Chubby hands reach for leaves, little fingers squeeze them, rub them, liberating fragrance that will cling to young skin for hours. The children sniff; they open their eyes wide with delight, or crinkle their noses with perplexity.
Overhead, a soaring red-tailed hawk screeches. Unseen in the trees, a mockingbird whistles as if in whimsical response.
This is not Disneyland, not a fabricated fantasy of sights and sounds and smells. This is the real world, the one that grew up with only sporadic help--or interference--from people. It is a world that hides out close to the seemingly endless concrete of the Los Angeles area.
It is nature. Not exactly pristine wilderness, but for many of the children living in this congested and overbuilt megalopolis, it will do.
"I call this our Indian spice rack," docent Jan Carlson is saying, introducing her audience of five mothers and six children to some of Franklin Canyon's black and purple sage, to its common buckwheat and to a plant called pearly everlasting, which some children call "the pancake plant" for its maple-syrup smell.
Kids Pay Attention, Mostly
Carlson is leading a hike called Babes in the Woods, an outdoor trek for children 3 and younger, under the auspices of the William O. Douglas Outdoor Classroom, or WODOC. Remarkably, the tots pay attention for most of the 1 1/2-hour walk.
She leads them to the small pond in the canyon north of Beverly Hills where they can scoop up minnows and touch the slippery creatures before dropping them back in the water. Before their hike is over, the children will see wild mustard (the deciding ingredient in what they put on hot dogs), a dead snake and the many-chambered home of a pack rat.
And today there will be a real treat: baby ducks swimming in a little cove in the reservoir. Because the hills are alive with predators, Carlson explains, ducklings rarely survive here, and mother ducks usually find safer places to lay eggs.
Cindy Cohen-Payton, hiking with daughter Amanda, 3, finds the outdoor experience a welcome break.
"If you are a parent, it's nice to do different things with the children," she says. "They know what street sweepers are like. I think this makes them aware of things other than the city. . . . Hopefully, it will make them more aware of the environment and the need to take care of it."
That, said a WODOC spokeswoman, is exactly the point of the programs offered by the facility.
Seeking especially to reach inner-city schoolchildren "who never see a blade of grass," WODOC volunteer docents lead walks around the 600-acre nature preserve in the Santa Monica Mountains five days a week throughout the school year. Tuesdays and Thursdays, the walks are geared to groups with special needs, such as disabled or autistic children.
And on July 23, the Douglas classroom will open its outdoors to all interested visitors when it presents "Children Celebrate the Mountains," an afternoon smorgasbord of mountain delights.
Environmentalist groups such as the Cousteau Society and the Wilderness Institute will sponsor exhibits, the Satwiwa Native American Cultural Center will demonstrate native dances and arts, and trained docents will lead nature walks. In keeping with WODOC's outreach goals, five busloads of children who live in the inner city will be brought to the event, courtesy of a grant from the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy.
"Children Celebrate the Mountains" is being sponsored by the Conservancy in cooperation with WODOC and Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area. Visitors should take a picnic lunch and a blanket for the free event, 11 a.m. to 4 p.m. on the Franklin Canyon Ranch house lawn. Shows by J. P. Nightingale and the Satwiwa dancers will begin at noon and 2 p.m. More information: (213) 456-7807.
The wide, flat trails of WODOC are among a number of paths parents are finding into unpaved pockets of the Southland. To the surprise of many, pleasant areas to take children hiking are plentiful, close and usually free--but it sometimes takes a little effort to find them.
"It's surprising how wild some places are in the middle of the city," says Jane Campbell, chairman of the Sierra Club Little Hikers committee in Orange County. A longtime camping enthusiast, she recently took on the task of finding good local outings for the group after the birth of her son.
She found sprawling O'Neill Regional Park, in Trabuco Canyon, which offers self-guiding trails, ranger-led hikes, a nature center, campfire presentations and special programs for campers. She found the tide pools of Crystal Cove State Beach, at the bottom of dramatic wildflower-covered bluffs. She found Fountain Valley's Mile Square Park, with its biking and hiking trails and duck pond.
The group's goal, she says, is "to teach children to enjoy the outdoors." In her family, it has worked: "My little boy's first words were 'moo' for 'moon' and 'buh' for 'bird.' "