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THE GOOD DIRT : When It’s Time to Pursue Outside Interests, There’s Nothing Like the Classics: Mud, Bugs and Mother Nature

<i> Corinne Flocken covers children's events for The Times Orange County Edition. </i>

Ahhhhh, spring. The time when every young man’s--and young lady’s--fancy turns to . . . mud.

What with the rise in temperatures and the sprinkling of spring rains, this is the time of year when children are eager to drink up the great outdoors in big gulps: wriggling toes in mud puddles, filling pockets with smashed blossoms, bugs and other seasonal booty.

To further cultivate these budding interests, kids can participate in one of the several nature- and science-themed programs next week at sites countywide. The activity may be as simple as a walk through the woods with a knowledgeable guide, or more advanced, such as a foray into forensic science or an exploration of coastal ecosystems. There are programs available for a wide range of ages; some are free, others will set you back a bit.

The following is a small sample of what’s out there. Unless otherwise indicated, advance registration is suggested.

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Oh, and be sure to wipe your shoes before you come in the house.

Environmental Nature Center

At just 2 1/2 acres, ENC is a great thing in a small package, says its administrator, Debra Clark. Twelve California plant communities are represented here, including valley grassland, redwood forest and desert environments. The wildflowers and flowering trees and bushes are “gorgeous” right now, said Clark, making this an ideal time to stop by.

There is no charge to visit the center, but for a fee ($1 per head, $10 minimum per group) visitors can take advantage of several guided walks, including a “Thanks for Plants” program for preschool-age children and walks that teach older children how early Native Americans used plants.

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The volunteer teachers who lead the tours encourage questions and hands-on exploration, Clark said.

“We don’t like lines,” she said with a laugh. “We gather around and learn and touch and smell (and) use all the senses.” The nature center also offers a small museum and library, where visitors can see (and in some cases, touch) live and taxidermied animals, Native American artifacts and other neat stuff.

Every Wednesday from 2:30 to 5:30 p.m. children are welcome to help out at the center, clearing weeds and maintaining the stream, pond and trails. There is no minimum age for this, Clark said, but she does ask that the volunteers are “old enough to help and not be baby-sat.”

Environmental Nature Center, 1601 16th St., Newport Beach. (714) 645-8489.

Launch Pad Science Center

If a seasonal shower dampens your plans for an outdoor outing, the Launch Pad is standing by with a new series of science- and nature-themed workshops.

Launch Pad is an interactive science center that opened in the Crystal Court shopping center last June and was designed as a preview for the Discovery Science Center, a 76,000-square-foot facility scheduled to open in Santa Ana in mid-1997.

Spring Break Discovery Days at Launch Pad continue through April 7. The 90-minute sessions meet at 10 a.m. and 1 p.m. in the center’s community room and may include slide shows, hands-on activities and crafts, according to the center’s director of education, Janet Yamaguchi. The $7.50 fee per class includes admission to the Launch Pad’s permanent exhibits. The series features “Dolphin Days” (Monday, April 4, for ages 5 to 14), which includes slides, discussion and an “echolocation” game led by Donna Wirfs of the Dolphin Project; “Forensic Science Foray” (Tuesday, April 5, for ages 10 to 14), which sets up a mock crime scene to teach fingerprinting and microscopic fiber identification; “The Magic of Origami” (Wednesday, April 6, for ages 7 to 12), which touches on mathematical principles through an ancient art, and “The Zoo Comes to Crystal Court” (April 7, for ages 5 to 14), an introduction to zoology with live animals from the Santa Ana Zoo.

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Launch Pad Science Center, in Crystal Court, 3333 Bear St., Costa Mesa. (714) 546-2061.

Oak Canyon Nature Center

It seems as if there’s a nature program of some type going on at this 58-acre Anaheim Hills facility at just about all hours. In addition, there are six miles of hiking trails, and a kid-friendly interpretive center stocked with taxidermied birds and animals, plus some local bugs, snakes and critters. Admission to the nature center is free.

From Monday, April 4, through April 8, Oak Canyon hosts the last of its three inter-session programs. That week’s topic: environmental awareness. Running from 9:30 a.m. to 12:30 p.m., the classes are open to youths age 6 to 12 and include a guided hike, games and crafts that cover such topics as recycling, water conservation and extinction. The fee is $8 per day; children can enroll for as many sessions as they like. Also, every Tuesday and Thursday the center hosts its Afternoon Adventures series of hikes and hands-on activities. Next week’s focus is on rain forest animals.

Oak Canyon Nature Center, 6700 Walnut Canyon Road, Anaheim. (714) 998-8380.

Santa Ana Zoo

Although the zoo’s education department won’t be hosting any special classes next week, it will mark the season with its first annual Spring Fling, an event that promises to give new meaning to the term “egg hunt.” From 11 a.m. to 2 p.m., children can visit four stations throughout the zoo that introduce different egg-laying animals and birds, from the flightless rhea to turtles and garden-variety chickens. Crafts at each station will reinforce the lessons, and those who complete all four stations receive a prize. Games, face-painting and nature-themed stories are also included. Free with zoo admission of $1 to $3.

Santa Ana Zoo, 1801 E. Chestnut Ave., Santa Ana. (714) 836-4000.

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Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve and Regional Park

Visitors can enjoy nature by land or by sea through one of the park’s ongoing public programs.

These include Canoe the Back Bay (every Saturday starting at 8:30 a.m.; $11) and naturalist-led tours (first and third Saturdays at 9 a.m.; free). Down the road, there’s an Earth Day wingding on April 17 with nature-themed games, booths and hands-on activities. We suggest you get one of their program guides and tape it to your refrigerator door.

Upper Newport Bay Ecological Reserve and Regional Park, 600 Shellmaker Road, Newport Beach. (714) 496-2274.

Dana Point Harbor Youth and Group Facility

This waterfront facility offers a slew of spring break camps and workshops, but nature-seekers will probably be most drawn to its Ocean Awareness program. Running Monday, April 4, through April 8, from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m., this series for 7- to 10-year-olds offers an overview of coastal ecosystems through exploration of local tide pools, beachfront and caves. Activities include specimen collection, fishing, body-boarding and a barbecue party. Fee: $80.

Dana Point Harbor Youth and Group Facility, 34451 Ensenada Place, Dana Point. (714) 661-7122.


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