Kids First Environmental Education Conference

ACES Staff

November 1, 2013

Kids First Environmental Education Conference

“Time outside is where kids truly learn about life….” – Robin Moore, Director, Natural Learning Initiative

Every year, Kids First – a child care resource center managed by the City of Aspen – organizes an in-service training for local early childhood educators. This year, Kids First included ACES in a training centered on the value of outdoor learning environments and activities. The conference began on Thursday, October 24th, with a series of site visits to outdoor learning environments around Pitkin County. Kids First also hosted a luncheon at ACES and tour of the Hallam Lake preserve. Friday, October 25th featured keynote presentations at the Limelight Hotel, followed by break-out sessions led by ACES educators, school teachers, Pitkin County Open Space rangers, and a wide range of other local experts in outdoor educational experiences. Bowman Leigh, one of ACES’ current educators, joined the conference, and offers the following reflections…

This past Friday, I had the opportunity to attend my first teacher in-service training as an environmental educator with ACES. I was fortunate enough to receive an invitation to attend the keynote presentation at the Limelight Hotel, as well as participate in the break-out sessions at ACES’ Hallam Lake site in the afternoon.

As I walked into town that wintery morning, I couldn’t wait to participate in a gathering of local early childhood teachers and caregivers – community members with whom I interact on an almost-daily basis, but rarely have an opportunity to engage with on the topic of education. 

Not only that, but I eagerly anticipated this year’s two keynote speakers, Robin Moore and Nilda Cosco: experts in the field of design and landscape architecture, who have dedicated their careers to establishing outdoor learning environments that enhance children’s connection to nature and encourage healthy development. It’s no surprise to learn that both Moore and Cosco direct the Natural Learning Initiative (NLI), a research-driven subset of the College of Design at North Carolina State University “with the purpose of promoting the importance of the natural environment in the daily experience of all children, through environmental design, action research, [and] education.” 

After finding my seat in the bustling conference room at the Limelight, I listened as both keynote speakers discussed the developmental implications of well-designed outdoor learning environments. As an environmental educator, I strongly believe in the power of spending time outside, but it was fascinating to see how research also supports the role of outdoor exploration in the development of healthy children. By spending time in a natural setting, children acquire not only a sense of place, but also develop physical abilities, establish sensory connections, enhance their ability to focus, and learn about life cycles. To me, this relationship affirms the innate value of environmental education: that spending time outside is, in the words of speaker Robin Moore, “where kids truly learn about life.” 

While I may spend the bulk of my days inside the classroom at Aspen Elementary School, the conference reminded me that the best education always relates to the outside world, and that spending time in natural places contributes so much more than meets the eye. 

As the lead environmental educator for kindergarten (the youngest age group we teach in school), I walked away from this year’s conference inspired to think about the learning environment I create as an educator. While we can’t always have class outside, we can encourage our students, especially from a young age, to be active explorers of the world around them. We can give them permission to, as Ms. Frizzle says in the Magic School Bus, “take chances, make mistakes, and get messy!”

After all, isn’t that what real learning is all about?

Here are some photos from ACES’ recent Environmental Science Education programs at Hallam Lake and Rock Bottom Ranch:


~ Arin Trook, ACES Education Director & Bowman Leigh, ACES Educator

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