We can hear the sounds of birds chirping everywhere as we continue exploring up the creek. Kids from Santa Barbara’s Orcaschool, their chaperones and I hop from rock to rock, being careful not to slip into the water. This part of the program is called “creek exploration.” Our goal is simple: to discover, enjoy and experience as much about the ecosystem as possible. I’m hopeful we’ll learn a few things along the way as well. El Capitan Canyon is perfect for this. About 20 yards ahead, I can see Orcaschool’s principal with a few of the kids, standing underneath a beautiful ceanothus (California lilac) bush. They’re creating soap-like suds by wetting their hands, then taking a small amount of the attractive flowers and rubbing it all together. I had no idea until that moment that the Chumash Indians once used the fragrant flowers of the California lilac as a shampoo. The scent is invigorating.
When I think back through all the years I’ve taught outdoor education, I’m consistently reminded of one thing: an emotional experience affects a child far more than information does. I’m so lucky to have experienced everything I have with all the students I’ve worked with.
Once, while working for Catalina Environmental Leadership Program, I was snorkeling with a group of young students around Catalina Island. We were fortunate enough to follow two sea lions across our cove as they herded a giant school of sardines. I don’t know which was more beautiful; the blue water we were swimming through, the grace with which the sea lions moved, or the way the sun glistened off the silver fish as they changed from one direction to the next. What was most important to me though, was the ooohing and aahhhing sounds the kids were making through their snorkels. Approaching the shore, we spotted harmless leopard sharks, shovelnose guitarfish and bat rays swimming effortlessly through the clear water. Listening to all the kids as they got out of the water tell stories of what they had seen was one of the highlights of that day for me as a teacher. To give children this sort of encounter in nature is to connect them with something bigger. These are learning experiences that will stay with them for years to come.