Virginia Junior Naturalist Fairfax County Workbook for the child to keep. These workbooks were written and produced by Kim Munshower, a former volunteer of Hidden Oaks Nature Center, for her Fairfax Master Naturalist project. These backpacks include tools and tips for exploring native habitats. You can choose from:
- Stream Explorer
- Meadow Explorer
Renting the backpacks is very easy: just go to Hidden Oaks, ask what’s available, and pay your rental fee (and a $25 refundable deposit; this applies to whichever of the 10 nature or adventure backpacks you choose). The only hard part is figuring out which one to get!
“Oftentimes, children respond like the proverbial kid in a candy shop as they ponder which backpack to choose for their first at-home adventure!” Holland said. “Do they want to try their hand at American Indian games of skill, or re-enact dinosaur puppet shows with a colorful T-rex and stuffed triceratops? Do they want to figure out the eye shine of the critters peeking back at them on a nighttime hike, or play bug bingo? Each backpack provides a wonderful opportunity for adult/child interaction and recommendations on how to share the joy of learning outside.”
Currently Hidden Oaks Nature Center is the only Fairfax County Park Authority site offering “take-home” Nature Backpacks, but others are developing this project. Fairfax County Public Libraries also recently began a backpack program in conjunction with the Virginia State Park system.
Nature Backpack rental tips:
- Rent the backpack on a week that you know you’ll have time for it. We were surprised at how much our backpack included! With some of the books, we had to flip through them to decide what areas to focus on, as we’d have never had time to read them all fully.
- Use the materials in whatever order works best for you. With the geology backpack, our son liked the rock samples and the DVD the best, but he had a better appreciation for them after we’d read through the books.
- All backpack pick-ups and returns must take place at Hidden Oaks Nature Center during regular nature center hours.
- Backpack rentals are for one week, but if you need an extra day or two, call ahead and they may work with you. When I realized our backpack was due on the Saturday of Memorial Day weekend and we’d be out, I called Hidden Oaks and they told me it’d be okay to return it the next week.
- If you don’t return the backpack at all within a couple of weeks, you may be assessed a $100 fee to replace it and its items.
- This program is great at any time but it’s especially useful during summer, on long school holiday breaks, and for those who teach kids at home (tell your home-schooling friends!)
- Don’t stop at one backpack! Next we plan to rent the Native Americans pack and one of the “explorer” ones.
- Spend time exploring Hidden Oaks Nature Center both inside and out: outside you’ll find playgrounds and easy walking trails, and inside there are play areas, discovery stations, and a few live animals to visit.
Love the idea of the backpacks? You can enjoy something similar at the library, too. The Fairfax County Public Libraries have recently begun a backpack program in conjunction with the Virginia State Park system.