Forget the videos and pricey toys. To most kids, heaven on earth is a double handful of dirt, room to roam and plenty of time to explore every bug and butterfly that crosses their path. Add to this a knowledgeable (and patient) grown-up to guide them, and you've got an unbeatable recipe for learning.
Fortunately, there are several competent groups ready to expose your junior naturalist to the wild side of Orange County. Guided tours, geared for young people from infancy through college-age, are available at little or no charge from the following organizations:
Nursery Nature Walks, led by four Orange County mothers under the auspices of the South Coast YMCA, offers babies, toddlers and preschoolers a chance to get down and dirty in Upper Newport Bay, Orange's Irvine Regional Park and Santiago Oaks Park, and Mission Viejo's Wilderness Glen.
"It's a very touchy-feely kind of experience," explained Dana Barney, who established the program in 1987. "We don't cover a lot of ground (most walks are about one-quarter to one-half mile) because we let the children set the pace. If they find a new bug, we talk about bugs; if they want to play in the dirt, we talk about dirt.
"They're generally pretty grubby by the time we're done, but that's all part of nature, right?"
Orange County's Nursery Nature Walks were inspired by a larger program serving L.A. and Ventura counties, which has involved more than 13,000 children and adults since it began in 1985. Local YMCAs assist both groups with insurance and publicity. Before leading a hike, volunteer docents must undergo an eight-part training course covering topics such as geology, botany and American history, as well as a variety of nature-themed games, songs and sensory exercises.
Nursery Nature Walks are held several times each month. Times and dates vary. Most walks last about 1 to 1 1/2 hours. A $3 donation is asked from each family.
The Friends of Newport Bay, a nonprofit volunteer group dedicated to preserving the 752-acre Upper Newport Bay State Ecological Reserve, offers monthly public tours of this natural estuary to families, students and youth groups. (An estuary, by the way, is "a very productive area where salt and fresh water meet and mix," says park ranger Nancy Bruland.) The tours run from October through March, during the migration period for birds, but the best viewing is often in late November. During the three-quarter-mile hike, visitors meet with experts on the area's natural history and native birds and plants. Afterward, guests can explore the bay on their own.
Tours depart every second Saturday of the month beginning at 9 a.m. from the corner of Back Bay and Eastbluff drives in Newport Beach. The walks are open to everyone but are mostly accessible to children age 8 and up. There is no fee; reservations suggested.
The fish and game folks and the county's Department of Harbors, Beaches and Parks have teamed up to offer two nature programs for families. Beginning next month and continuing through April, they'll gather 'round the campfire at Newport Dunes for an evening of nature-themed songs, skits and stories. The free programs begin at sunset; reservations recommended.
In addition, on the first and third Saturday of each month, park rangers and local naturalists lead 1 1/2-hour walks through various sites on the reserve. The walk is open to all ages; there's a fee of $2.25 per person.
What: Nature walks for children and families.
When: Year round.
Where: Upper Newport Bay State Ecological Reserve; Irvine Regional Park and Santiago Oaks Park in Orange, Wilderness Glen Park in Mission Viejo.
Whereabouts: Take Harbor Boulevard south from Riverside Freeway or north from Interstate 5 and head east on Broadway. The Celebrity is on the left, just past Anaheim Boulevard.
Wherewithal: Fees vary (some are free).
Where To Call: Nursery Nature Walks, (714) 643-1444; Friends of Newport Bay, (714) 646-8009; Department of Fish and Game/O.C. Department of Harbors, Beaches and Parks, (714) 640-6746.
MORE FUN STUFF:
The Children's Museum of La Habra (301 S. Euclid St.) salutes the Festival of Britain Saturday, Oct. 20 with Irish Festival Day, a Mulligan's stew of Irish folk dance, English and Gaelic storytelling and music geared to ages 2 and up. Presented by the Irish Fine Arts Assn. Runs noon to 2 p.m. Museum admission: $1.50 to $2. (213) 905-9793.
On Sunday, Oct. 21, kids ages 4 and up can create mosaics with recyclable materials in the style of British artist Tony Cragg at the Newport Harbor Art Museum, 850 San Clemente Drive, Newport Beach. The event runs from 1 to 4 p.m. and includes open studio sessions and family-oriented "art games." Admission: free with a "Fun Day Sunday" coupon available at Mervyn's stores. (714) 759-1122.
"Kid's Stuff," an after-school program hosted by the Corona del Mar Library, 420 Marigold Ave., for children in grades 2 through 4, continues Wednesday, Oct. 24, with a mask-making workshop led by Gladys Green from 3 to 4 p.m. Admission is free; pre-registration is required. (714) 644-3135.