Dyllan Stanfield’s eyes lit up when she saw the hedgehog … and the opossum … and all the goats.
The 6-year-old—an aspiring veterinarian, according to her mom—had many questions for the Orange County Zoo zookeepers on a recent visit. And she got many answers in return.
“We are able to educate children on the importance of wildlife, and how to have a respect for nature, since we share many of the same spaces, and may encounter wildlife at any time,” said Marcy Crede-Booth, curator of education for the OC Zoo. “Our zoo primarily has animals that are native to our local area and the southwestern U.S. Most of these animals come to us because they are injured or hurt, and California Fish & Wildlife says they cannot go back into the wild—some have been orphaned as young animals, and some have been confiscated from people who had them illegally. … When children see these animals up close and have that personal experience and interaction with some animals, and hear about an animal’s personal story, they gain a respect and understanding that hopefully will extend to all wildlife.”
Education involving the outdoors features prominently at many Orange County private schools. From field trips to school gardens, there are many ways teachers are exploring nature and wildlife with their students.
The Outdoors as a Teaching Tool
The outdoors figure strongly in the underlying philosophy of Montessori schools.
“Montessori classrooms from infancy through adolescence feature access to outdoor environments, and nature forms as an integral part of the education of our students,” said Eric Daniels, head of school at LePort Montessori Irvine Spectrum. “In preschool, children begin to develop an appreciation of nature through care for plants and small garden plots. In the elementary and middle school programs, the students have regular field trips to a variety of outdoor learning environments, from conservation areas, parks, overnight camps and beyond.”
Wendy Reinsch Fisher, vice president of education at LePort Southern California School in Orange County, Los Angeles and San Diego, said there are many benefits to children.
“Students learn empathy from caring for and connecting with nature, plants and animals,” said Fisher. “In our hyper-stimulating world, children of all ages benefit from unstructured time in nature during which they can use their imaginations and contemplate. The biology curriculum is intertwined with outdoor learning at every level as well. In preschool the children learn the names and parts of plants and animals. In elementary the children also gain an understanding of the functions of each part or system, the classification of both plants and animals, as well as the interdependence of all living things and the human-built world. In middle school, the students study ecology and focus more on the connections between humans and nature. Work and study in the outdoor provides opportunities to experience real-world cause and effect.”
Chhay Liv, elementary science teacher at Heritage Oak Private Education in Yorba Linda, said the school uses field trips to outdoor destinations as a way to enrich students’ learning.
“It teaches children to not be afraid of the outside world,” he said. “And is especially important in the world of video games, touch devices, TV shows and movies, where they spend their hours now inside instead of outside. It teaches them to not only be socially active in a positive sense but also teaches them that we are connected to nature and to each other.”
He said he enjoys taking teaching to the outdoors as a way of changing up the learning environment.
“Learning doesn’t have to have walls,” he said. “I use the parking lot and the whole campus to encompass my dynamic way of teaching. Instead of showing them a video of living and non-living things, we go outside and hunt for these things. Instead of trying to describe to the students about a really cool activity I know about, we go outside and learn about the energy pyramid by getting involved in a really wet and wild activity that shows how the energy pyramid ‘leaks’ 90 percent of its energy when moving up the pyramid. When a teacher involves the outdoors and makes it an excuse to go outside not only will it be more memorable to the children—and some other educators—but it will involve more of the children in class.”
Maria M. Bashaw, administrative services manager at Anneliese Schools in Laguna Beach, said they use the outdoors as a teaching tool for many programs. Gardening is used to teach social studies, science, cultural studies and for kids to learn about food production, food waste and composting. Hikes around the area can involve looking for fossils and studying topography for geology and geography coursework.
“It is important because of the first-hand knowledge and real-life experience for the students,” she said. “They are able to retain what they see and learn. By retaining this knowledge, they can apply it to their life. For example, with gardening, they learn to tend to plants, know what to plant when based on the seasons, they harvest, prepare meals and gather scraps for composting. As they mature in the grades, the concepts become increasingly complex, so that they learn about the history of food production, know the differences between organic and conventional cultivation to make informed decisions about their food consumption.”
Clinton D. Davis, head of school at The Discovery Prep School in Aliso Viejo, said student engagement and curiosity are enhanced when students have the ability to apply what they learn in school to experiences in the real world outside of school.
“Life is risky, joyous, oftentimes challenging and wonderful,” he said. “It’s messy, not packaged in safe little rows, housed in glamorous buildings. It’s important that kids experience all of these aspects of life in a nurturing place with great mentors guiding them. Expeditionary learning allows for all of these aspects to become actualized. Expeditions provide opportunities for students to let their natural curiosity be their guides. Students and faculty [are] able to unplug, consider the experiences of others, look each other in the eye and have meaningful conversations—what more could we want from our schools?”
Some schools like Waldorf School of Orange County in Costa Mesa have a location that lends itself well to building a strong connection with nature.
“Located on the bluffs by Fairview Park, Talbert Nature Preserve and sharing Parsons Field with Estancia High School, our students have daily access to open space,” said Brooke Natzke, a teacher at Waldorf School of Orange County. “Our youngest students, pre-K and kindergarten, walk at least weekly in these open spaces, enjoying free play in nature with the sole purpose of being outdoors amongst the nature. These walks continue through the grades, extending as long as eighth grade depending on the teacher. In fourth grade, class field trips and hikes begin supplementing the local nature with nature across our state. Our high school students also utilize the natural space around our campus, as inspiration for poetry, science and simply as an open and natural space to explore.”
The Pegasus School in Huntington Beach has a 13-acre campus adjacent to the Santa Ana River.
“We get an abundance of birds and other wildlife that visit our campus, including red-tailed hawks and red-shouldered hawks, peregrine falcons and the like, as well as raccoons and possums,” said Pamela Conti, director of environmental sustainability at The Pegasus School. “These visitors make it easy for science teachers to use them as subjects to teach about habitats, species identification and habitat destruction, as well as adaptation. Tracking animals is also a fun way to hone observation skills.”
Conti said she teaches primarily outside in an organic garden called the Kinder Garden and each grade level has a different theme.
“In third grade for example, we are Orange County Naturalists, who study the flora and fauna of Orange County using backpacks filled with outdoor tools such as field guides, binoculars, magnifying lenses and bug boxes to collect specimens,” she said. “We then use microscopes and the field guides to help identify the various species we find. We also study local butterflies and plant their larval food plants in order to attract more butterflies and study their life cycles.”
Conti said their school philosophy is to use outdoor nature play, with natural materials, as a foundation for building strong cognitive and social-emotional skills.
“We believe, based on the numerous studies available, that nature play helps children build positive relationships with others, helps with issues of attention-deficit, increases fine and gross motor skills, balance and agility,” she said. “When children play in nature they not only develop a stronger connection to the world around them, but also tend to be more imaginative, creative and collaborative. Outdoor play gives children space to develop kinesthetic and gross motor skills that you just can’t get inside the classroom. And most importantly to me, is that nature often reduces stress in children—and adults—and helps buffer the impact of life’s stresses.”
Outdoor Field Trips
Of course field trips can play a significant role in outdoor education. For example, The Pegasus School takes third-graders to the Shipley Nature Center in Huntington Beach, second-graders to the Newport Back Bay in Newport Beach and fifth-graders to the Ocean Institute in Dana Point. LePort Montessori Irvine Spectrum students have visited Catalina Island, the Pali Institute Outdoor Education in Running Springs, Calif., and The Irvine Ranch Outdoor Education Center in Orange. Recent trips for students at The Discovery Prep School include Yosemite National Park, Zion National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Lassen Volcanic National Park, to name a few.
Though it’s hard to pick the most popular, here are some of the favorites:
Pali Institute Outdoor Education in Running Springs, Calif.
LePort Montessori Irvine Spectrum
Mission San Juan Capistrano
Heritage Oak Private Education (fourth grade)
Anneliese Schools (sixth grade)
Catalina Island Marine Institute in Avalon, Calif.
Heritage Oak Private Education (seventh grade)
AstroCamp Science & Adventure Summer Camp in Idyllwild, Calif.
Heritage Oak Private Education (sixth grade)
Big Bear Lake
By Jessica Peralta