Saturday, June 23, 2018     Volume: 19, Issue: 16

Santa Maria Sun / School Scene

The following article was posted on September 12th, 2017, in the Santa Maria Sun - Volume 18, Issue 28 [ Submit a Story ]
The following articles were printed from Santa Maria Sun [] - Volume 18, Issue 28

Guadalupe preschool offers special needs services with an outdoor twist


Imagine an outdoor area with a garden. There are tables protected by the shade of trees surrounded by soft green grass. Near the garden sits a carburetor, tools, milk crates, dirt, and plywood. What is this place?

It’s an outdoor preschool, and now Guadalupe has one.

Pupil Services Coordinator Anne Rigali said the Guadalupe Union School District Preschool, which opened its doors to students on Aug. 10, is modeled after the Outdoor Classroom Project, a program that emphasizes hands-on learning both inside and out. What children would normally learn in a classroom, Rigali said, they can learn outdoors.

Inspired by Buellton’s Zaca Center Preschool (pictured), the Guadalupe Union School District Preschool provides an outdoor classroom experience. But the school still needs help with supplies and is accepting any donations kids can use safely.

“It increases physical capability, promotes physical activity, supports problem solving and group activities, and develops an interest in science, math, and nature,” Rigali said. “And kids feel happy when they’re free.”

The new preschool is also Guadalupe’s first to accept preschool-aged children with special needs, Rigali said. Despite the availability of Guadalupe’s other preschools, including Headstart and migrant preschool programs, special needs children in Guadalupe had no choice but to take a daily bus to preschools in Orcutt and Santa Maria before this year.

Rigali said the lack of a special needs preschool in the area was not only costly for the district—daily rides for children from Guadalupe to schools elsewhere proved pricy—but the system seemed futile for parents who hoped their kids could receive a local education.

“It’s better for them to be in the community,” she said.

Last fall, the district decided enough was enough. Rigali said planning for the preschool began in September 2016, when she and other members of the school district began the application process for a state grant. The California State Preschool Program awarded the Guadalupe Union School District $70,000 to fund the preschool’s development, Rigali said.

The preschool now rents its single classroom on Tognazzini Avenue from Headstart, which Rigali said is a partnership that has significantly helped the preschool’s development. The preschool’s calendar aligns with other schools in the district, and class runs from 9 a.m. to noon Tuesdays through Fridays. The school currently has four students, but has room for a total of 12 children ages 3 to 4 years old. Services, of course, are extended to children with special needs.

“I think it’s good for kids,” Rigali said. “They go to school in their community with their friends, with their peers, with their neighbors.”

Rigali said the preschool is still taking donations for the classroom, which is modeled after preschools recognized by the Outdoor Classroom Project. The school is accepting any school and outdoor play supplies, including gardening materials, sandboxes, books, and any other recycled materials that could be used to learn.

For example, Rigali said one local family donated two tables made from old wooden wire reels. Another family, according to Instructional Assistant Brittany Pollard, donated celery, broccoli, and cauliflower plants that the children will plant in a garden and learn to care for.

The Guadalupe Union School District is largely looking to an outdoor preschool in Buellton, Zaca Center Preschool, as an example. Zaca Preschool Director Shelley Grand is also a co-chair of Santa Barbara County’s Outdoor Classroom Project. The project started in 2009, Grand said, and Zaca has been an outdoor class ever since.

“Children are spending a lot of time indoors on iPads and computers,” Grand said. “They’re not getting the sensory experience of playing outdoors. They’re not making mud pies or rolling in grass. So we’re trying to get back to that.”

Grand said her students eat all their meals outside, play outside, draw outside, and write, read, and learn about math and science outside. Each day includes a time period where the kids can choose if they want to be indoors or outdoors, and Grand said they almost always choose to go outside. They get dirty, and if parents don’t like that, Grand said Zaca is not for them.

“I like to tell people that before they enroll,” Grand said.

There are several stages necessary to becoming an official member of the Outdoor Classroom Project. A school can become a recognized outdoor classroom once it is truly dedicated to becoming a full-fledged outdoor school. To be recognized as a site, at least one staff member must complete three all-day trainings. All together the training is $300, not including the required textbooks.

Demonstration sites, like Zaca Center Preschool, are considered the most complete outdoor classrooms, and they are used as models for any other schools considering the program. Grand said Santa Barbara County has more recognized and demonstration outdoor classroom sites than any other county in the state.

Guadalupe’s preschool, Grand said, is still just getting into the program and is not yet a recognized site. Still, she said Guadalupe is well on its way. Guadalupe Union School District staffers attended a presentation last spring, and Grand said they’ve scheduled a visit to Zaca.

“It’s just a great program,” Grand said. “Our staff has totally embraced it, and we wouldn’t have it any other way.”

For more information on Guadalupe Union School District Preschool or for those who would like to donate materials, Rigali can be reached at 343-2411, Ext. 3005. 

Staff Writer Kasey Bubnash wrote this week’s School Scene. Information should be sent to the Sun via fax, mail, or email at

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