Wednesday, September 30, 2020     Volume: 21, Issue: 30

Santa Maria Sun / Cover Story

The following article was posted on March 19th, 2020, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 21, Issue 3 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 21, Issue 3

Outdoor educational programs in SLO County focus on environmental literacy


Editor’s note: Schools and school programs throughout the state—including the Central Coast’s environmental education programs—are closed as of March 13 in order to slow the spread of COVID-19. But the values behind these programs remain an asset for local teachers, schools, and children to look forward to once the programs resume. As of press time, the duration of the closures was unknown.    

A necklace hangs on the wall behind Environmental Education Director Celeste Royer’s chair in the SLO County Office of Education. The program director of Rancho El Chorro Outdoor School’s necklace has a wood pendant with colorful beads on either side of the string. “Blue sky” is written on the pendant.

It’s Royer’s nature name. Students who attend Rancho El Chorro Outdoor School and the naturalists—educators of the environment—all have a nature name. 

Naturalists who teach students at outdoor education programs engage students in nature and assist them in understanding their role in the environment.

Children come from multiple counties, including Northern Santa Barbara County, to Rancho El Chorro for a hands-on learning experience that focuses on science and ecology in a natural setting. 

“There’s no textbooks. Everything is do and think like a scientist, be a scientist,” Royer said.

The school offers three programs for children to attend. Students can stay for three to five days in a residential program. A class can attend Nature Detectives from 9:30 a.m. to noon for a program tailored to the classroom curriculum. And a traveling naturalist visits and teaches in their classrooms. Rancho El Chorro also offers the Summer Outdoors Adventures for Kids (SOAK) camp.

“We’re among many programs in California that really focus on building environmental literacy in students,” she said. “We’re able to get them out into the natural world, get them physically active and help them feel safe in an environment that might be foreign to them.”

It’s also an opportunity, Royer said, for the students to really understand how much nature plays a role in their everyday lives. 

The Nature Detectives offerings include programs called Under the Sea and The World Around Me for kindergarten-aged children. In Under the Sea, students learn what ocean animals need to live and grow. They get to touch live marine invertebrates at the onsite Blake Marine Science Center and study ocean food chains and what marine animals eat. 

With The World Around Me, students learn what natural resources humans need to live and grow. They study the movement of water, how animals are grouped by their characteristics, and how humans and animals use their senses. A large watershed model on the school grounds enables students to observe the flow of water, after which they learn about water movement in their own neighborhoods or communities. 

Royer said the science programs always have a human component or conversation. That includes understanding how humans benefit from the natural world, what people get from the ocean, and what mankind’s role is in preserving and protecting the environment. 

“What we teach a lot about is the intersection between the natural systems, which is all science and ecology. Then, you have human social systems and how those intersect,” she said.

One of the goals of the school, Royer said, is having the students understand that they can make a difference,

“You will take care of things that you understand and that you’ve made a connection to,” she said.

If you feel any kind of connection to the natural world, she said, you will most likely take care of it. Every student who visits Rancho El Chorro is viewed as a future environmental steward, and in order to prepare them, the school focuses on environmental literacy. 

A changing climate

Royer said there is a huge push in California and across the nation to build environmental literacy. She was part of California State Superintendent of Public Instruction Tom Torlakson’s statewide Environmental Literacy Task Force that created “A Blueprint for Environmental Literacy: Educating Every Student In, About, and For the Environment.” 

The task force included K-12 classroom teachers; school and district administrators; informal science educators; science, environmental, and outdoor educators; higher education faculty; and leaders from government agencies and nonprofit organizations. 

The blueprint is a document that outlines recommendations on how classrooms and schools can integrate environmental literacy into mainstream classroom instruction. 

Rancho El Chorro students get two things upon attending the program: a necklace with their nature name and a journal.

Environmental literacy can be embedded into normal instruction for history-social science standards and as part of the California Common Core Standards—what students should know and be able to do in each subject as adopted by the state—and California Next Generation Science Standards.

Aside from implementing environmental literacy into classroom curriculum, the blueprint suggests creating learning experiences for students in nature, whether that’s on school grounds, in the local community, in residential outdoor science programs, museums, aquariums, or science centers. 

To ensure that schools are incorporating environmental literacy into the classroom, there are six guiding principles that must be followed: equity of access, sustainability and scalability of systems, collaborative solutions, commitment to quality, cultural relevance and competence, and a variety of learning experiences. 

Former California Gov. Jerry Brown’s executive order to reduce greenhouse gases to 40 percent below 1990 levels by 2030 was one of the impetuses to create the blueprint.

Developing and implementing solutions to these challenges requires an environmentally literate population that has the skills to understand, analyze, think critically about, and address future environmental issues, the blueprint states. 

When Brown announced the executive order, he stated, “California sets a very high bar for itself and other states and nations, but it’s one that must be reached—for generations and generations to come.”

The document suggests the state’s K-12 students are the future leaders “who will help reach this high bar.” 

Camp Ocean Pines 

Camp Ocean Pines sits within a Monterey pine forest in Cambria with a view of the ocean. The camp’s mission is to foster enjoyment and appreciation of the natural world through creative activities in a residential camp setting. 

Camp Executive Director Andrew Boyd-Goodrich and Outdoor Education Director Bill Thornton showed New Times around the camp’s Nature Center where snakes, reptiles, starfish, and crabs live in tanks

A barn owl and falcon—both have been rehabilitated—live outside the center in large cages. Thornton said the owl was hit by a car, rehabilitated, and brought here. The falcon was a working bird until it experienced an ear infection that spread to her eye.

The aim of environmental literacy is to educate K-12 students about their role in the environment and how they can make a difference in preserving and protecting it.

“They’re both semi-retired living out their life here at camp. So we use them to educate students on raptors and their importance to the ecosystem,” Thornton said. 

Having the animals on-site aligns with the camp’s mission of engaging students in the natural world, but Boyd-Goodrich said the camp makes the animals accessible in a responsible way. 

“We wouldn’t want to put a [wild] great-horned owl or a peregrine falcon in a cage, even if we wanted kids to experience it. But because they’re being rehabilitated, we could do that,” he said. 

From the camp’s perspective, Boyd-Goodrich said, maintaining that responsibility toward nature and the animals that inhabit it is a key component to environmental literacy. 

Naturalists guide students through the Rancho El Chorro property to learn about nature in their backyard.

“It’s not just understanding of the scientific principles and ecological principles, but how do you apply that in terms of lifestyle choices, whether that’s voting patterns, civic engagement, or whether that’s how you think about the role of nature in your life, and so forth,” he said. 

When Thorton is creating programs for incoming classes, he said, Camp Ocean Pines and the naturalists who teach the students think about trying to build a foundation so that the students can apply what they learned at camp at their school and beyond. 

If students learn about ecosystems and habitats that are interconnected, he said, then students learn what role they can play in that system.

“I say ‘can play’ because we want students when they come here to realize you have a right to be out in nature, you have access, you play a huge part, and you have influence,” he said. “So what do you want to do with that and what does that look like?”

Thornton said, he feels that the program helps students tie things together in the classroom and also build a foundation for who the students want to be “as far as it means being an impactful person in the environment.”

Children in nature 

Norma Elliot was attending the University of Colorado, Boulder, and majoring in psychology. Her educational path changed after a study-abroad trip to China.

Originally from Colorado, Norma Elliot moved to San Luis Obispo to be a naturalist for Rancho El Chorro Outdoor School.

“I saw that the students there didn’t really have the same kind of access to outdoor experiences that I did when I was a kid. We lived on a quarter-acre, and I was just outside every day playing in the woods, climbing rocks, climbing trees, and going through the grass,” Elliot said.

During her stay in China, she saw that there were national parks but there wasn’t a program or a designated outdoor area for children to enjoy. It got her thinking about ways she could help kids get immersed in nature. When she returned to the university, Elliot promptly switched her major to environmental studies—she currently has a degree in environmental studies and natural resources. 

Her experience spans a stint in an environmental education internship class and as a seasonal naturalist at a few state parks conducting hikes and presentations. Four years ago, she applied for a naturalist position with Rancho El Chorro Outdoor School and has been with the program ever since. 

She still can’t believe it’s her job.

In her four years with the program, Elliot said she’s felt there is an urgency for environmental literacy in the classroom. She noticed the change when Senate Bill 720 was passed in 2018

The bill states environmental principles and concepts have been “approved by specified authorities and have been embedded in specified curriculum frameworks adopted by the State Board of Education.” It also supported the state superintendent of public instruction to use resources at their disposal to provide leadership in furthering the goals of environmental literacy. 

“It’s important to feel supported by the state government, and it really makes me feel like the general public is starting to see the importance of environmental literacy,” she said. 

Senate Bill 720 signified to Elliot that the people around her were starting to realize that the next generation of children are going to be dealing with all of the environmental issues of climate change and change of the planet. 

“So they really need an educational background to help face their problems,” she said. “I think the biggest thing for me is, with environmental literacy, is you have to really love something before you want to take care of it.”

That’s the core of Elliot’s job, she explained. With her position, she can help the children who attend Rancho El Chorro foster connections with the natural world and get them to fall in love with nature. m

New Times Staff Writer Karen Garcia can be reached at

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