On a crisp winter morning, Longfellow Elementary School student Milan Tate extended her hand, palm down, to gently sweep the overgrown buckwheat teasing the trail along the Lower Arroyo Seco as she followed her classmates — a surprisingly silent contingent of 10-year-olds — on a field trip with the Armory Center for the Arts.
The children were quiet with purpose — listening to the birds overhead, the crunching leaves underneath and the buzzing in the mustard brush blended with any hushed chattiness. The kids had a kick in their step; there was no trudging along here.
“It’s really relaxing being out here, it’s so much better to do something different and be outside like this — it makes me feel real happy,” Milan said, looking up to take in the broad sky. “Plus, it’s real fun because we get to do art projects!”
She will get three such hiking field trips this year in Pasadena’s urban forest, two hours of outdoor exploration of areas including the Lower and Upper Eaton Canyon, all combined with the arts. The children studiously drew in their notebooks along the way, journaling their observations and tracing outlines of unique leaves or flowers they would discuss back in the classroom.
Expert Armory Center teachers led the way, calling attention to hillsides that appeared to show signs of drought, crumbling banks that illustrated erosion, or a nearby hum that might instigate a conversation about dwindling bee populations and what that could mean for the world’s food supply.
The Armory’s field-trip fun has a well-planned method and multi-pronged goal: Through its Children Investigate the Environment program, it sets out to diversify the way in which children absorb material on science, ecology and the arts, while also teaching a new generation to respect and care for the planet and its resources.
The program was launched 34 years ago and was a big hit right from the get-go, with the benefits obvious to all those involved, said Armory Executive Director Leslie Ito.
“CIE is our flagship program. Back when it launched, we were one of the very few organizations conducting arts integration or teaching science by using the arts as a teaching tool. There are many different ways that children learn, some more experimental, some are visual learners, and this type of teaching engages the children to learn in nontraditional ways,” Ito said. “I would venture to say that this program is more relevant now than it was when we started it. In this age of climate crises, we are training young people to be protectors of the environment, advocates for our natural resources and lovers of nature — and the arts.”
CIE has expanded programming and lengthened its reach over the years, becoming a collaborative partnership involving the Armory, Pasadena Unified School District, the city of Pasadena and Pasadena Water and Power. The city and PWP have been longtime financial supporters of the effort, along with current donors the Sahm Family Foundation and the Dwight Stuart Youth Fund. The program is offered at no cost to participants.
“While it is a great collaboration, it really serves as a means to educate the students about the importance of nature and the real ways they can make a difference in their homes and in school,” said PWP events and education coordinator Renae Plave. “As a public utility, part of PWP’s mission includes being a valued community partner and contributing to the success of Pasadena’s future. From an educational standpoint, that means ensuring the future generation understands the importance of environmental stewardship and conservation.”
Plave added that the programming has deepened over the years, incorporating more discussions on climate science as more research is conducted and the world rapidly changes.
“The program has adapted over the years as we learn more about different ways to conserve and more robust methods for sustaining natural resources,” she said. “While we hope that our educational efforts continue to be effective, we also encourage children to become invested in that environmental stewardship.”
Today, the Armory provides about 70 teaching artists to help lead the program for about 900 students per year across 28 PUSD 4th-grade classrooms. The program lasts for eight weeks at each school and includes the field trips plus five classroom sessions, all of which last two hours, a period that is seen as just long enough to really tackle an art project or art and science topic from start to finish, said teacher Tyara Brooks.
Brooks accompanied her well-behaved 4th-graders and intermittently interjected to help out seasoned Armory teacher Austyn de Lugo. After a walk, the students did a performing arts sketch to exemplify renewable energies, followed by an arts project of photosynthesis using leaves and vibrant dyes.
The program engages all of the children’s senses, and just being outside is a bonus, she noted.
“This is an excellent program — I really appreciate the opportunity to have an outdoor classroom. It’s not often that the students get the chance to be outdoors, and through this, we can bring what we learn in the classroom and real life together,” Brooks said. “I also appreciate how the Armory attaches science, mathematics and art standards all together, it’s a really creative way of being able to reach the standards. Every single subject is intertwined, and it gives the kids the opportunity to recognize their strengths and gives them the chance to play with those strengths across the different subjects. It helps them feel more confident and comfortable with the material because they have a more creative way to interact with it.
“Plus, it’s a lot of fun!” she added.
While being outside is seen as a perk in itself, getting to know Pasadena’s local hiking trails and natural wonders is another gift, and one that former students have recalled over the years. Because the program was launched in 1986, many of the alumni are grown adults with their own children, and often remark that their first introduction to Southern California’s backyard forest and hiking trails was during their time at the Armory’s CIE program field trips.
Those excursions aside, the Armory serves a large proportion of lower-income children — the nonprofit estimates about 80% of its total programming serves socioeconomically disadvantaged youth and families.
“Many of the children in our program don’t get opportunities to get outdoors, especially through the outdoor classroom concept, but even with their own parents, especially if those parents are working two different jobs,” said Armory Director of Education Lorraine Cleary Dale. “To help the children see firsthand what’s going on with our natural resources, be it plant life, erosion or a dry river bed, it connects them to real-world problems and helps them see they are part of the system. They learn how to be good stewards of the environment, and they take that viewpoint and information home to their parents and families and can help create a dialogue and change.”
And for Brooks’ 4th-grade class, the memories of the recent field trip to the Arroyo’s Casita and its winding paths will help foment that magical, childhood narrative for many years to come.
“I just like being here. Coming outside is so much fun, and this is bringing science and art together,” said 10-year-old Seth De Castro. “It’s as if you were painting a picture out in nature, that’s how it feels. And later, I can do other things with it, I can put it on a map, I can hang it in my room. But I’ll have it to take with me.”
To learn more about the Armory Center for the Arts, its programs or how to donate, visit armoryarts.org.