It was a sweet outdoor field trip moment turned sour. While relaxing on the edge of a hay wagon, taking in the scene at the farm, science lab teacher Darleen Horton remarked to a fourth grader, "Isn't this nice?" His reply: "It's scary."
Surprised, she asked him why. "Well, I don't go outside. It's not safe."
Horton, who teaches at Jefferson County (Ky.) Public Schools' Chenoweth Elementary, says she immediately realized the impact of growing up in a high crime area with no green space. "It just came crashing down on me. A lot of children don't have any connection with living, growing things," she says.
The outdoor classroom Horton created last year at Chenoweth--a school located away from the district's urban center--helps to forge that connection. "Children had the dream right along with me," the teacher says of her vision for the school grounds.
An Environmental Protection Agency grant and donations totaling about $7,000, plus a lot of hard work, went into the space, which now features a bi-level pond with a waterfall, thriving gardens, a paved path and log seating. It's visited often, not only by students but by squirrels, rabbits and even a red-tailed hawk. "I don't have anybody afraid to go outside anymore," says Horton. "This is a safe place."
At nearby Watson Lane Elementary, students have enjoyed a similar outdoor learning space for about a decade. From soil experiments to rock identifications, scientific inquiry is a regular occurrence. "It opens up opportunities for children to engage in things that you would normally just read about," says Principal Rosemarie Young. While not every teacher has gotten involved in connecting the space to the curriculum, they all "support it in some way, even if through quiet and reading time."
That support also exists at the central office. The district currently has 57 outdoor classrooms, notes David Wicks, coordinator of the school system's Center for Environmental Education. Although Wicks' department provides no funds, the schools have found ways to raise them. About one-third of Jefferson County's classrooms are focused on activities such as planting and developing wetlands and mini forests, all indications of schoolyard habitats.
Stephanie Stowell, director of the National Wildlife Federation's Schoolyard Habitats program, says she's seen everything from a 35-acre space in a schoolyard with natural forest down to 3x5 foot window boxes in downtown Detroit. In fact, the most significant growth of schoolyard habitats has been in urban areas, she says. "I think we're overcoming the misconception that inner-city schools can't be beautified," explains Josetta Hawthorne, executive director of the Council for Environmental Education's Project WILD program.
A simple habitat typically includes a water source, a butterfly garden or other flowering beds, and rocks, shrubs or some other kind of cover for wildlife, Hawthorne says. From there, the possibilities are nearly endless. At Taipei American School in Taiwan, for instance, the recently completed outdoor space includes a geology area, a waterfall, a tea garden, an archeological dig pit, a treehouse village and more. Susan Goltsman, principal of Berkeley, Calif.-based MIG and designer of the Taipei project, says her firm considers 17 different elements of learning--from building and discovery to climbing and categorizing--when creating outdoor classrooms.
Schoolyard habitat design is on the minds of many educators. A 1996 environmental education conference had just a few sessions on the topic. The same event in 2002 drew enough interest for more than 20 sessions, says Marilyn Wyzga, coordinator of the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department's Project HOME program, which helps schools develop habitats. Karen Kelly, Maryland's schoolyard habitat coordinator, adds that she's noticed an overall focus on "having what's happening outside on the grounds blend with what's happening inside."
Habitats Across the Board
Educators are noticing the academic, social and practical benefits of incorporating schoolyard habitats into everyday learning, especially in elementary schools, but also in middle and high schools. "It's very important for children to be immersed in living systems" to apply concepts in a specific context, says Zenobia Barlow, executive director of the Center for Ecoliteracy. And when kids work together outside the classroom, educators report increased cooperation overall. Students experience enhanced self-esteem as they use real tools to solve real problems, she adds.
Schoolyard habitats and student achievement have also been linked, such as through the State Education and Environment Roundtable's 1999 report Closing the Achievement Gap. In Jefferson County's own analysis of 2003 science test scores, 14 of the top 15 performing elementary schools, plus three of the top five middle schools, have active outdoor classrooms.
Experts say administrators generally have to be sold on how these benefits can outweigh the costs and time involved in creating and sustaining schoolyard habitats. Still, that's not the case across the board. "If it's a well thought out, well supported initiative that connects to student achievement and has a good plan for maintenance so it looks neat, I haven't heard of any [Jefferson County] administrators who said no," Wicks notes.
The benefits of district-wide support for habitat projects are beginning to get noticed. Due to tight budgets, "kids aren't able to go off site like they used to for field trips," says Stowell, who has seen increased interest in creating habitats at all schools within a district. In Maryland, for instance, seven or eight of the 24 districts are aggressively pursuing these projects, Kelly says. A few district science departments even have goals of converting at least 50 percent of their schoolyards into natural space. One, Frederick County, is partnering with Kelly and a non-profit organization to get all of its 89 schools involved. District support makes these projects "more integrated and sustainable," Wyzga points out.
On the West Coast, the rural Orinda (Calif.) Union School District is the first to officially put out the wildlife welcome mat at every one of its schools. The five campuses are already tucked into areas with running creeks, explains District Naturalist Toris Jaeger. After adding the missing criterion--including gardens, food to attract birds and areas where students could observe nature--the district applied for and obtained NWF schoolyard habitat certification.
While Jefferson County's outdoor classrooms have generally been a success, Wicks has seen dark days. There have been teachers who worked with students to carefully select and plant 15 different native tree species. The young plantings, so full of potential yet only a few inches high, were no match for a maintenance crew's lawnmower.
And everyone involved in promoting schoolyard habitats has at least one story to tell about a single motivated teacher who fails to grab the interest of others. Once that teacher moves on, "the whole facility goes down the tubes," points out John Lee, director of facility planning for Jefferson County.
Wicks compares what's needed to avoid these situations to a healthy ecosystem. "The more diverse an environment is, the more stable it will be. The more diverse support for your outdoor classroom, the more stable it will be," he says. Jaeger adds that a habitat needs "a core of people that see the value and wisdom of it. And I'm sure every district has those people."
"It has to be seen as part of a broader policy and framework in which people feel supported doing these kinds of things," Goltsman advises. For Project HOME, that support comes in the form of a 10-plus person school team. Teachers, administrators, custodians and in some cases older students complete eight hours of training on schoolyard habitat enhancement, Wyzga says.
In Jefferson County, involvement from multiple departments means "you have so many eyes and minds looking at the same thing. It's a very enriching kind of process," Lee says. That process begins with a proposal, submitted to his department, on the type of improvement being considered. "We bring to the table the expertise not only in how to do something, but what works," he adds. To help everyone work together, district administrators have compiled an extensive handbook for creating and using outdoor classrooms.
Seeking help from outside experts and committed community members also makes ongoing use of a schoolyard habitat more likely. Besides national organizations, many of which have state contacts, experts suggest getting in touch with local native plant societies, gardening clubs, home and garden centers, nature centers and soil and water conservation district offices.
A number of schools also hire landscape architects, Wyzga says. Their ecology background provides "the ability to go in and replicate the natural system in a way that humans can appreciate," says Elise Huggins, owner of the firm Earthscape, which has created habitat gardens for schools in Anchorage, Ala., where the company is based. "If we just plop plants here and there, they end up looking like weed gardens. If it's not nice, it won't last in the long run," she explains. And be sure to get experts involved early on in the process, especially with new school construction. "It's really expensive to move parking lots!" she points out.
It can also be costly--in the motivation for learning sense--to leave students out of the planning process. At Van Buren Intermediate School District in Lawrence, Mich., a project to restore a nature trail and create a variety of habitats doesn't make that mistake.
Students are actively involved and have done water measurements, trail marking and planting, says Student Assistance Coordinator Wendy Pierce.
Of course, getting children involved sometimes means letting them make their own mistakes. Barlow knows of one school where the children were asked to calculate the amount of sand needed for a sandbox area. They under-calculated--and dramatically so. But it was still a learning experience.
Jaeger has learned this: "If you can inspire [students], if they have an understanding of what they're doing and feel like they're making a difference, they're unstoppable."
Get teachers to see their schoolyard habitat as more than an add-on, and experts say you're halfway to ensuring its success. "Kids have to learn how to measure [and] how to problem solve," says Kelly. "This is a way to do it. It's a means to an end." Correlating outdoor classroom use to local standards is a leap in the right direction. An Orinda science committee has created an enrichment binder for each grade level, and lesson modeling helps teachers get comfortable using the activities.
In Jefferson County, administrators took advantage of Kentucky's very specific reading and writing standards to promote its outdoor classrooms. "Even though [Superintendent Stephen Daeschner] is dedicated to environmental stewardship, he has come out and said that every child in the district must read on grade level by 2006. He hasn't come out and said every child must be an environmental steward by 2006," Wicks says. One link between the two areas is the Wild About Reading program, which brings children's books related to the understanding of local habitats to the shelves of several school libraries.
Horton's fifth graders experienced a wild moment while studying cell biology this year. "We went to get some pond scum to look at it under the microscopes. And tadpole eggs are hatching right on the slide!" she recalls. "You can imagine the excitement all that created."
To get students to understand decomposing--which Horton says commonly trips them up on standardized tests--they only need to take a few steps from the classroom and roll back a rotting log to observe the concept in action. After noting what they've seen in their journals, they'll be more likely to remember what they learn later.
Other popular science lessons for schoolyard habitats include water testing, soil studies, insect counts and identification, and learning how to use a dichotomous key to identify plants, Hawthorne says. And the fun doesn't have to be put on hold during the colder months. Watson Lane's Young says direct observations--of what animals are spotted then vs. in the fall, and of what happens to the trees, for example--are ideal winter activities. And, Wyzga points out, it's easier to notice animal tracks and certain plants during that season.
Connections to other subject areas don't require much more than some planning and an open mind. Horton organized Stone Soup Day this fall to celebrate Chenoweth's first harvest and to sample Kentucky's early history. The event featured a customized version of the Swedish folktale and a number of exhibitors that linked science and literacy to other subject areas.
On any day, a habitat site can be connected to creative writing or persuasive writing (to secure more community involvement), Hawthorne says. Students might also study the history of the school site, create site maps and measure the space for garden planning.
"It can't be taken for granted that just because it's there, people will come," Wicks says. Interest in the site, adds Goltsman, will depend on individual teachers' willingness to "get dirty and ... let [their students] get dirty.
It's not about the subject you teach but about individuals who see the value in kids manipulating the environment."
Experts recommend promoting that value through professional development. Horton, for example, is designing a workshop to teach colleagues how to use their outdoor classroom. In Maryland's Ann Arundel county, two staffers are dedicated to training teachers to use habitats, Kelly says. Hawthorne suggests asking science coordinators to regularly come up with fresh ideas for habitat site use and bringing in guest speakers to re-ignite interest.
The habit toward habitats can even spark a contribution to the greater public good. "When these kids are involved in restoring their schoolyards, it's not just a pretend science," Kelly says. In her region, a commitment has been made to Chesapeake Bay restoration, and addressing pollution within the school boundaries can result in less pollution in the bay. Knowing that they're part of the solution, children can't help but feel "an extreme amount of school pride," Kelly says--as well as pride in themselves.
Melissa Ezarik is features editor.