Walking down the street, with her head buried in her phone, is a young girl; one of throngs of young adults growing up as the world goes by. Birds, trees, rabbits, coyotes… they fly by, flutter in the wind, sound their calls in the evening… and the phone dominates her world, and that of so many like her. Although the benefits of modern technology are clear, many have lost sight of the benefits of time in nature, especially for children.
Research by The Nature Conservancy is documenting that kids are less and less connected to nature. Technology is challenging youth to build emphatic relationships and develop the social skills needed to create a compassionate and engaged world as adults. The most direct route to caring for the environment as an adult is participating in “wild nature activities” before the age of 11 (Wells and Lekies, 2006).
This poses significant risks for the future of conservation as well as our communities—which is why growing community support is so critical for the nature and education program called “Learning Among the Oaks,” known as LATO.
Over the past 13 years, the program has expanded from its public school base in Santa Margarita to a South County public school base in Arroyo Grande (Ocean View School). A third public school partner will be unveiled this year.
LATO activities are designed to connect kids – representing a diversity of socio-economic backgrounds – with nature in the oak woodlands that dominate local landscapes. Kids experience the joy of making discoveries as well as learning about teamwork, caring for the land and each other, and the creatures that live around us. And along the way, many fall in love with the essence of what makes SLO County special: our oak woodlands.
That’s what happened with Jenna, Jessie and James, triplets who are part of the LATO program. On a stormy May evening, a tree fell at their country home, killing their family’s llama. Sadness and shock soon gave way to rescue and care as nine year old Jenna and her siblings James and Jessie (triplets!) discovered another casualty: a baby bird who had been nesting in the now fallen tree. It was a starling, not the most popular or beautiful bird, but that didn’t matter.
Rather than dismiss the plight of the bird, the children sprang into action, digging for worms in their pajamas into the night as they cared for the nestling bird. Their hard work paid off. The next day they delivered the baby bird to the Pacific Wildlife Care’s rehabilitation center in Morro Bay, where it thrived and was later released.
But what may have flourished most was their love of animals—and their desire to make sure these animals have a place to call home. “This is what LATO does” explained Bev Gingg, The Land Conservancy’s Oak Education Manager. “It inspires a passion for living things; it brings school to life in a way that creates memories and magic.” For many, it’s the beginning of a lifetime of caring about nature.
Jenna wanted to do more. She applied to become a junior oak nature guide aka Oak Ambassador, writing “I love to share what I’ve learned about nature with others. I think this is a great opportunity to explore my curiosity’s (sic). Through the Oak Ambassador program, LATO empowers youth to become leaders, teaching and inspiring other kids to care about nature as they do. Since graduating from the Oak Ambassador program, Jenna has been busy leading nature hikes for other children and educating the community. Jenna said she loves spending time with her OA friends and nature.