Perhaps never before has the N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission tent at the N.C. State Fair been more kid friendly than it is this year.
The tent, tucked behind the Village of Yesteryear and not too far from Gate 8, features all manner of hands-on activities for kids - from a spot where they can "fish" to a duck blind to toy trucks with boat trailers that they can maneuver through the water to an air gun range with a focus on hunting and gun safety.
There's even a trailer full of taxidermied bears, fox and other animals that kids are invited to touch and pet.
Or, as Russell Wong, a fish biologist who met me at the tent this morning, said: "We encourage you to put your paws all over it."
When I'm at the fair with my own family, we always try to spend most of our time off the midway and investigate the less noisy corners. I've written before at the Marbles-UNC-TV tent and Field of Dreams. The tent staffed by the wildlife resources commission is another favorite, full of educational, low-key activities which, perhaps best of all, are completely free. At the Fair: N.C. Wildlife Resources Commission tent
Wong tells me that the tent's exhibits change each year so a visit this year will be different from last year's walk through. Some pieces may be the same - the Sensory Safari, for instance, which features all of those animals that you can touch, has returned. But others are new, including the spot where kids can practice on a pretend boat ramp or "catch fish" in a pretend pond with magnets.
This year, the commission's focus is on showcasing the state's hunting, fishing and wildlife-related activities that the public can be a part of - whether it's fishing in a lake, enjoying a day of boating or learning more about the state's non-game program, which works with sea turtles, flying squirrels and other animals.
"We wanted kids to be able to do something," Wong tells me. "It's more hands on this year than other years."
A trip to the tent can't end without picking up this year's wildlife resources commission pin. Since 1981, fairgoers have been collecting the pin - newly designed each year. This year's pin features a kestrel, the smallest bird of prey in North Carolina.
To raise money for the commission's non-game programs, the commission is selling T-shirts in kids and adult sizes at the tent featuring each of the pins since 1981. Neuse Sports Shop donated the shirts so all proceeds go toward conservation, Wong tells me.
While the State Fair activities are all free, the wildlife resources commission also offers free activities and programs for all ages year round. Check the website for more information about what's available near you.
To learn more about the tent at the State Fair, watch my video interview with Wong.