At ocean's edge. Peeking in tide pools

One towheaded five-year-old just can't quite get himself to step into the six-inch-deep pool of icy, seaweed-laced water left behind by the receding tide. ``It goes against everything they've been told at home and school,'' someone observes. After all, even though his pant legs are fairly adequately rolled up, his sneakers are still on! But some sort of foot protection is needed for a foray into the rock- and shell-strewn tidepools. Finally, nudged by yells of discovery and the lure of flipping a stone to find a sea star or a dog whelk, he cautiously but inevitably ventures in, sneakers and all.

Once children get a taste for exploring the shoreline microcosm of plants and animals, they often can't get enough of it, observes Mary Jo Chadwick, a veteran volunteer leader of the ``Tidepools for Tots'' expeditions organized by the Nature Center at Odiorne Point. Her own son, John, began poking around the colorful puddles and ponds as soon as he could walk. Now 10, he and a friend form the advance scouting party for this morning's troop of three- to five-year-olds.

``Mom! Sea urchins!'' comes the cry, cutting short Mary Jo's mini lecture on how seaweed provides the thickener for toothpaste. The party of a dozen or so adults and youngsters wades among rocks mounded with kelp toward the two boys, one of which proudly holds out a spiny urchin, maybe three inches in diameter, that has cleverly camouflaged itself with periwinkle shells and other well-chosen debris. Mary Jo shows how the creature's multitude of tiny, brown ``tube feet'' wiggle into action as soon as it' s placed back into the water.

A couple of minutes later another huddle forms around the intrepid Mrs. Chadwick. This time the attraction is a limpet fixed tightly to a rock -- the spoked, peaked, intricate shell gives the little animal its popular name, ``Chinese hats.''

A real blockbuster comes next. One of the boys lifts up some seaweed to discover a baby lobster. Mary Jo explains how the pinchers work and everyone gets a chance to touch the gesticulating crustacean before it's allowed to scamper (in reverse, lobster fashion) back to cover.

But ``oohs'' and ``aahs'' aren't all the morning's outing offers this group of children and the other three teams of youngsters dispersed, each with a Nature Center leader, along the rocky coast. They're being let in not only on the intriguing variety of tide-pool life, but on a constructive attitude toward that life -- and hence toward nature generally.

Before they ever leave the little Nature Center building, with its aquariums and other displays, they're told about their responsibility to be gentle with the creatures they'll be visiting. ``Remember, you're the giant,'' as Mary Jo reminds the children in her group.

Those lessons will stick in young memories, the Nature Center staff hopes, along with the pungent smell of the rocks at low tide, the slipperiness of the seaweed, and the thrill, as one young explorer recounted it, of ``finding the crabs -- a red crab and a rock crab!''

The Odiorne Point Nature Center program began 12 years ago in an old firehouse on state park property which, over the years, had been the site of summer homes for the wealthy and shoreline gun batteries. But the land here has only one purpose now: giving people a chance to appreciate the fragile coastal environment. Nature center director Julia Steed Mawson says the park's educational program is designed to function as ``an agent for change'' -- change in the public's attitude toward nature and, down the line, change in the public policies that protect places like Odiorne Point.

In addition to the ``Tidepools for Tots'' offerings, there are outings aimed at older children and college-age students. Central to every facet of the program are volunteers -- the senior volunteers who help with administrative tasks at the center, and volunteers, like Mary Jo Chadwick, from the Marine Docent Program at the University of New Hampshire. ``Without the docents, we couldn't do the kind of programming we like to do,'' says Mrs. Mawson.

Bolstering the center is an alliance of sponsors, including the New Hampshire Division of Parks, the Audubon Society, and the University of New Hampshire Marine and Sea Grant Programs.

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