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WATCH THE GARDENS GROW: In Southern California, New School Gardens Help Children Learn, Connect, and Thrive

About the Author

Lori is the Development Director for the Orange County Department of Education’s Inside the Outdoors (ITO), where she co-leads an environmental education program that provides nature-based environmental education to over 120,000 students and families annually.


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I grew up in a small town in Ohio. Bordering my elementary school were woods filled with creeks, wildlife, and pathways that led to hours of learning. My teachers routinely took us into those woods.

There, we studied everything from art to science. We drew pictures of trees filled with birds and butterflies. We built secret forts. We turned over logs to look for bugs as part of our science class. Every student knew and loved those woods. 

My childhood experiences inform my work as an adult. Today, I co-lead Inside the Outdoors, an environmental education program in Southern California. We connect over 120,000 children each year to nature’s classroom. The most challenging part of my job is the significant number of families in my area who lack access to nature. The mountains, beach, forest, and desert are all within an hour’s drive – but many families have never been there. Backyard or nearby nature is virtually non-existent. Our communities are concrete.  Schoolyards are often small and have only minimal ornamental landscaping. It is heartbreaking to realize that while the students can see the mountains from their schoolyards and homes, they do not know what it feels like to spend time in nature.

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John Thielbahr

Trying to find solutions to the disconnect from nature requires creative thinking. During a Children and Nature Network Conference a few years ago, I met John Thielbahr. John is a dedicated advocate for Natural Teachers and the outdoor classroom. His mentorship guided our work to develop opportunities to connect to nature through schools. Nurturing John’s ideas and community support from the Disneyland Resort and OC Waste and Recycling, Inside the Outdoors has helped ten schools build butterfly and vegetable gardens. 

These gardens serve as a place to learn, connect, and restore the soul.

  • Students at Brea Olinda High School learn science in their garden. They taste vegetables that they grow. They work side-by-side with students of all abilities.
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  • Students, parents, teachers, and staff at Mango Elementary School partnered with Inside the Outdoors and Auto Club Speedway volunteers to transform an unused grassy area into a native plant outdoor classroom.
  • An alternative education class turned a muddy area outside of their classroom in a shopping center into a vegetable garden. They were impacted so significantly by the tiny garden that they paid it forward by helping a nearby Boys & Girls Club start a garden composting program. 

The students and teachers who use these gardens gain a better understanding of science. They learn to accept others and they give back to their community. Each day they spend in the garden strengthens their connection to the natural world. Even casual observers witness how greening a schoolyard nurtures children and education. A garden creates a space for teachers to guide students through hands-on learning. It connects children to nature, to each other, and to learning. It transforms learning into doing.

This year, Inside the Outdoors will help ten additional schools turn small unused areas into high impact natural spaces where students will get their hands dirty as they learn, develop teamwork skills, and spend time immersed in nature. 

In these gardens, students will grow their own lives.

Project Zero Waste-Inside the Outdoors from Orange County Dept. of Education on Vimeo.


More reading and resources 

Back to School, Forward to Nature: Ten Ways Teachers Can Fortify Students With Vitamin N
The Real Nature Channel: Time for Kids to Tune In

C&NN’s Research Library, including a report on research on nature and learning
10 Ways to Make Your City or State the Best in the U.S. for Children and Nature
A Challenge: Make Your Local School the Best in Your State (or Nation)
Back to School, Forward to Nature: Ten Ways Teachers Can Fortify Students With Vitamin N
The Hybrid Mind: The More High-Tech Education Becomes, The More Nature Our Children Need
Thriving Through Nature: A Special Report from C&NN on Fostering Children’s Executive Function Skills
You Can Get Your Students Outside — and Still Meet Your State Standards
You Can’t Bounce Off the Walls If There Are No Walls: Outdoor Schools Make Kids Happier — and Smarter
Ohio Leave No Child Inside Collaboratives
A Nature-Based School Gets Results in Georgia
Nature Pedagogy International Association

Inside the Outdoors
An environmental education program in Southern California serving 120,000 children annually.

Children & Nature Network’s Green Schoolyards Project
A project to develop a national platform to scale up the transformation of schoolyards to create access to green space for the health and wellbeing for children, families, and communities.

Every teacher can be a Natural Teacher.

Photo credit: Lori Kiesser


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