Breen, director of education at The Escondido Creek Conservancy, has been providing outdoor education in San Diego County for eight years and is the recipient of the Municipal Water District’s 2021 “Educator of the Year” award. Olivenhain. He lives in Rolando Park.
As a tornado of very excited 9-year-olds from Escondido exited a crowded school bus and shattered the tranquility of the Elfin Forest, I did my best to get their attention and prepare them for explorations and scientific discoveries awaiting them. The tornado could not be defeated. The teacher shyly apologized on behalf of her students. “It’s been a crazy class this school year,” she told me.
I gathered a loud group and led them onto the track. The nature gods were kind: a mole, blind to the oncoming horde, casually walked to the middle of the path right in their path and stopped. Muffled sounds of awe instantly hit them, then a surge of curiosity followed: “What is this?” ” What is he doing ? Suddenly, they wanted to know everything about the habitat in which he lives. “It’s the most focused I’ve seen them in the whole school year,” their teacher told me.
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Nature has a knack for engaging even the craziest children. Countless times, teachers have told us at The Escondido Creek Conservancy that a student who struggles to pay attention in class suddenly turns into a model student when learning takes place outside. These experiences – the ability to learn outdoors – should be something all children can have. Unfortunately, it is not the case. But we can change that.
The Escondido Creek Conservancy launched California’s statewide outdoor learning movement in 2020. It aims to secure permanent state funding for outdoor education opportunities aligned with standards so that all of California’s nearly 6 million public school children can experience outdoor learning at all levels and that such opportunities are an integral part of California public education. It’s a big hairy lens, but well worth the investment.
Research has identified several incredible benefits associated with learning outdoors. My colleague Jennifer Imm has compiled a review of the literature on these benefits, including deeper civic and community engagement as well as significant improvements in mental, physical and emotional health. Especially after a protracted pandemic that has wreaked havoc on children’s mental well-being and increased their risk of obesity, diabetes and cardiovascular disease, an investment in outdoor education would pay dividends as it reduces the burden on our health care system and illuminates the future of our children.
California is the most populous state in the country, but we rank near the bottom (44th out of 50) in student achievement, school quality, and student safety in a 2022 national report from Scholaroo . We can do better. Fortunately, another notable benefit of outdoor education is improved academic performance. Schools that have integrated environmental education programs perform better than comparable schools that do not. If we can provide standards-aligned curriculum in nature at every grade level, California can fix its academic rankings.
Although outdoor education offers a host of impressive benefits, unfortunately, not everyone has the opportunity to receive such programs and the benefits they provide. There is a serious equity problem here for a variety of reasons.
On the one hand, because school funding is determined in part by property taxes, some schools have the resources to provide their students with an overabundance of outdoor programs, while others struggle to repair the leaky ceilings and broken windows. Even when the funding is there, outdoor education providers may lack the human and financial resources to meet the demand. Environmental education in San Diego County is a microcosm for the rest of the state. Lots of great work is being done, but there are gaps and overlaps regarding which classrooms receive programs. One teacher may land several field trips for their students, while another gets nothing. In the Escondido Union School District, The Escondido Creek Conservancy is part of a consortium of conservation partners working together to prevent this problem. Together, we and our partners provide all K-8 students in the Escondido Union School District with outdoor programs in a coordinated way, and students reap the benefits. It’s a near-perfect example of what could be possible if funding were available consistently, here and across the state. Unreliable funding leaves good programs at risk of being lost from one school year to the next, depriving children of meaningful opportunities.
As a grassroots movement, California Statewide Outdoor Learning needs your help. If you believe outdoor education and the benefits associated with it should be a right, not a privilege, help us make that dream a reality for California Public Schools by endorsing California Statewide Outdoor Learning. With your support, a healthier, brighter, more equitable future for our children and for California is on the horizon.