FOR THE KIDS : Natural Course : Group designs its wilderness hikes in Ventura and L.A. counties for children from infancy to kindergarten age.

SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

You don't have to wait until your child is a sturdy walker ready for grade school before you undertake that first hike and lesson about the great outdoors.

Nursery Nature Walks, a Los Angeles-based group that organizes short wilderness hikes in Ventura and Los Angeles counties, has designed its program to reach children from infancy to kindergarten age.

Yes, infancy. The trails are accessible to strollers, and some toddlers ride in backpacks. For those who insist that they can make it on their own two legs, the trails are only a quarter of a mile to one mile in length.

"We feel that the earlier children are involved in nature, especially with their parents, the more they appreciate it and it becomes part of their life," said Judy Burns, director of the group.

"And, it's a wonderful place to bond and spend quality time with your child," said Burns, who has a master's degree in child development and has run parenting groups for years.

The organization is developing nature programs for children 5 to 8 years old, and by April expects to release a nature book with 80 or more family activities. But trail-walking and younger children are the main focus.

The group has staked out 40 trails in the two counties, primarily in the Santa Monica Mountains. Although the organization offers 35 to 50 walks a month, there are long waiting lists, especially on the weekends, and families are urged to reserve a spot three weeks in advance.

"We've grown enormously," said Burns, who was a volunteer leader when the nonprofit organization formed in 1985. It has become so popular that it can't meet 40% of the walk requests. During 1990, more than 13,500 people went on the walks. For 1991, the number is expected to reach 15,000.

The outings are limited to 10 families. The group requests a $5 donation per family for each walk.

This is no simple walk in the woods. It's a two-hour experience, aimed at teaching respect and care for wildlife. The walks are led by volunteers who have undergone 24 hours of training in geology, plant, bird and animal identification, and children's activities. As the number of trained leaders in Ventura County grows, so does the number of trails.

What happens on each walk depends on the leader and the trail. Leaders might demonstrate how to lift a rock, observe the life underneath it, and then carefully replace it. They might note the unique texture and shape of leaves. Or they might point out birds' nests and the various nooks and crannies that are homes to wildlife.

"The children who start early in nature get excited and learn to explore gently," Burns said. "The new kids pull plants out by the roots and don't realize that it's an animal's home."

At the Malibu Lagoon, leaders may teach children to make sand paintings on paper plates with glue. A treasure hunt may be devised, or a game of color-seeking on the trail. Babies can share the experience too, if their parents touch a soft leaf to their cheeks.

"The kids get real excited about little things," said Marlena Day of Moorpark, a walk leader for more than three years. "They like to listen to the sound of big sycamore leaves crunching under foot. They get excited when they find deer or rodent tracks."

One 2-year-old boy, Day said, was amazed by the sight of woodpecker holes in a tree. He even remembered it more than a year later when he went on another walk.

Families who want even more involvement can buy Nursery Nature Walk memberships for $25 to $100. The organization claims about 400 members, who get invitations to special events such as tours of the Los Angeles Zoo, and receive priority when scheduled walks become filled.

Membership fees and walk donations also help make nature walks possible for low-income families and handicapped children. Last year, 1,800 disadvantaged or handicapped children used the trails, Burns said.

ON THE TRAIL

Nursery Nature Walks, 12021 Wilshire Blvd., Los Angeles, offers informative wilderness walks for parents and their children from newborns to kindergarten age. Of 40 trails the group walks, at least seven are in Ventura County. Many of the others are nearby in the Santa Monica Mountains. For information or reservations, call 1-213-964-3955.

Here's the schedule for walks in Ventura County:

JANUARY

* Jan. 2, Stagecoach Inn, Thousand Oaks, 1 p.m.

* Jan. 4, Rancho Sierra Vista, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

* Jan. 25, Los Robles Trail, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

* Jan. 28, Los Robles Trail, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

FEBRUARY

* Feb. 8, Rancho Sierra Vista, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

* Feb. 16, Rancho Sierra Vista, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

* Feb. 17, Los Robles Trail, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

* Feb. 25, Big Sycamore Canyon, Point Mugu State Park, 10 a.m.

MARCH

* March 1, Los Robles Trail, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

* March 3, Rancho Sierra Vista, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

* March 12, Los Robles Trail, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

* March 14, Rancho Sierra Vista, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

* March 26, Rancho Sierra Vista, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

* March 31, Los Robles Trail, Thousand Oaks, 10 a.m.

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