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ILACSD Educators Get Kids Out of the Classroom and Into Nature

Today’s post comes from ILACSD’s Environmental Educator, Alex Mullen-Ley.

Students consult their field guides on a Nearby Nature walk.

It is easy to see that the staff members here at I Love A Clean San Diego are all fervent environmentalists.  I can confidently say that this enthusiasm is due in no small part to our unique childhood experiences in the great outdoors. Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods: Saving Our Children from Nature-Deficit Disorder, maintains that a child’s experience in nature is vital to his or her development.  Studies have shown that youth who spend time outside are happier, healthier, and are better at learning than those who spend most of their time indoors.  ILACSD’s Nearby Nature program allows our educators to help youth connect with nature by leading them on an outdoor walk through a natural area close to their school.  We recently had the opportunity to take elementary students from two very different schools out of the comfort of their classrooms and into the wild.

Our first group of students was from John Muir Elementary, a school with a rather serendipitous name located next to Tecolote Canyon Natural Park.  After a short set of instructions and a safety talk in the classroom, we led the students out the door and down into the canyon. It was cool and invigorating early in the morning, and I was amazed to hear that many students had never been to the canyon before, despite its proximity to the school.

We handed all of the students a field guide with colorful pictures of San Diego’s native species. They used the guides throughout the walk to identify the plants and animals that we saw during the short walk through the canyon.  The most exciting part of the adventure was when one group walked around a corner and saw a three-foot long snake lying across the middle of the trail not five feet away!  After everyone had calmed down, the students looked up the reptile in their naturalist guides and identified it as a harmless Gopher Snake. We all breathed a collective sigh of relief.

Back in the classroom, the students showed each other leaf rubbings that they had done and swapped stories about the different plants, animals and flowers that they had seen on the hike. Before we left, I asked my group if they were going to visit the canyon again with their parents.  A loud, “yeah!” evidenced their enthusiasm. The ILACSD Educators all left the school with satisfied smiles.

We drove all the way to James Dukes Elementary School in Ramona a week later. The school is in a comparatively rural location, but again I was surprised to hear that the majority of the students hadn’t yet explored the nearby greenbelt.

Students drew a picture of a yucca plant in their notebooks.

The kids had just learned about Kumeyaay culture, and were excited to tell us about how the Native American tribe had used elements from the surrounding environment to survive. The students became the teachers when they told us educators about how the Kumeyaay made sandals out of Yucca and Agave fibers, crafted pots out of clay, and ground up California Live Oak acorns to make most of their food.

Exhausted after the hike, the students collapsed in their chairs in the temperature-controlled classroom and filled out a short survey. The survey only had three questions: what the most interesting thing they saw on the hike was; one thing they learned; and what nature means to them. Their responses were all honest and heartening. Nature was described as awesome, special, wonderful, interesting, and in the words of one fourth grader, “calming. Any time I go into nature I feel safe.”

The Nearby Nature program is one of the most rewarding for us as educators. While we do enjoy teaching young students inside the classroom, it is extra satisfying to watch them get excited at seeing the native plants and animals in their neighborhoods.  The statistics do reveal that kids these days are missing out on the benefits of experiencing nature, but it pleases me to know that there are at least a few children in San Diego who have had the chance to explore a beautiful natural area in their neighborhood.

If you are a 3rd – 6th grade teacher in San Diego County who is interested in having your students participate in the Nearby Nature program next year, please contact our Education department at