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Tucson tots learn the fun of hiking. Here's the strategy.

"We plan to bring a dozen two-, three- and four-year-olds to your desert park for a hike," Pam Ashbaugh warned a ranger at Catalina State Park near Tucson.

"In strollers?" he asked incredulously.

No. These tots--some of them not yet out of diapers--move along on their own, or with the aid of an adult hand, if necessary. Launched last year by the Southern Arizona Hiking Club, free once-a-month hikes for preschoolers are teaching a new generation confidence and ease with the outdoors, and an early appreciation for nature.

The guidelines that work for Mrs. Ashbaugh and her Tucson tots can apply elsewhere, either with parents or grandparents looking for a regular outing with young ones, or organizations looking for joint adult-child programs.

"There's nothing these kids can't do if they want to," says Pam Ashbaugh, who believes adults too often underestimate the abilities of children. "Some start out tearful and wanting to be carried, but after a hike or two your rarely hear a whimper. They develop pride and a determination to do it themselves."

There are not hikes in city parks but outings on unpaved trails. Trips start with distances achievable in a half-day: 2 to 4 miles round trip. Trails are reasonably level, rated class D (easiest) by most hiking club standards. There's always a reward, something fun, at the turnaround point: lunch, a tree to climb, pools or a waterfall to play in.

This spring some steeper 4- to 5-mile hikes are planned for the growing and now experienced troupe.

For the tots, hiking with a group of kids their own age proves psychologically better than going just with mom or dad. When children see their peers navigating rocky or hilly areas, crossing streams, or enduring a long stretch, an "I can do that" pride is born.

Participants, as many as two dozen at a time, range in age from 21 months to 6 years. Each is accompanied by an adult, usually a parent or grandparent. (Senior citizens often join the hikes too, finding the pace easy and the company enjoyable.) Before starting, leaders build a sense of anticipation by describing the route and destination. Speed is no priority; the idea is to enjoy sights along the way, not to race to the finish. En route, hikers explore anthills, sniff flowers, share discoveries of lizards, birds' nests--any of nature's surprises.

Adults accompanying any child two or younger bring a pack to carry the youngster if he or she grows too weary. On rocky or hilly spots, adults may lend a hand, but they resist the urge to carry the tots. If children tire, leaders suggest a rest or a snack.

By age three, children often ask to carry their own lightweight backpack with snacks and a small bottle for water or juice; at this age they typically have the metal outlook and physical endurance to hike the entire distance. Youngsters who choose to start with a pack are encouraged to carry it all the way.

By age five, children should be able to carry their fair share. In fact, experienced five-year-olds are physically strong enough to do nearly any adult hike, including some long backpack outings (again, the children's packs would be light).

Other suggestions from organizers. Hike early in the day, when the children are freshest. Be sure they start out fortified with a hearty breakfast.

Difficulty of the terrain and hike can steadily increase as the group gains confidence. Preschoolers who start out tripping over small stones soon become sure-footed and confident on more difficult trails.

As for distance, Mrs. Ashbaugh's rule of thumb is to add a mile for each chronological year until age four or five.

Long pants and a long-sleeved shirt offer best protection in the event of a fall. Shoes must be comfortable.

First-aid kit should include band-aids, an elastic bandage, antibiotic cream, sun and insect protection, a whistle, and a small flashlight.

A good way to recruit young hikers is through baby-sitting co-ops. For some adults who bring children, trips may be their own introduction to hiking.

"Learning to appreciate the outdoors, and how to function in it, is a great heritage to give any child," says Pam Ashbaugh. "Plus it's a great way to store up good memories with your young children."
COPYRIGHT 1984 Sunset Publishing Corp.
No portion of this article can be reproduced without the express written permission from the copyright holder.
Copyright 1984 Gale, Cengage Learning. All rights reserved.

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Date:Apr 1, 1984
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