Transforming schoolyards

Imagine the time and toil it would take teachers and students to transform a schoolyard into a haven for wildlife. Southern Ute Indian Academy in Colorado did just that, qualifying as the first tribal school to earn certification as a National Wildlife Federation Wildlife Schoolyard Habitat site in 2005.

Ten more tribal schools have successfully transformed their schoolyards into engaging educational wildlife sanctuaries, and others are on their way to certification.

Making them interesting How NWF’s Schoolyard Habitats program makes learning the core subjects more real, fun, hands-on, interdisciplinary and relevant: Science A Schoolyard Habitats project serves as a living laboratory where students engage in hands-on inquiries into the natural world. Math A Schoolyard Habitats site provides students with the opportunity to apply math concepts to the real world; whether estimating numbers of plants in an on-site plant community or tracking and graphing ongoing wildlife observations, the outdoors is full of mathematical wonders. English A Schoolyard Habitats project provides a quiet space for creative writing about nature or a research laboratory where students can develop research, writing and communication skills. Geography and Social Studies Geography and social studies involve understanding connections between people, social constructs and the environment. The Schoolyard Habitats program can be applied successfully to help teach those connections by assisting students in understanding space and place.

The idea is that students need more than books, worksheets and carefully contrived experiments. “These schools use their habitats to connect Native students to their natural environment, their community and the traditions and cultures of their tribe,” said Alexis Bonogofsky, associate coordinator of NWF’s Tribal Lands Conservation Program. “It is a very holistic program that tries to integrate outdoor gardens/habitats with other projects that can happen inside the classroom that will help the planet.”

Many schools have added food gardens. Another objective is integrating climate change education into the program. “One example is having students do biodiversity species counts in their habitat and compare what they find to historical data,” Bonogofsky said. “Teaching students how important habitat is for wildlife survival and how climate affects habitats will help them understand interconnectivity of ecosystems.”

Teachers can use NWF’s educational Web site to integrate climate change science, at age appropriate levels, into the habitat and gardening curriculum.

“When kids create habitat and grow gardens, they are providing habitat for native species being stressed by climate change,” Bonogofsky said. “As the changes in climate affect the wildlife and our agricultural systems, it is important that we are providing habitat and learning to grow our own food.”

Providing habitat supports species that are migrating or changing their patterns due to climate change, and educates students about the effects that climate change is having on our natural systems, the importance of habitat for wildlife survival, and offers an understanding of the interconnectivity of ecosystems.

The special emphasis on bees, birds, butterflies and other pollinators who need microhabitats – not just in schools, but in backyards across the country – to survive is a lesson in civic responsibility. A partner project is the Backyard Wildlife Habitat program, creating gardens that attract wildlife and help restore habitat in commercial and residential areas