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FOR THE KIDS : Children Get Feel for Nature During Sense-Tingling Hikes : Group leads walks on trails that are fit for strollers. The easy pace leaves time for 'lots of smelling, touching, looking.'

August 18, 1994|JANE HULSE | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

Yes, you can strap your toddler into a stroller and hit the hiking trail in search of nature.

If strollers and trails sound incongruous, they aren't--at least to the people at Nursery Nature Walks. They like to acquaint children with nature as early as possible, even in infancy.

The Santa Monica-based nonprofit group started leading walks in 1985 with volunteers who had scoped out five stroller-accessible trails in the Los Angeles area.

Now they have about 50 trails in their repertoire of gentle walks. A few years ago, they began branching into Ventura County, and now about one-third of the outings are within the county or close to it.

"We keep adding trails," said Judy Burns, the group's executive director. The list has grown to include places like McGrath State Beach in Oxnard, Arroyo Verde Park in Ventura, La Jolla Canyon and Big Sycamore Canyon along the coast and Rancho Sierra Vista park in Newbury Park.

Volunteers lead about 40 walks a month in the two counties. Families call weeks ahead to reserve a spot in the groups, which are limited to 10 families. They are asked to make a $5 donation.

It might sound illogical to expect a toddler to get much out of a nature walk, but that's not Burns' feeling. The younger the better, in her view.

"The walks are sensory-based, with lots of smelling, touching, looking," she said. "It stimulates curiosity. They also learn respect for the outdoors. They learn not to grab a leaf, but to touch it gently."

So it was a typical outing by Nursery Nature Walks last week that drew five mothers and their young children to Big Sycamore Canyon, just south of Point Mugu. Their eight children--from 6 months to 4 years old--were in strollers, jogger-style buggies, backpacks, front packs and on foot.

Their leader was Suzanne Egeln, who brought along her own two daughters, a 9-month-old infant and a 4-year-old, as well as her husband. Egeln had attended the group's workshops to learn more about plants, animals, geology, Native Americans--and how to make it all fascinating to kids.

That's accomplished not just by taking a hike, but by mixing in songs, stories, snack breaks, water breaks and frequent stops to examine such stuff as leaves, lizards and spider webs.

In fact, the volunteers have dreamed up so many things to do with kids involving nature that they published a book, "Trails, Tails & Tidepools in Pails," ($9.95) that includes more than 100 activities. They range from finding a pill bug and returning him to his home, to more involved fun like making soap the way the Native Americans did by spraying water on a ceanothus blossom and rubbing it.

So activity-oriented are these walks that it's a stretch to call them hikes. They are more like strolls--a quarter of a mile to half a mile, which takes about two hours with all the stops.

As Egeln's group started out on the dirt road into the canyon, she listed the usual precautions for the children: Don't throw rocks and sticks, stay on the trail and don't put fingers into little holes.

The walk turned out to be nature bonanza. A covey a quail skittered across the trail, and Egeln used the opportunity to teach them the bird's chirp, which sounds a lot like "Chicago." A cottontail rabbit scampered into the brush, along with a lizard.

At a sycamore tree, Egeln took one of its giant leaves and brushed the children's faces. "Feel how soft that is," she told a 2-year-old boy. Then she led them in a song about how the tree's leaves, branches, roots and bark resemble hands, arms, legs and skin.

In the shade of a dry stream bed crossing, the group stopped for snacks--fruit, crackers, juice. Mothers fed babies. Egeln took out her ladybug puppet and read the story "The Very Hungry Caterpillar." As the caterpillar turned into a butterfly at the end of the book, as if on cue, a yellow-winged butterfly flickered through the group.

For many of the children, it was their first real nature outing. "I wanted to come here and get an idea about what's involved if I do it on my own," said Karen Roberts of Camarillo, who pushed 8-month-old Joey in a stroller while 2-year-old Sarah rode in a backpack or walked.

For Kathy Dezavala of Fillmore, also a mother of two, it was a break from the stay-at-home routine. "I needed to get out of the house," she said. "I love to hike. I hiked before they were born."

The way back was also filled with new sights, sights that a striding hiker or biker might have missed. There was the swarm of bees in Winnie the Pooh's tree, as Egeln put it, hummingbirds, and bark to examine. And along the way, the children's hands had been stamped with ladybugs and bear prints.

Details

* WHAT: Nursery Nature Walks, a group that leads walks for parents with children 6 years and under, has three walks scheduled soon in Ventura County.

* WHERE AND WHERE: Friday, Rancho Sierra Vista in Newbury Park, 9:30 a.m.; Monday, Los Robles Trail in Thousand Oaks, 9:30 a.m., and Tuesday, Big Sycamore Canyon near Point Mugu, 5 p.m.

* COST: The group asks for a $5 donation per family.

* FYI: To reserve a spot for a walk (or ask about the book "Trails, Tails & Tidepools in Pails"), call (310) 364-3591. Parents and children are asked to wear long pants and to bring water, snacks and sunscreen.

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