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How do you get kids engaged in nature? The Acorn Group proposes a new acronym that replaces the three Rs with four Es: excitement, engagement, education, and empowerment.


Getting kids on trails: some educational and interpretive approaches

photo of kids on trail bridge

Walking on Rancho Soñado’s new footpaths


What happens when a trail designer (Roger Bell), outdoor educator (Pam Johnson), and interpretive planner (Jenny Rigby) collaborate to strengthen connections between children and nature? We’d like to share what we have learned from working on two Southern California projects.

The first project took place at Rancho Soñado, an Inside the Outdoors school managed by the Orange County Department of Education. The second took place at West Coyote Hills, an open space preserve adjacent to a planned housing development project in North Fullerton.

Both venues, despite contrasting settings, share common goals: namely, to connect children with nature, enhance their environmental awareness, and encourage them to make active and healthy lifestyle choices. Both involved trail design, one actually developed on the ground, the other a unique design process that, for reasons we will explain, remains temporarily conceptual. Working as a multidisciplinary team in these two contrasting settings in which children are engaged in somewhat differing ways, we gained insight that we hope others in similar situations might find instructive.

Field trips at Rancho Soñado provide a hands-on science curriculum for 4th and 5th grade students. Learning takes place on hillside trails, around water, in a natural setting away from urban clutter. This site was transformed dramatically during the October 2007 Santiago wildfire as much of the outdoor learning environment was reduced to ash and slurry.

Roger was called in to repair the trail infrastructure, including footbridges and learning stations, and to build new trails in keeping with the educational mission Pam set forth. It was an intense, mutual learning experience for them and occurred with young students and teachers still in attendance watching the process unfold. As Mother Nature demonstrated her remarkable self-healing process, and became itself a teachable opportunity, the outdoor classroom was brought back to life before our eyes.

photo of kids in shelter

New shade structures offer respite on warm days

Roger came to this with some background having worked in two school camps his father pioneered some 50 years earlier for Los Angeles City Schools, so this was an important reconnection. Outdoor education, he discovered, has come of age in California and elsewhere. Important new legislative initiatives, even special attention by First Lady, Michelle Obama, hold promise for expanding this movement and offer challenges to designers to craft outdoor facilities, including trails, that facilitate active engagement of children with nature, enlivening the teaching process.

Trails, in other words, are being viewed as significant, vibrant laboratories for outdoor learning. “No Child Left Inside” and messages from the groundbreaking book, Last Child in the Woods, are new mantra, challenging the childhood obesity epidemic and helping develop a new generation of enlightened environmental stewards.

Since Inside the Outdoors is self-supporting and receives no tax-based funding, the programs and facilities rely on in-kind and monetary donations from companies and organizations like Disney and The Boeing Charitable Trust, and others, as well as student fees, to sustain the program. While the repair work at Rancho Soñado was underway, Disney provided funding and volunteers to support the rebuild. Inside the Outdoors’ staff and Roger’s employees worked side by side with the Disney team m to install foot bridges and teaching stations, and to make trail repairs.

photo of people and chart

The West Coyote Hills community group on the trail

In a second project at Rancho Soñado, Boeing engineers worked as mentors in a service-learning project with high school students to design three shade shelters to replace ones that were lost in the fire. Boeing also provided volunteers to work with Inside the Outdoors staff. Students and Boeing mentors produced alternative shelter design concepts, and once the winner was determined, Bellfree Contractors, under its new owner, installed these handsome structures. Over 12,000 students each year visit Rancho Soñado for field trips. They hike the trails and use the shade structures as they learn science and actively enjoy nature’s classroom.

The goal of Inside the Outdoors is to connect students and families to nature, making them happier, healthier, and smarter. Watching this program in action is to see excitement, wonder, intense energy and lively participation. Faculty and students spend time together on the trails, learning to see the world in fresh new ways. Evidence indicates these programs succeed admirably in meeting their goals.

Our second collaboration, West Coyote Hills, focused on a hillside parcel, Fullerton’s last remaining open space, which in its most recent iteration had been an oil field still owned by Chevron. Tasked with creating the interpretive master plan for this site, Jenny collaborated with Roger and others to ensure that experiences for visitors (including children) were maximized without compromising the integrity of the land.

Photo of sign with quail

Wayside exhibit prototype for West Coyote Hills

For many years, Chevron’s development company had wanted to build new homes on this site, but faced with strong local opposition, they simply fenced off the property, which remained in somewhat degraded condition even though the oil wells had long since been removed.
To gain City and community approval, and because they saw the larger value of preserving the majority of the property in a natural state, the company agreed to set aside a significant portion for open space and promised to establish a network of multi-use trails and viewing areas from several prominent spots on the property. This portion would be City-owned, tied into their existing and extensive trail system.

So our task was to develop— with input from a broadly representative citizen group, including educators, cyclists, equestrians, and other user group advocates, neighbors, business owners, other architectural and environmental consultants, and City staff— an imaginative design that would satisfy the City and build local support. The slate was open for innovative and engaging design ideas, and especially for making the project “kid-friendly.”

Beside trails, several related amenity proposals emerged from our deliberations, including a nature center designed especially for older children, a natural playspace area for younger children, a destination bridge, and a number of wayside exhibits that would inform visitors about the area’s wildlife and plant communities, human history, viewsheds, and urban-wildlands interface. In short, we wanted visitors to become “bioregionally literate” through novel and inspiring means. Unlike the Rancho Soñado program, visitors would arrive voluntarily. They would not all be of one age, nor would they necessarily be led on a walk. We had to think about attracting and holding their attention without benefit of staff interaction.

Graphic of butterflies

Wayside exhibit artwork for West Coyote Hills butterfly garden

Jenny led the group through a stimulating planning process in which ideas were fleshed into concrete design detail. These details, in turn, were reviewed by Roger for feasibility and appropriateness. Along with our work, the owners sought input from environmental experts on how to remove nonnative plants, preserve the coastal sage scrub habitat, and in other ways enhance native values and resources. It was a challenging and satisfying process for all participants— they genuinely felt their voices were heard. The designs that emerged include media that are layered in ways that attract multiple audiences and low-profile facilities that address visitor needs without blemishing or detracting from the fragile landscape.

It was just what all of us who design and build trails hope for— the involvement of local interests, imaginative input, respect for natural values, creative ways to engage audiences, particularly children who arrive in school groups and family units. All who took part are convinced we came up with design concepts the City, the public, and residents in the new development could appreciate and feel genuinely proud to see happen.

Sadly, however, and somewhat ironically, the project has been put on hold by the City Council, influenced especially by one particularly vocal group that apparently prefers to have the property remain in its current state, even if degraded and unavailable to all but those who enter illegally. The project will resurface this year for a new vote by a new City Council and we are optimistic it will be built.

Photo of Return of the Natives sign with bird pictures

Panel created for Big Canyon Creek, Newport Beach, CA
by The Acorn Group

Despite the limbo status, we have learned much about ways to design that are especially meaningful and beneficial for children. Jenny’s company, the Acorn Group, for example, proposes a new acronym that replaces the three Rs with four Es: excitement, engagement, education, and empowerment. The West Coyote Hills planning process bore this acronym in mind, creating situations that first attract and then excite children and youth; engage them in new sensory-rich experiences; subtly raise their awareness and knowledge levels regarding things that are important (and if not important, than at least downright fun); and last, empower them to do something based on new insight and conviction.

While working on these two projects, we had to look at the intersection of the physical site, the needs of the audience, opportunities for interpretation and education, and in the case of Rancho Sonado, local and State educational mandates. As we discovered, thoughtful planning is multidisciplinary, nonlinear, and guided by a system of checks and balances. Ideas emerge and evolve through a feedback loop. West Coyote Hills design ideas seemed to blossom and expand, occasionally causing our client to wonder if they had opened Pandora’s Box!

The fire at Rancho Soñado, though seemingly a disaster, ironically turned out instead a remarkable opportunity to collaborate and create something truly exceptional. The three of us have become fast friends and self-appointed “ambassadors” for creating ways to get children back to their literal roots— their senses awakened by experiences in nature.


Roger Bell, former trail contractor and owner of Bellfree Contractors, Inc., holds a Ph.D. in higher education. He is Vice Chair of American Trails and a member of his hometown Redlands Conservancy Board.

Pam Johnson, administrator, has worked with Inside the Outdoors for 28 years. She holds an advanced degree, as well as teaching and administrative credentials.

Jenny Rigby, director of The Acorn Group, is a nationally certified interpretive planner. She holds a master’s degree in science education and serves as a board member of American Trails. She is involved in State and Federal education reform efforts to build environmental literacy and get children back into the woods.

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