Environmental Literacy

Opportunities to connect with nature are woven throughout our curriculum and through students’ daily experiences on our campus and beyond. 

In keeping with our Guiding Principles, we help children learn to care for and respect nature through our Environmental Literacy Program.

Fieldwork

Our Helios curriculum regularly takes students out of the classroom, providing real-world examples of what they’re studying. These trips engage our students’ imaginations and elicit a captivating desire to learn more. Fieldwork enhances classroom study. In turn, their classroom work is deepened by their fieldwork.

Gifted learners have a strong need to understand the real-world relevance of their lessons. Middle School students in particular want to make a positive impact on their world. Because of this, our curriculum is designed so that students have regular opportunities to leave their classrooms and engage with the wider community.

Note that we don’t call our outings “field trips”, as students are doing actual field work. We rarely use “off-the-shelf” tours. Instead we work to create authentic experiences in the community, which give students the opportunity to conduct research and interview experts connected to the current semester’s theme of study. This approach allows them to deeply engage, beginning with the introduction of the subject material. 

For a recent Expedition about Immigration, for example, our fifth and sixth graders traveled to Gilroy to interview migrant field workers. Later in the semester they camped for a week in rural Death Valley during which they visited Manzanar, a World War II Japanese internment camp. These trips give our students the opportunity to conduct original research, but more importantly, they put a human face on the current immigration debate. They returned home highly motivated to prepare their end-of-semester project, a community resource guide for new immigrants to Silicon Valley. Through Santa Maria Urban Ministry (SMUM), students were able to provide copies of the resource guide for local residents, while also interviewing recent immigrants who frequent SMUM. The impact of these conversations was deeply moving and highly emotional for students and adults alike. These were experiences the students will never forget.   

Camping

Our carefully constructed curriculum begins in kindergarten with a one-night campout on our campus, and progresses to longer trips farther afield. These trips, taken by students and teachers, are special bonding times for each class. 

By the time they enter Middle School, our students have already learned core outdoor skills from their class camping trips. With their rapidly growing bodies and minds, they’re ready to travel even farther and tackle greater challenges. 

Having learned the basics of tent setup and outdoor cooking, our students move on to map-reading and orienteering, fire making, and ecology. These multi-day trips are taken by students and teachers together and are a powerful bonding time for the class. 

We tie the Middle School trips explicitly into each semester’s Expedition. Our fifth and sixth graders spent one semester learning about the American Southwest, for example, and after several weeks of study they took a six-day trip to New Mexico, camping in Chaco Canyon, where they saw first-hand the archaeology and geology they’d been studying. This experience deepened their personal connection to and enjoyment of the expedition. 

We relish time spent learning with our students in the wild. Over the years we’ve seen multiple, complementary benefits:

  • Children overcome anxieties as they spend more time outdoors and become comfortable in nature.
  • Children develop a greater sense of confidence and self-reliance.
  • Students gain a better understanding of and appreciation for the environment.
  • Teachers learn even more about their students’ personalities and behaviors.
  • Students and teachers grow closer as a class and community due to their shared experiences and reliance upon one another.

Our kids return from their camping experiences more mature and with a sense of accomplishment not gained in a classroom environment.
 

Wilderness Village

Our extensive outdoor space provides a rich opportunity for students to play, learn and connect with the natural world. In addition to tending our farm and garden, they build with pallets, scrap lumber and zip ties in a wooded area the students dubbed the “Wilderness Village.” What begins as a blank slate evolves into an elaborate world where they’re free to create, interact, and imagine.

We provide students with gentle adult supervision and reinforce our school motto, “Be Respectful, Be Responsible, Be Kind.” But above all we give them the time, space and agency to create. With this freedom, the Wilderness Village becomes a community in microcosm, where students interact with the environment to create their own culture. They build cottage industries, design currencies and trade commodities. They practice science in the field, learning that a sloped roof will shed rain and how a pulley system works. They plan, conceptualize, work as a team, project manage, improvise, take risks, learn from failure and persevere to success.

Most of all, our students practice critical social-emotional skills as they collaborate in their ongoing adventure, discovery and play.

Farm and Garden

Research shows that hands-on, self-directed learning with plants and animals is beneficial for physical development, including large and fine motor skills. 

Our Farm & Garden are a special retreat where children play and care for plants and chickens, during recess and after school. The Farm provides a wealth of sensory experiences — the smell and feel of wet soil, sunlight refracting through water from the hose, the sound of chickens clucking — which are especially beneficial for gifted learners. Children practice kindness and empathy as they care for the plants and animals, and they develop a meaningful connection to their food and the earth. 

In addition to student-directed play in the garden, they also maintain and beautify the space, participate in large-scale projects such as permaculture design, and do planned experiments like seed-saving, soil tests, composting, and caring for their own garden plots. Gardening is also available as an elective for 3rd through 8th graders and as a short class after-PE for 7th and 8th graders.