Opening Outdoor Adventures for Youth in Urban Communities

Memorable Experiences at Santa Monica Mountains
Chaska HansenField Notes
A park ranger gives a demonstration to a group of teachers and students
Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area - NPS Photo / Kayla McCraren

Imagine...the day of the field trip is finally here! The air is filled with chatter and excitement as teachers quiet down the class to prepare for departure. You follow your classmates as everyone piles into a big yellow school bus, only this time, you are going somewhere you’ve never gone before – a national park.  

As the bus travels further from school, the landscape outside your window shifts to unfamiliar terrain – sidewalks and office buildings are replaced with lush green mountains and steep valleys. The bus turns onto a dirt road and you’ve arrived at your destination. A uniformed ranger meets your class and asks if you’re ready for an outdoor adventure... 

This is how a field trip begins for thousands of students around Los Angeles, California who visit the Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area through NPF’s program: Open OutDoors for Kids. Join us as we take a closer look at the dynamic programming offered at Santa Monica Mountains! 

From the Mountains to the City: An Open Outdoors Adventure

Students look through binoculars into the sun

Open OutDoors for Kids participants, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

NPS Photo / Kayla McCraren

Nestled among Los Angeles, Santa Monica Bay, and the Pacific Ocean, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area is a hidden gem where urban dwellers can break away to enjoy wild and natural spaces – the perfect setting for active learning in the outdoors.  

From the moment fourth graders arrive at Santa Monica Mountains, they are immersed in educational hands-on activities that supplement classroom learning. In the field trip program at Ernest E. Debs Regional Park, students head to the Audubon Center and spend the day exploring the park’s ecosystem, gaining a deeper understanding of the role that local flora and fauna play in the shrubby woodland habitat. Students learn how to utilize scientific tools like binoculars, to spot one of the 140+ species of birds found at the park. Through observation of wildlife in their natural habitat, students actively learn about the scientific methods used to measure the overall health of a natural space.

A student holds up a model of an animal skill and smiles

A program participant, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

NPS Photo / Kayla McCraren

At Rancho Sierra Vista/Satwiwa and Malibu Creek State Park, fourth graders explore lands of cultural significance that sustained the Chumash Indians for thousands of years. Students observe the area’s diverse plants and animals first-hand while exploring the Chumash culture and their connection to the native species.  

Hawks and falcons soar overheard during a nature hike, and students are left awestruck when they softly rub the native coastal sage scrub between their fingers to discover the sweet, earthy aroma the herb leaves behind. After rangers acquaint the class with native artistry and tool replicas, the students eagerly start building a replica of their own to take home as part of the hands-on activity. Kids are amazed and attentive when the rangers present a mystery animal skull and ask them to identify the animal as an herbivore, omnivore, or carnivore based on structural differences.

Out in the parks, learning becomes transformative when students have direct, tangible experiences with the plants, animals, and native cultures that are typically only read about in textbooks. Open OutDoors for Kids connects students to active learning experiences, all in the special places where things happen.  

A Focus on Urban Communities 

A group of students walk up low hill, a green and beige mountain range looming in the background

Open OutDoors for Kids participants, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

NPS / Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

Open OutDoors for Kids delivers outdoor educational experiences to fourth graders nationwide by underwriting the cost of transportation and reducing the barriers to inclusion, especially for under-served communities. The program focuses on serving Title I Schools, which are schools with large concentrations of students with low incomes. As part of the Open OutDoors for Kids: Los Angeles Focus City program, over 23,000 fourth graders were able to take field trips to Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area during the 2018-2019 school year.

A student smiles as he reaches for a replica animal skull

Open OutDoors for Kids participant, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

NPS Photo / Kayla McCraren

Open OutDoors for Kids Focus Cities like Los Angeles, which serves the largest number of 4th graders annually of any national park in the country, receive substantial grants that are invested in urban communities to expand and sustain the field trip program through strategic partnerships for years to come. The grant from the National Park Foundation helped Santa Monica Mountains join forces with California state parks and area schools to develop complementary outdoor education programs to engage more school districts across a wider geographical range around the huge city of Los Angeles. As a result of this collaborative effort, new generations of students have had the opportunity to visit the national parks in their own backyards, often for the first time.

The NPF Focus City grant enables parks to increase the capacity of their educational program. Santa Monica Mountains has developed free curriculum-based materials for elementary school students that cover a variety of subjects, from math to science and the arts. These materials help teachers bring the parks to their classroom, so that students can continue learning long after their field trips end. 

Open OutDoors for Kids Focus City field trips also help foster a community of national park stewards. Students, teachers, and parent chaperones come home from field trips inspired, and often become powerful champions for the value of experiential learning, especially in our national parks. While out in the field, students see park rangers and interns from local universities, and are exposed to careers in environmental education. These experiences plant seeds that will blossom into the next generation of outdoor enthusiasts and public land stewards! 

Our Collective Impact 

Students pose for a picture with a frame and props

Open OutDoors for Kids participants, Santa Monica Mountains National Recreation Area

NPS Photo / Kayla McCraren

The profound impact of these outdoor experiences shines through in the letters that Santa Monica Mountains receives from fourth graders after a field trip. It is incredibly rewarding to see the emotional connection that Open OutDoors for Kids helps kids establish as they express their newfound love and appreciation for nature, and endearingly thank the NPS rangers for making learning fun!  

The ability to deliver experiences like this for students nationwide is made possible through Open OutDoors for Kids. Grant funding enables park sites to transport students, provide hands-on learning using artifact replicas, increase staffing support, and engage with surrounding communities to establish a deeper connection to national parks.

You can open the door to a national park experience for a student by supporting Open OutDoors for Kids today!

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I'm interested in starting or supporting programs like Open Outdoors Kids. I will be traveling full time across the U.S. in an RV, and would like to work with parks or nature centers on helping kids appreciate nature. Do you have any information that could help me get started?
Hello Jana, thanks for reaching out! You support Open OutDoors for Kids here:, every $10 helps provide transportation for a child to get to a park. If you want to involved on a park level, we recommend reaching out to the individual park and see what volunteer opportunities may be available. Hope that helps!

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