Educational research has long touted the benefits of connecting children to nature. And with young people spending increasingly more time indoors and online, nature-based education is gaining momentum across the United States. Locally, the philosophy is embedded in programs like those found at Rancho Palomino in Santa Barbara and the Santa Ynez Family School in Los Olivos. Another shared philosophy: Go outside and play, rain or shine!
Julianne Tullis-Thompson, head of school of the Santa Ynez Family School, said the campus began in 1974 with just eight students and has since grown to 94. Tullis-Thompson said kindergarteners and 1st graders in the “blue door” study the water cycle, make terrariums, and weed and plant their own wildflower garden. Over in the “green door,” preschoolers enjoy an indoor/outdoor classroom.
“For much of the day, students get to choose where they would like to play,” she said. “We have an outdoor sink for them to access water for play in the sandbox. We are fortunate to have tarantulas on campus at this time, along with other fun wild animals like alligator lizards and snakes that we teach our students how to interact with safely.”
Rancho Palomino in Santa Barbara provides an array of outdoor learning opportunities through weekend, after-school, and school-break programs. Described as a “homemade, family-supported-and-operated educational-enrichment, community-benefit project,” subjects covered include horsemanship, studio arts, cultural arts, crafts, cooking, traditional archery, agriculture, animal care, farming, and horseback riding.
Kids learn about gardening by planting, growing, and harvesting organically grown food. They establish a food sharing/trading community among neighbors, which teaches them the importance of becoming less reliant on packaged foods.
Ines Casillas’s two children, Lazlo (9) and Matias (6), both students at Adelante Charter School, have enjoyed Rancho Palomino since it opened in 2015. “I love that they roam around, away from screens; that they feed pigs and goats; and that they move hay and get dirty,” she said. “I believe it has taught my children about community and compassion for everything living, from the garden to the animals.”
Lazlo says he’s a fan of “archery and feeding the horses,” while Matias looks forward to “riding the horses and collecting eggs from the chicken coop,” although his mother added that they might have actually been turkey eggs.
Nature-based education pioneer Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children From Nature-Deficit Disorder, argues that children today nationwide are overly controlled and confined, and that direct exposure to nature is essential for their physical and emotional health. Louv’s research spurred a national dialogue surrounding the urgency for change.
“Nature-deficit disorder is not a formal diagnosis but a way to describe the psychological, physical, and cognitive costs of human alienation from nature, particularly for children in their vulnerable developing years,” he wrote, adding that some of the most disturbing childhood trends, such as the rises in obesity, attention disorders, and depression, can be countered by just getting kids outside to play, rain or shine.