An Irvine Ranch Conservancy volunteer works to keep kids engaged with nature through local family hikes.
The wild mysteries are everywhere. The young nature detectives are on the case. Armed with a magnifying glass and photos, they’re out to find and identify Orange County’s native plants and creatures. Guiding their adventures and curating their interest in the outdoors is Fran Howard, a volunteer with Irvine Ranch Conservancy who has been leading local family hikes for more than a decade.
IRC manages about 30,000 acres of land, most of it belonging to OC Parks and falling within the Irvine Ranch Natural Landmarks. The conservancy relies on volunteers to lead its many public programs. Howard, a lifelong avid hiker and nature lover, discovered it as a participant before taking docent classes at Saddleback College to officially join the ranks about 14 years ago. She noticed the guided hikes were rather challenging with few to no options for young kids or whole families and decided to do something about it. The idea was a success from the start.
“My philosophy is if we don’t get the younger generation interested, we may not have any outdoors. We may build all over the place,” says the Laguna Woods resident. “Our goal was to get everybody out there, the families and also the children to see how wonderful it is to get out and walk around plants and animals, and it’s been great.”
Howard knows all about getting out. The mother of three now-adult children was hiking with them when they were little and now hikes with her grandsons, who are 11 and 9 years old. She also volunteers at Crystal Cove, in Dana Point, and hits the trails in her free time.
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These days, each weekly IRC hike she leads is about three miles long and lasts about three hours at an easy pace with no big elevation. No cardio sessions here. It accommodates up to 20 hikers — a mix of adults, teens and children — many of whom become regulars on the trails. While the official program (found at letsgooutside.org) lists the minimum age of participants as 6, Howard said younger children are allowed as long as they can manage the distance since strollers are forbidden.
As they walk, Howard makes it a point to talk to everyone, a combination of sharing information about local plants — from their names to their importance to the environment and different uses — and answering questions from children playing an “I spy” type of nature game. Animal sightings add an extra thrill to the outings. At the beginning of a hike, each child gets a bag with a paper, pencil, magnifying glass, printed photos of what they could see along the way, a questionnaire about the facts they may learn and more.
“These kids get so excited,” Howard says. “We have a very positive attitude. I’ve had so many children lately that have been with us that know as much as we do, and it’s amazing.”
What gets Howard excited is seeing people get away from their screens and outside of their enclosed homes to truly appreciate the nature around them and its importance.
“I love to see children growing and learning so much more about outdoors,” Howard says. “I guess it’s my way to give back. I love it.”
By Magda Hernandez