The city of Irvine is surrounded by 57,500 acres of natural open space that has been permanently preserved by Irvine Company.

The ultimate outdoor classroom

by LORI BASHEDA

Schoolrooms aren’t the only place in Irvine for teaching and learning.

More than half of The Irvine Ranch – 57,500 acres of open space – has been set aside for preservation and education.

Think of The Ranch as one giant outdoor classroom filled with canyons, wildlife and fresh air where you can learn about habitats and geology and ecology.

Scientists have identified this land as one of the best examples of a Mediterranean climate ecosystem in the world, home to dozens of plants and animals that exist nowhere else.

Irvine Ranch Conservancy Program Coordinator Ashley Tirona teaches children about natural habitat and wildlife on The Irvine Ranch.

It is the only land to receive both the California State and U.S. National Natural Landmark designation.

The Irvine Ranch Conservancy, a nonprofit that manages much of the land, offers hundreds of free outdoor educational activities for young and old alike.

“Kids are going back to school this time of year, but you can go into this ‘outdoor classroom’ any time of year to learn about nature,” the Irvine Ranch Conservancy’s Scott Graves says.

Here are a few activities offered by the conservancy:

1. Native Seed Farm Stewardship
Residents young and old can sign up to study and help grow native plants.

“You get to learn while also getting your hands dirty,” Graves says.

The activities are every Wednesday and Saturday at an 8-acre farm that grows over 50 species of native plants. Participants learn to propagate and tend plants, as well as harvest seeds that staff members then plant out in the open space.

Irvine’s open space is a perfect place to learn about wildlife. Few places on Earth offer as much diversity of nature.

2. Art Meets Science
Art Meets Science is a new Next Generation Science Standards program for fourth graders that starts this fall. Teachers at any school can apply.

Students will begin the day at the UC Irvine Museum Collection to view California plein-air paintings — “to gain an appreciation for nature through art,” conservancy Program Coordinator Ashley Tirona says. The students then travel to the Back Bay Science Center, located on an estuarine ecological reserve, to get up close and personal with nature.

“We want them to develop their observation skills and identify patterns in nature, like a scientist,” Tirona says.

The day wraps up with students painting their own plein-air watercolors.

Children build a lifelong appreciation of nature by learning about The Irvine Ranch’s wetland habitat while creating plein-air paintings.

3. Interpretive family nature walks
“All of our interpretive activities have an educational component with some lesson or insight into the environment,” Graves says.

You can sign up for a walk that focuses on local pollinators, canyon geology, even Orange County history. Some walks teach you how to spot wildlife tracks.“

The goal is to educate the public so they learn about the land and become engaged and passionate about it,” Graves says.

Irvine Ranch Conservancy offers several activites in Irvine’s “outdoor classrooms,” including interpretive nature walks.

To sign up for an activity, go to letsgooutside.org.