The Carneros Creek Outdoor Classroom

In ESF, Featured, Outdoor Classroom, outreach, Staff Blog by Administrator

In 2016 we introduced a new program to our youth outreach activities—the Carneros Creek Outdoor Classroom. This outdoor learning space is located on Elkhorn Slough Foundation’s conserved land and is a short walk from Hall District Elementary School.  We’re excited to offer this special space for students and teachers to explore the wonders of nature and other topics. So far, the students have experienced lessons on insects, Native American culture, and science at the Outdoor Classroom.

Our Outdoor Classroom was recently featured in an article in the Land Trust Alliance’s Saving Land magazine. The story, called Nurturing a Conservation Ethic, highlights partnerships with schools to provide outdoor learning spaces. Below is an excerpt. Download the entire article.  Learn more about the Land Trust Alliance.

…Teaching What Land Does for Us

Last fall, California’s Elkhorn Slough Foundation opened the Carneros Creek Outdoor Classroom, a learning space situated under the canopy of a magnificent 150-year-old oak tree. Similar to Learning Landscapes, this outdoor classroom is located within a five-minute walk of an elementary school.

One of the first events at the site was a Native American dance ceremony that drew 90 students, three teachers and 10 chaperones. Shortly thereafter, a group of second-graders began a “bug unit” at the site. “Students were able to use all of their senses to experience the environment,” says Katie Pofahl, outreach coordinator for the Elkhorn Slough Foundation. “To see the brightness in their faces as they made discoveries was just incredible.”

One of the most empowering aspects of this program is that fifth-grade students, who have been to the site and learned the curriculum, are trained to lead the younger second graders on field exercises.

The younger students look up to the fifth graders, and the older students take pride in sharing their knowledge and enthusiasm.

“Many of the kids who use the Carneros Creek Outdoor Classroom are from poorer farming families. They may have a connection to the land through farming, but an idea like land conservation, or an understanding of wild nature, may be foreign. Pofahl says, “We try to honor these perspectives and simply offer an alternative view of what land does for us and what it can mean.”

The school has supported several “in-service” teacher trainings that involve bringing all of the school’s teachers to the outdoor classroom, providing an orientation to the site and discussing habitats and broader ecosystem functions. It’s important that teachers are given time on the land to plan their curriculum.

Future trainings will focus on the NASA-sponsored Global Learning and Observations to Benefit the Environment curriculum. This is a hands-on, international science and education program that gives teachers new skills and knowledge to strengthen their abilities as environmental educators.

Elkhorn Slough Foundation staff and volunteers found that school officials welcomed the concept of the outdoor classroom. “It was important that we laid out what we could offer the school while leaving room to make this program fit with their objectives,” says Pofahl. “We were able to train teachers in use of the site and in curriculum options but also maintain flexibility. We didn’t have a rigid vision. Our goal is to build support in our community for land conservation from the ground up.”


This fall, every student at the school will have the chance to visit the Outdoor Classroom at least once. Several grade levels have developed project-based curriculum that includes habitat restoration, water quality monitoring, and science interpretation. Teachers, administrators, volunteers, and students are excited to be engaging in the natural world and getting to know their special part of the Elkhorn Slough watershed.

The success of our outreach programs rely on donations from our members. Find out how to become a member>>