The parking lot at Leslie Science Center has overflowed, and cars are lining the driveway. My boy Gabriel, age three, runs immediately to a scarecrow planted firmly in the Project Grow garden. "Who's that?" he asks. A scarecrow. "Does he need his hat?" Gabriel retrieves a beaten straw hat that's sitting at the scarecrow's feet and carefully places it on the scarecrow's head. "Now he's dressed."

The gardens are impressive by my standards — big colorful signs, and well-tended lots that Mary Contrary would be proud of. Gabriel discovers a long orange-and-white cat who happily allows himself to be carried around. As I get closer I see why: he's been rolling in a patch of catnip.

We're alone, having missed one of the tours given by staff through the woods. But that's okay; we've hiked through the beautiful park woods before, leaning over the sides of the wondrous floating boardwalk to see who lives in Black Pond, happy to breathe in the sweet, pure air.

Soon enough the tour group emerges from the woods and fills the garden with toddling children and their parents. The cat, totally blissed out, lopes and runs, with my boy and many others in tow.

There are three activity areas set up near the nature house: chalk drawings, an art project, and a place to tell stories and sing songs. Gabriel shoves pretty dried flowers into homemade play dough before running into a building to explore.

Here, in the Critter House, we hit the jackpot. Various habitat scenes adorn the walls: woodland forests, aquatic marshes, and tropical rain forests. The children are fascinated by the critters. I am, too, actually: huge cockroaches and other arthropods (animals that have no bones, only exoskeletons — see what I learned?), a large iguana, box and snapping turtles, salamanders, frogs, chameleons, domesticated rabbits, nesting doves with an egg, and many more. But the undeniable star of the show is a six-year-old, thirty-pound African tortoise named Tortuga.

When we come in, Tortuga is trying to climb out of her box. Eric, the program coordinator, explains that she's very social and does this whenever there are people in the building. He lets her out. Gabriel stands back a bit, wary of this ancient being. She puts on quite a show. Tortuga makes a line drive toward the door at a surprisingly fast pace. Eric hauls her back in a few times, but she keeps at it. He shuts the door. She nudges it open.

Finally he tosses lettuce on the floor. This works. Eric gives some to the kids, and Tortuga follows them, gulping down the lettuce. She appears utterly unconcerned about the fifteen humans standing in the room. I imagine her making a successful break, quietly cruising unnoticed down the path. Perhaps on our next hike we will see her smiling face just below the surface of Black Pond.

This month's Tiny Tots Time at Leslie Science Center is on Friday, January 14.