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PARENTING : Falling Wildly in Love With Nature : The Wilderness Institute brings families closer by arranging encounters with reptiles, among other adventures.

March 26, 1993|MICHAEL SZYMANSKI | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES; Michael Szymanski writes regularly for The Times

Rachel Bailey gasped as she watched a four-foot gopher snake slither down her 11-year-old son's sweater. Ronnie Bailey Jr.'s 2-year-old sister, Reena, came over to give the snake a squeeze as it wrapped her brother up.

"We're thinking about getting a snake, but I'm a bit leery--I, I don't know," said the children's mother, who had never before touched one. "I'm surprised," she observed, "it's not slimy at all."

"Whatever we decide, this is a good way that the whole family can learn about it," said father Ron Bailey.

The Baileys of Ventura were part of a recent "Sneaky Snakes" class at the Wilderness Institute, a nonprofit educational corporation based in Agoura Hills.

Created in 1984 to bring families together in appreciation of the outdoors, the institute offers nature-oriented courses on a wide range of subjects--from fossil hunting to midnight owl observation and Indian cave backpacking. The classes are held in public parks around the Santa Monica and Santa Susana mountains along with the institute's Agoura headquarters.

Popular among teachers as well as parents and children, courses like "Sneaky Snakes" lessen children's fears by bringing the unfamiliar up close.

As students handled the reptiles, teacher Hartley C. Thornton, 78, who has been educating the public about snakes for six decades, talked about their characteristics.

"Only four snakes in the United States are poisonous," he said. "And they can't jump, fly or chase after you."

Maniza Lutz, whose 5-year-old son, Barry, was playing with a king snake, appreciated Thornton's approach.

"We are from India," Lutz said, "and things are so different. I'm so glad we have an opportunity for someone to honestly explain this to us."

Cecilia Townsend, who teaches kindergarten at Buena Vista Elementary School in Beverly Hills, said she visited to invite the Wilderness staff and their snakes to her school. "These guys know how to explain some complicated information in a very simple way for the students," Townsend said.

Founded by environmentalists Bradley and Randy Childs, the institute takes family harmony as seriously as its educational mission. The brothers, who live in Thousand Oaks, design their seminars with both parents and children in mind. "Most commonly now, we have a single-parent family, and they take the classes to get closer to their child," Bradley said.

In one course, during a rope-climbing session, parents are blindfolded and must trust their children's guidance, an experience that often turns emotional.

Another aspect of their mission, the brothers feel, is to use playful activities to give children a greater affinity for nature. Randy Childs, who looks the picture of a mountain man with his long beard and 'coon cap, shows young ones how to aim a heavy musket, teaches them the dangers of poison oak and demonstrates how to throw a tomahawk--all in one course called "Kids on the Frontier."


In 20 years of teaching, Childs explained, he has seen youngsters grow more savvy about recycling, composting and water conservation, but they still know very little about enjoying the environment. During his classes, he said, "they come to appreciate that all these parks are a big outdoor museum."

Parents learn this lesson along with children, and families move closer together, often in unexpected ways, said Randy Childs. Adds Childs, who leads groups into the Santa Monica Mountains and creates fanciful tasks for them to perform, "Wait till you see the family try to use ropes to climb over a molten pit of peanut butter."


Location: The Wilderness Institute is at 28118 Agoura Road, Agoura Hills.

Call: (818) 991-7327 for classes and times.

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