Focus Area:Early Childhood EducationOutdoor Classroom Project

Project Summary

The goals of the two-year Orfalea Fund Outdoor Classroom Project in Santa Barbara County were to:

  • Increase the quantity, quality and benefit of outdoor experience for young children in Santa Barbara County early care and education centers.    
  • Provide for increased physical activity, hands-on learning, social skill development through peer interaction, and multifaceted approaches to cognitive development that maximize children’s success.    
  • Educate early care and education professionals on the value of outdoor environments and activities, and assist them in cultivating both at their individual sites.    
Before After

The primary activities of the Project were program and site evaluation, design consultation, and teacher training. Over the two-year course of the Project, 144 or 83% of all child care centers in Santa Barbara County participated. 


The Outdoor Classroom Project is a critical quality improvement initiative that improves not only the quality of outdoor environments and programs but the entire functioning of an ECE center. The engagement and communication skills teachers are taught transfer into everything that a teacher does. As a result, children’s learning and skill development are improved throughout the program as well. As one administrator put it, “When we implemented the Outdoor Classroom, the children did better both outdoors and indoors.”  They were more enthusiastic in their outdoor activity and when indoors were much better able to sit down and focus.

Research emphasizes the importance of children being in an outdoor environment. The Outdoor Classroom’s parent program, the Child Educational Center, participated in a National Research study as a certified Nature Explore Classroom. The Abstract from the report on the first year of the study (2010) concludes:

Young children need time outdoors every day, but that does not mean teachers sacrifice learning in order to make that happen.  In fact, the outdoors can be a rich, stimulating learning environment for children. The skill development for children in the Nature Explore Classroom crosses all domains from language and literacy skills, to math and science to building relationships with peers and teachers. The role of the teacher in the outdoor classroom and the strategies that support child-initiated learning plays a leading role in how children engage with materials as well as with one another and is a major factor in skill development.

The underlying structure and the characteristics of early childhood programs can enhance the quality of self-initiated experiences in the outdoor classroom. Early care and education programs must increase the opportunities for children to engage in child-initiated activities in the outdoor classroom, enhancing their experiences through a well planned and rich environment, caring staff and a program philosophy that reflects these ideals.