Susan Liebes, Chair, Fallbrook Land Conservancy
This winter, over 900 students from public schools in the Fallbrook Union Elementary District and Vallecitos School District were introduced to local open space preserves and habitat restoration through the Fallbrook Land Conservancy’s Save Our Forest Environmental Education (SOFEE) Program. Since 2005, the SOFEE Program has connected children with nature and this year, thanks to a generous grant from the Fallbrook Regional Health District, the program was expanded to serve more students at more schools.
The goal of the SOFEE program is to connect students with nature, encourage conservation of natural resources, and instill a life-long commitment to community service and volunteerism. SOFEE volunteers visit 4th grade classrooms and present an interactive lesson teaching students about the benefits of trees and shrubs in providing a more healthful environment, the importance of conserving water by planting native and drought tolerant plants, and the importance of giving back to your community. The lesson is followed by a hands-on activity potting a native plant seedling. The next year as 5th graders they take a field trip to a Fallbrook Land Conservancy preserve to plant the seedling they potted in 4th grade into the ground as part of a habitat restoration effort. This year the program was expanded to take the students on a guided hike of the preserve, so they become familiar with the trails, habitat, and local wildlife species in the area.
Polling during our 2021/22 program showed that 70% of students had not visited a Fallbrook Land Conservancy preserve prior to their 5th grade field trip, even though the preserves are open to the public free of charge. The Fallbrook Land Conservancy owns or manages over 3,000 acres of open space in San Diego County and the SOFEE program allows the opportunity to teach children that everyone is welcome at the preserves and that they are safe places to recreate and enjoy nature.
The Fallbrook Land Conservancy is only able to implement this program through a collaboration with several other Live Well San Diego partners. Fallbrook Union Elementary District and Vallecitos School District provide transportation for students to visit the preserve, and coordinate with Conservancy volunteers on scheduling, logistics and the curriculum. The Fallbrook Regional Health District and San Diego Gas & Electric provide funding to purchase plants and other materials and to cover staff time. The Fallbrook Land Conservancy is also working with the Boys and Girls Clubs of Greater San Diego in North County to plan summer extension lessons for students in the SOFEE program.
The Fallbrook and Vallecitos school districts serve students from historically underserved populations. A majority are Hispanic, while 75% of all students are socioeconomically disadvantaged and 29% are English Learners.
An analysis by the National Institutes of Health showed that, “low-income and non-white children experience disparities in health, education, and access to nature. These health disparities are often associated and exacerbated by inequities in the U.S. educational system. Recent research suggests that nature contact may reduce these health and educational disparities for urban low-income populations. Nature-based education uses nature contact to inspire curiosity and improve health.”
Research has also shown that not only does environmental education improve students’ academic performance, but it also increases civic engagement and positive environmental behaviors. Another National Institutes of Health study showed that exposure to green space is beneficial to mental and physical health.
The program is designed not only to benefit the student, but to extend the positive impact to their family and community at large. By introducing children to local preserves and equipping them with the knowledge to feel comfortable and confident visiting them, the SOFEE program is increasing the likelihood that they will motivate other family members to participate in outdoor recreation. Because marginalized populations typically have less access to recreational opportunities, and outdoor recreation is tied to mental health, this is especially important in the community.
While benefitting students in the moment, the SOFEE program also gives students the opportunity to “pay it forward” and participate in an activity that will also impact future students and the community as a whole. When students in the SOFEE program take part in the planting activity, they are not just planting one plant, but assisting in a habitat restoration project that, over the years of the program, have resulted in many acres of degraded land being restored. These students’ first act of volunteerism improves the quality of open space accessible to the whole community and improves the quality of life for all.