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Outdoor Education a Plus for Lessons in Science and Language Arts

Santa Barbara’s Wilderness Youth Project Explores Nature’s Classrooms

Wilderness Youth Project’s Jenn Sepulveda with kids from Storyteller Children’s Center
Courtesy Photo

It’s a Tuesday morning a handful of days before the autumn equinox. Fourth grader Luisa is exploring a rocky wonderland along East Camino Cielo, an area of climbable outcroppings and pine trees threaded with trails. She asks me, “Do you hear that?” I hear a wren-tit calling from the chaparral. “It’s a cricket,” she asserts. About to correct her, I listen deeper. I hear the cricket.

As we pause, the soundscape expands to include the breeze in the trees and the clamorous joy of the rest of Luisa’s class exploring nearby. Luisa tells me she’s a naturalist. In particular, she says she’s interested in moss, pointing to a sandstone boulder. We crouch down, peering closely at the lichens colonizing the rock. She asks, “Do you think the other kids want to be friends to nature?”

This is the second year Wilderness Youth Project (WYP) has offered this Bridge to Nature program to about 300 Santa Barbara 4th graders. Most of them don’t show up curious about moss. But as we rotate through classes during the program, we realized it’s a time of firsts ​— ​the first time the kids get to climb on rocks, to see squirrels eating seeds from a pinecone, to investigate the muddy shallows of the Santa Ynez River, to marvel at moss. As Ralph Waldo Emerson’s poetic reflection reminds us, “The first in time and the first in importance on the influences upon the mind is that of nature.”

In schools challenged to overcome significant achievement and enrichment gaps, the outdoors offers a level playing field. Educational strategies are always evolving, working to respond to the times while balancing funding and testing trends. And in recent decades, evidence has piled up in support of outdoor education. Social ecologist Stephen Kellert of Yale University sums it up: “Children’s direct and regular experience of the natural world is an irreplaceable dimension of healthy maturation and development.” But we’re not offering regular doses of this essential developmental ingredient today ​— ​schoolchildren spend more than 90 percent of their time indoors.

So, is outdoor ed science? PE? Social studies? Language? I’m going with “all of the above.” As Next Generation Science Standards were developed in recent years, real-life experiences of natural processes lined up with curriculum. In 2015, California even adopted a Blueprint for Environmental Literacy to include environmental principles in curricula of history and social science. And back in 2005, the California Department of Education found that at-risk children who participated in outdoor education programs raised their science test scores by 27 percent, improved their conflict-resolution and problem-solving skills, and experienced better self-esteem and motivation to learn.

Tempting as it is to think that time in nature is related only to science, we’re hearing back from teachers about what one of them has dubbed “the experience bank.” To write, for example, a student must have something to write about. If prompted to write about a summer vacation that was spent mostly indoors, there might not be much to write about. However, after a few adventurous hours outside with WYP, students have made deposits in their experience banks, which informs their writing and achievements in English language arts.

“When I announce that tomorrow is a WYP day, the kids burst out in cheer,” reflected another teacher. “An overwhelming number of students cite WYP as their favorite activity, and [they’ve been] very detailed in their keen appreciation for learning outdoors, immersing themselves in nature, and making memories.” Another teacher added, “We study soils, rocks, and landforms in 4th grade, so their monthly hands-on WYP adventures lend perfectly to science [and adds] vivid content to their narratives.”

There’s no across-the-board panacea for the difficulties of public education. But the idea that spending time outdoors makes our children smarter, healthier, and happier is something to keep in mind. When “back to school” includes a bit of “go outside and play,” that’s good news.

A recent Wilderness Youth Project campaign raised more than $220,000 for the nonprofit’s outdoor education programming. For more information, visit wyp.org. WYP is also one of 44 nonprofits participating in Santa Barbara Gives!, a year-end opportunity to give to organizations making an impact in our community. Learn more and donate to any of the 44 nonprofits at sbgives.org.

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