Serving Larchmont Village, Hancock Park, and the Greater Wilshire neighborhoods of Los Angeles since 2011.

Outdoor Education: Forging New Ground for Earth Stewardship in Topanga Canyon

Stunning views of sandstone rock formations and chaparral at Manzanita School’s Topanga Canyon Campus.

There are a lot of questions circulating around as cities and countries await a resurgence in the wake of COVID-19. How do we adapt to an uncertain future? Is there a connection we can draw between pandemics and climate change? How can we prepare for unknown adversities?  Are we anticipating the return of ‘business as usual’? Or something different, something better?

Questions similar to the ones many of us are asking are the pedagogic foundation of Manzanita School. Founded in 2013, Manzanita School (grades 4-12) sits on a generous 21-acre contribution of undeveloped land in Topanga Canyon. Students are positioned as “lifelong advocates for the well-being of their fellows and for the earth,”  developing skills and routines around the stewardship of this land. Real world challenges like climate change are unpacked and addressed through a curriculum devoted to building community, resilience, and a deep connection to nature.

The campus itself, nestled among wooded oaks and coastal chaparral, serves as a living laboratory exploring the modus operandi of land stewardship. Core routines around nature are fostered in outdoor facilities including a stable, farm, and private trails. Activities like intuitive wandering, mental mapping, and animal mimicry engender empathy and reverence around students’ outdoor experiences.

Drawdown educator and Manzanita School Board member Cecilie Stuart stands in front of a Coast Live Oak on campus. Working as a choreographer and dancer in the entertainment industry for 30 years, Stuart now runs Move the World, a dance activism non-profit that provides workshops and a creative outlet for environmental change.
Eggs are available every day at Manzanita School’s very own chicken coop. Chickens and other livestock on campus are fed leftovers from school lunches.
Manzanita School averages two tons of compost each year- no food goes to waste with the help of Full Circle Compost. Ten tons of compost have been diverted from landfill during the five years the school has been composting.
In a Full Circle Compost bin, food scraps decompose into “black gold,” a nitrogen rich soil amendment.
Canyon light falls on the school’s farm. The plot, which rests during the winter, will be planted this spring by the 8th graders as they focus their studies on agriculture.

Earlier last month, before stay-at-home orders, I sat in on Manzanita School’s Drawdown Arts class taught by Cecilie Stuart, educator and founder of non-profits Move the World and Full Circle Compost.

Drawdown Arts is an elective program devoted to exploring the 100 different solutions researched in Project Drawdown; it’s taught by different specialists on an 8 week block rotation.  I interviewed Cecilie Stuart, Drawdown Arts program director and this month’s specialist.

“A lot of young people feel a sense of hopelessness and even fear around climate change,” Stuart told us. “We want to acknowledge these anxieties, which are a perfectly normal response to situations that feel out of your control, and then support our students by providing them with a thoughtful and creative approach to activism. Drawdown Arts encourages them to consider activities that create social movement, and how they can participate in these activities.”

Project Drawdown covers nine sectors: electricity; food, agriculture, and land use; industry; transportation; buildings; land sinks; coastal and ocean sinks; engineered sinks; health and education. In each Drawdown Arts class students are asked to pick one sector and one solution to study. They then develop creative projects around this solution. In a class of ten 7th and 8th graders, there was quite the assortment of projects, ranging from a proposal for a zero-waste store on campus, selling supplies like reusable straws, compost buckets, and mason jars to an activism dance to Alicia Keys’ “Underdog.”

The students are not only immersed in their work, they know what they’re talking about. One student, working on a model of a wind turbine, shared with me that offshore and onshore wind energy combined can generate $7.4 trillion in savings while preventing 99.8 gigatons of CO2  emissions (for a helpful visualization, 1 gigaton is equivalent to 600,000 olympic sized swimming pools).

“We want our students to have active hope, to see the opportunity in a future that for many of us feels very daunting. This is their future,” said Stuart. “And these will be their green jobs. Our Drawdown Arts program is really helping to shape their future and ours by giving students the information they need to advocate for themselves and the planet.”

Students are eager to share their thoughts after watching an interview with climate activist Greta Thunberg.

“Drawdown Arts can catalyze change by equipping students with actionable solutions, which at the end of the day, is agency,” explained Stuart. “This course gives students a voice, and teaches them life long tools. They are the pioneers, disseminating this information into a rapidly changing world.”

As the school is on its way to completing the first year of Drawdown Arts, Stuart is just getting started, “I would like to codify what we are doing here with Drawdown and develop a curriculum around the creative expression of climate change solutions. The more we can bring people together around this issue the more impact we can have.”

The Buzz asked Stuart if there was anything her students were working on remotely that other kids could undertake while they’re at home. Her answer: get crafty!

“If you’re handy with a sewing machine and have time, you can contact the 100 million mask challenge and they will send you materials and patterns to make masks at home, and for the hospitals as well.” Stuart also recommends steering clear of the plastic disposable gloves, and instead suggests using dishwashing or laundry gloves that you can wash and reuse multiple times.

During this pandemic we’re also eating at home and have more time to be in the garden.

“Remember, nothing is really disposable,” Stuart cautions. “If you start composting your food waste now, by the end of summer you will have a rich soil to add to your plants and trees.”

Stuart’s non-profit Full Circle Compost, as its name suggests, provides composting services and composting bins made from reclaimed wood. Although its focus is keeping food waste from school campuses out of landfills, Full Circle Compost is also available for homeowners who are interested in backyard composting for their family.

When she’s not teaching at Manzanita, or participating on the board, Stuart gives lectures and presentations on Drawdown solutions all around Los Angeles. As a Drawdown educator, she also organizes workshops for adults who are interested in engaging with the Drawdown material.

To find out more information about Stuart’s work, see or contact Full Circle Compost at 310-871-0061.

To find out more information about sewing homemade masks, visit

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Calli Sara Goldstein
Calli Sara Goldstein
Calli Sara Goldstein is a contributing writer for the Buzz, specializing in sustainability, ecology, and agriculture.

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