More ‘Earth Days’ could stop ‘nature deficit syndrome’

Rachel Lambert, right, the IRC’s Farm Stewardship Coordinator, entertains kids as she explains how native plants are important to the area. The kids, from the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana, were visiting the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Native Seed Farm in Irvine on Saturday, April 21, 2018. (Photo by Paul Rodriguez, Contributing Photographer)

Rachel Lambert, right, the IRC’s Farm Stewardship Coordinator, entertains kids as she explains how native plants are important to the area. The kids, from the Boys and Girls Club of Santa Ana, were visiting the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Native Seed Farm in Irvine on Saturday, April 21, 2018.

It is Earth Day eve and I actually witness kids running around, examining flowers, slinging their arms around one another’s shoulders.

Oh, don’t worry. There are plenty of adults. After all, this is an organized event by the Irvine Ranch Conservancy.

Yet, paradoxically, that points to both the problem as well as the solution for what wildland experts, educators and psychologists are increasingly calling “nature deficit syndrome.”

On my way to and from the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Native Seed Farm — yes, we need to raise native plants to replenish the land — I pass a half-dozen parks and hundreds of acres of green space.

Other than organized sports, not one kid is simply playing, discovering nature, using their imagination to explore the outdoors.

There was a time when a tree could become a ship’s mast, a gully might be a fort to hide from imaginary invaders, a patch of grass was an oasis to watch clouds transform into butterflies.

But parental obsession with sports such as soccer and baseball combined with the lure of digital technology have not only changed the definition of play, they affect the way children behave and quite possibly limit their imagination.

It was a decade ago when Richard Louv wrote the book, “Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder.”

It quickly became a bestseller. But like nearly everything in our disposable society, the book just as quickly turned into yesterday’s news.

“Baby boomers or older,” Louv wrote, “enjoyed a free, kind of natural play that seems, in the era of kid pagers, instant messaging and Nintendo, like a quaint artifact.”

I’ll insert that with the advent of virtual reality, even pagers seem quaint.

Louv elaborated: “Within the space of a few decades, the way children understand and experience nature has changed radically. The polarity of the relationship has reversed.

“Today, kids are aware of global threats to the environment — but their physical contact, their intimacy with nature, is fading.”

For some, nature already has faded. Still, there is hope.

Wildlands in our DNA

Surrounded by yellow poppies at the Native Seed Farm in the foothills of Saddleback Mountain, six-year-old Adithaya Thangaraj can not only spell his name, he tells me he’s seen a real, live mountain lion.

Squatting down, I admit some skepticism and more than a tinge of jealousy. While my conditions for viewing are limited — I want to see my mountain lion in daylight, 50 yards away and heading in the opposite direction — for years I’ve yearned to see a mountain lion, but never have.

Still, this first grader with a dinosaur backpack is absolutely sure he’s spotted a mountain lion. I ask, “Where?”

“At the zoo,” Adithya says.

We both grin. I’ve seen the same mountain lion. But a zoo doesn’t count, I silently tell myself. Seeing wild animals in the wild is akin to touching the natural world’s soul.

During a walk conducted by Michelle Clemente, director of community programs for the Irvine Ranch Conservancy, several dozen Boys and Girls Club kids laugh, look, and, most of the time, even listen.

“Back in the olden days,” Clemente explains, pointing to a mostly barren hill to the north, “cows ate the grass.” Now, there’s little but dirt and invasive plants. Soon though, she offers, seeds grown on the farm will help restore the area.

As Clemente talks, a hummingbird buzzes nearby. Clemente takes the opportunity to explain part of the circle of life — how the sun helps the plants and the plants feed the hummingbird.

I stoop to talk to Angel Martinez, a seven-year-old who wears a turquoise Santa Ana Boys and Girls Club T-shirt. The back offers a truism, “Great futures start here.”

Wearing a conservancy hat embroidered with a coyote, Angel shares she loves being outside and that her family loves being outside, too. Suddenly, Angel’s spotted something far more interesting than a columnist.

Angel’s tracking a lizard.

To some, seeing a lizard doing pushups — actually, territorial headbobs — may seem like no a big deal. But to a kid, a lizard in the wild is always a big deal.

As one girl’s shirt states, “May you be filled with yay!”

Even a billionaire like Donald Bren, chairman of the Irvine Company, shares, “I learned to appreciate nature on land very similar to the preserved open spaces on The Irvine Ranch.

“They not only inspire, they create a sense of freedom.”

Nature vs. digital world

Michael O’Connell is executive director of the Irvine Ranch Conservancy and has a bachelor’s degree in geology and a master’s in conservation biology from Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies.

But rocks and plants are only part of the equation for O’Connell. What truly captures his interest is human interaction with nature.

“There’s something biological about connecting with nature,” says O’Connell who reports he grew up in a family where car camping was a favorite activity. “It wasn’t too many thousands of years ago when we were living right in the middle of nature.”

Like other experts, O’Connell notes humans have an inherent connection with the wild. “We come from nature, we are a part of nature.”

But also echoing others, O’Connell warns, “There’s so much competition for kids attention with TV and smart phones, that modern life denies us that connection.

“There’s a trend away from nature rather than toward nature.”

O’Connell looks toward the future and is troubled. Vast environmental areas are under protection, he points out, but he doesn’t see a new generation of stewardship.

“The disconnect,” the conservancy leader says, “is really quite large and it’s growing.”

Through programs such as the Boys and Girls Club outing on Saturday, which included a nature scavenger hunt and hike, O’Connell hopes to help reverse the trend one child at a time.

Robert Santana, CEO for the Boys & Girls Clubs of in central and coastal Orange County, joins O’Connell in his concerns about children being disconnected from nature.

“We really have the opportunity to build global citizens,” says Santana, an Air Force veteran, “while at the same time ensuring they understand the importance of the environment.”

Some parents already are winning the war against nature deficit syndrome. While 10-year-old Ruben Ochoa, checks out the Native Seed Farm, his parents watch from the parking lot.

Mom, Teresa Ochoa, tells me that she is aware many kids are glued to screens nearly 24/7 and that Boy Scouts and other activities have helped her son discover what makes open space so special.

“He knows there a lot more to the world,” notes dad, Ruben Ochoa, “than social media.”