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Orange County, CA uses the "Inside the Outdoors" program to empower students, teachers, parents, and the community to explore natural areas and expand their knowledge.

arrow This project was nominated for a Kids and Trails Award as part of the 2010 National Trails Awards, announced at the 20th National Trails Symposium in Chatanooga, TN.


"Inside the Outdoors" brings environmental education to the trail

photo of kids on trail bridge


Inside the Outdoors is an environmental education program administered in California by the Orange County Department of Education. Each year it serves over 140,000 students from four counties, and many others through its community outreach programs. While part of the Department of Education, the program is self-supporting, and this support enables extensive sponsorships for low income students.

Focusing on science and history-social science, Inside the Outdoors was established in 1974. From its early roots at a limited number of sites, the program now encompasses 13 park sites and a day school at Rancho Sonado, all within Orange County. The program also manages four sites in the San Bernardino National Forest for 5th and 6th grade students from four counties in week long Outdoor Science School sessions.

Most of my direct experience has been with Rancho Sonado in Silverado Canyon, where I met Pam Johnson. In 2007, the massive Santiago Fire left its mark at that facility— several teaching stations and small bridges were destroyed, and connecting trails were severely damaged. As a trail designer and builder, I was invited to consult about needed repairs and undertake the actual reconstruction. While there, our company team (Bellfree Contractors, Inc.) also built a new loop trail with swithbacks and more teaching stations. As part of this contract we provided expertise and guidance for day-long work parties consisting of over 70 volunteers from the Walt Disney Company.

photo of kids on trails


Especially impressive was how the burn itself and the restoration processes of nature, as well as the human efforts to rebuild the trails and other features in sustainable fashion, provided significant learning opportunities for the students led by very talented and engaging teachers.

I have remained in contact with Pam and her excellent staff, watched them work with students, and marveled at the genuine enthusiasm they bring to their program. Their efforts truly connect kids with their natural environment, educating and inspiring them. Having had some personal experience with such programs through my father (who started the first outdoor education camps in the 1950’s with the Los Angeles Unified School District), I have come to appreciate even more the incredibly important value of the growing and hugely successful outdoor education movement.

Inside the Outdoors (ITO) is an absolute gem! It has already been the recipient of a number of awards and has fashioned a number of innovative ways to engage teachers, parents and others in the community, helping them discover what their environment can teach.

For example, a recent “Community Program Calendar” invites participation in a rich variety of programs, such as an “Astronomy and Stargazing Family Hike,” “Community Nature Day” at Rancho Sonado, “Bird of Prey Conservation Workshop,” “Storytelling Walk,” and a “Wildlife Cartooning” workshop.

Another amazingly innovative program by ITO and students at a Newport Beach school is called “Nature Scene Investigators.” It invites families, equipped with an informative workbook and field guide, to visit 11 Orange County parks and trails. Parents and children follow clues at their own pace to a place or feature at the park and complete a survey about discoveries, making them eligible for prizes. Each facility has at least one health related activity to complete while they are there.

photo of kids on trails


I have had the opportunity to visit one of their outdoor science schools in the San Bernardino National Forest and watched students come alive within this special and truly engaging new world. So many of these young folks reported never before being in the woods, never before experiencing the solitude of a forest or the magic of a star filled night sky. One could palpably feel their newly sparked interest and awe.

I have a new appreciation for just how essential good trails are to these facilities and experiences. Connective links for these unique outdoor classrooms, they become themselves part of the learning environment, essential aspects of what Inside the Outdoors offers.

These kids will be future stewards of the land, fully prepared to protect, conserve, and learn from their outdoor world, and they will as one consequence come to value trail systems and open spaces as important parts of their communities and outdoor opportunities. I am convinced this kind of learning— and the special ways ITO brings it to life at this vital stage in youthful development— will be hugely significant in fostering long term appreciation for the environment and our place in it.

For more information:

Inside the Outdoors, 200 Kalmus Drive, Costa Mesa, CA 92628
Phone: (714) 708-3885 - Fax: (714) 649-0162 -


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

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