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Taught by nature: Outside Now immerses students in the natural world 

Get outside and learn. 

That’s pretty much what SLO-based Outside Now does with post-toddlers to teens (and sometimes adults, too). For the last 10 years, the program’s immersed kids in nature, pushing them to understand how to survive, be good stewards, and appreciate the world around them.

“The heart of what we do is reconnecting people to the natural world,” Susan Pendergast, the nonprofit’s director, said. “[Kids] really learn to be resourceful in a natural world, and how to deal with the four seasons.”

They hike, play awareness games, tell stories, and identify native plants and animals in SLO County’s open spaces. These are what Pendergast calls core routines. Within one of those core routines is learning how to build a fire and creating a fire-building kit.

“They learn a lot of ancestral skills and kind of survival skills,” she said. “It grows over time. … When children are in nature, all of their senses are on at the same time.” 

There are summer camps, workshops, and backpacking trips, but Outside Now especially caters programs to three age groups (more or less): Coyote Pups is for 3- to 6-year-olds and runs one or two days a week. Nature Explorers is for 7- to 12-year-olds and is held two to three days during the week from 9 a.m. to 3 p.m. 

It seems a little odd that the programs would be held during what most people consider the school week, but Pendergast said the students participating generally are either homeschooled or attend a public charter school. The learning done through Outside Now can help satisfy health and physical education or science requirements, she said, as well as art through activities such as weaving, carving, and making pottery using natural materials. 

The nonprofit also runs a sort of alternative high school; it’s called the Nature Academy, and it’s for teens aged 13 to 19, who can graduate from the program with a high school diploma. Partnering with an accredited private school in Ojai, the Global Village School, the program immerses students in nature three days a week and the classroom two days a week. 

Foreign languages, mathematic, and literature would be inside subjects, but they study natural history, biology, environmental sciences, botany, zoology, and geology surrounded by a natural outdoor laboratory. It sounds incredible. But Pendergast said it’s not for everybody. 

click to enlarge ONE WITH NATURE :  Outside Now runs summer camps, after-school programs, one- and two-day-a-week programs, and a high school academy. - PHOTO COURTESY OF OUTSIDE NOW
  • PHOTO COURTESY OF OUTSIDE NOW
  • ONE WITH NATURE : Outside Now runs summer camps, after-school programs, one- and two-day-a-week programs, and a high school academy.

“We have families that are just alternative thinkers,” she said. “We also have kids who maybe don’t thrive in traditional settings.” 

Pendergast’s daughter is one of the reasons she got involved with the program from its 2005 roots. She said her child didn’t work well in school and fell behind. Being a public school teacher, Pendergast thought there had to be another way. 

And although Outside Now started with a van and a few kids taking trips to the ocean and other wilderness areas, it morphed into something much more. Pendergast—who worked as a special education teacher, among other things, in the San Luis Coastal Unified School District—brought the academic piece to the fledgling program and has been its director for six years now.

“Nonprofits just sort of suck you in when you raise your hand, but I’m really glad I did,” she said. “It’s just been inspiring.”

Participation has grown over the last decade, and 57 families were involved with Outside Now’s breadth of programming during the last school year. Pendergast said it looks like that number will be much higher for the upcoming year. 

For more information, visit outsidenow.org, email info@outsidenow.org, or call 541-9900. Tuition costs $300 for a Coyote Pups session, between $1,000 and $1,650 annually for Nature Explorers, and $8,500 a year for the Nature Academy. That cost doesn’t include deposit, a materials fee, or an enrollment fee.

Editor Camillia Lanham wishes she could participate in a Nature Academy for adults. Send your business and nonprofit news to strokes@newtimesslo.com.

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