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Educate Kids Outdoors!


Curriculum CenterEducation World looks at the wild, wonderful world of education in the great outdoors! Come along as we talk with outdoor educators about a handful of programs. Included: Links to information about a wide variety of outdoor education programs and tips for setting up a program of your own!

"On Sundays, I'd be out collecting pond water to take back to the science lab on Monday, so we could study it," Adrienne Forbes told Education World. "I thought, There has to be a better way. Why not take the kids to the pond instead?"

Forbes and many other teachers -- and school districts too -- are coming to the realization that the great outdoors can be a great learning tool! Some kids' only experiences with the wonders of nature may be through such school programs.

Outdoor education can be as basic as a four-hour seminar at your local nature preserve, or it might be a full week of activities for the entire school. Programs around the country run the gamut, as you'll see.


Each year, about 18,000 kids discover the Oxbow Nature Study Area, located along the Truckee River just outside downtown Reno, Nevada. Park manager Adrienne Forbes leads half-day explorations of this nature preserve. The explorations are coordinated with the classroom science curriculum. Forbes also trains the teachers about what to expect when they visit Oxbow's peaceful wetlands area.

At Oxbow, kids head out into the park in groups of six. Each group includes a teacher, a parent, or a volunteer. One group member carries a backpack loaded with identification manuals and photos, vials for collections, a magnifying glass, and a small microscope designed for fieldwork.

Second-grade special education student Christian summed up the experience when he said, "Thank you for letting us put our feet in Oxbow [water] and soil."

Oxbow's nature program caters to K-12 students, so often the kids come back year after year to learn about different parts of the habitat.

The nature adventures are free to students. Forbes is a full-time employee of the Nevada Division of Wildlife (NDW), which funds the program. NDW also maintains two other sites in northern Nevada dedicated to educating local children about their surroundings and park habitats.


More than half a country away -- in Springfield, Illinois -- JoLynn Plato taught at a Catholic school until recently.

"The public district had a strong outdoor education experience for their intermediate grades," Plato told Education World. That led Plato and her colleagues to create a similar program for their own students.

"The science teacher, the PE teacher, the math teacher, and I (language arts/religion) collaborated on a mini version of what the [public schools] were doing," said Plato. "We went to a campground called Camp CILCA. Our activities included hiking around the lake; taking water samples of the lake at various places; figuring out the height of a tree using its shadow; participating in a nature scavenger hunt, a peaceful reflection of nature, and a religious ceremony honoring creation; and creating molds of animal tracks."

Begun in 1993, the program has expanded to include a Pioneer Days simulation in which students actually re-create pioneer experiences in the pine forests of the campgrounds. The teachers confront the students with a problem they must solve. For example:

The weather is getting bad, and you must stop for the night. You have to build a shelter using the saws we provide and what you have available from nature.

"We discuss the fact that cutting off dead pine limbs is actually helpful to the tree, and we show them the difference between a dead and a live limb," Plato told Education World. "The students are assessed on their shelter designs, their rationale for the design, and their computations." [The students have a clipboard and a pencil for computations.]

"It takes a long time, but every group loves it," added Plato. "[The students] can't believe they can actually build a shelter from practically nothing!"

The school charges the students $5 for the day. That fee includes lunch.


In Rushville, New York, Frank Lamanna has been teaching physical education at Marcus Whitman Central School for 30 years. He explained that four years ago he came up with the idea of "offering an outdoor PE class to juniors and seniors as a means of getting a physical education grade and credit, which is part of their GPA.

"The thought was that by their junior and senior year, students would be interested in doing something different from the traditional PE," Lamanna told Education World. "We had approximately 36 juniors and seniors interested the first year, and this year we have 70 seniors only signed up for the class."

The program runs the entire school year. Each quarter includes different activities, including backpacking, mountain biking, camping, canoeing, caving, mountain climbing, cross-country skiing, and snowshoeing, said Lamanna.

"These activities run two to four days each," he said. "About 20 percent of the time is spent in class, where the students learn the skills they'll need for the upcoming activities."

Lamanna told Education World that "grades are based on class participation, preparation, and level of activity while on the outing."


Get Your Students Involved in the Environment!

Earth Force -- Youth for a Change, a national Youth Advisory Board (YAB), is looking for new members. The Earth Force Web site describes the group's mission: "Through Earth Force, youth create lasting solutions to environmental issues in their community. In the process, they develop life-long habits of active citizenship and environmental stewardship."

If you know a student who is ready to develop skills in leadership and is interested in environmental issues, you can nominate him or her for a position on the YAB. Students ages 10 to 17 are eligible. But hurry! Applications must be received by September 11, 2000. For more information, visit the Earth Force Web site ( or contact
Carrie Jenkins, National Outreach Coordinator
Earth Force -- Youth for a Change
1908 Mount Vernon Ave., Second Floor,
Alexandria, VA 22301

In San Diego County, students are no strangers to education in the mountains. There, the San Diego County Office of Education Outdoor Education Program has been taking kids to the mountains since 1946!

George Stratman has headed up the program for three years and has worked in outdoor education since 1986. "Kids who are used to being and learning in a classroom environment have the chance to take that theory into the out-of-doors," Stratman told Education World. "It can be a lifelong experience for some of them."

The San Diego program employs two camps, one at Camp Cuyamaca in the Cuyamaca Mountains east of San Diego and the other at Camp Fox at the base of Mount Palomar (the mountain that also serves as the location of the world-famous Palomar Observatory). Sixth graders get to spend a week at one of the camps. There, students learn about geology, biology, astronomy, and life science. They participate in arts and crafts and a wide variety of other activities. All the activities incorporate the state science framework.

Students pay $180 for a five-day program, $152 for a four-day program. Those fees don't cover all the camps' costs. The facilities are rented out on weekends and during the summer to help keep the costs down for students.


School districts and schools run many of the outdoor programs that students participate in. Many outdoor education programs are started by teachers or spring from teachers' suggestions. Often, grant money is available to start such programs, or students might raise funds to defray costs.

Check with your local or state wildlife office; wildlife officials may have funding available for local education. (The program in Reno is a joint project of the city of Reno, which owns and maintains the park, and the Nevada Division of Wildlife. The NDW pays the regional wildlife education coordinator and reimburses the school district for the transportation costs to get to the park.)

Several universities and colleges now offer degree program in outdoor education.

Many other programs are available. Look around in your area to learn about the options. Then you can move your students outside!


    You can find out more about education in the outdoors with these links to resources and reports:
  • Outdoor and Experiential Education Directory This is an excellent resource for anyone wanting to learn more about education in the outdoors. It offers links to a wide variety of programs for all ages across the United States and Canada.
  • Association for Environmental & Outdoor Education AEOE is a national organization that promotes educating children so they'll be more aware of their natural surroundings.
  • San Mateo Office of Education This site offers some very good links for educators and administrators who are thinking about setting up their own outdoor program.
  • Outdoor Education for Behavior Disordered Students If you think your challenged students may not be able to handle outdoor education, you may want to read this article. Learn how to help them enjoy their outdoor experiences.
  • Project WILD Many of the programs we've talked about have based their curricula on the publications of Project WILD. This Web site provides information about the group's workshops and materials.
  • Nebraska Game and Parks: Outdoor Education This site has excellent resources for teachers and students who want to learn more about outdoor programs.
  • Multnomah ESD Outdoor School This Web site of a program in Oregon presents a nice overview. If you are thinking of setting up your own program, this site has some excellent resources.
  • Wilderness Awareness School This Nature Outlet site is a great resource for outdoor books and guides for educators.

Sherril Steele-Carlin
Education World®
Copyright © 2000 Education World


Originally published 12/06/2000
Links revised 04/03/03