Native Intelligence

Wildflowers in a can would be the last thing a group of fourth graders in Clinton, WI, would plant in their schoolyard. They've set their sights on the return of the natives, the tallgrass prairies, that, says teacher Kim Lowman Vollmer, are more endangered than the rainforest.

Inspired by Rachel Carson's model of taking action to make a difference in the environment, Kim and her students turned a barren 40- by 120-foot area into a native prairie. Before putting trowels to soil, each student chose a native prairie plant, then delved into its history, how it was used by Native Americans and European pioneers, and how it supports wildlife. He or she created a class presentation combining this research with catalog pictures and information on the plant's size, color, and bloom times. To tackle their prairie project vision, Kim's class realized they would need to get others to invest in the outcome. So, using Kid Pix software, students created a computer slide show, complete with pictures, graphics, and narration, to share with other classes, the school board, and potential supporters. And they reaped heaps. A community foundation grant yielded funds, local businesses donated services and materials (such as wood chips), high school students helped spread and level sand, and middle schoolers built specially designed Aldo Leopold benches. Meanwhile, Kim's students held a successful "pennies for prairies" fundraiser.

To accomplish the task of putting in 3,000 plants representing 65 species, the class divided the area into smaller patches. Pairs of youngsters then worked in an area to measure where each grass or forb (non-grass prairie plant) should be placed. "The kids were particularly careful placing the four types of plants that are on the state's endangered species list," explains Kim. Once the area was laid out, her students invited younger kids to help with the massive planting effort.

Curriculum goals were front and center as students traced how the land was used historically, created prairie-inspired art projects, kept detailed journals of the habitat's development, and observed and compared its plants and organisms. "The prairie quickly became home to butterflies, toads, birds, bees, and even a rare great golden digger wasp," says Kim. "It also provided the impetus for students' becoming 'phenologists'" (those who track seasonal weather-influenced changes in plants and animals). Her pupils routinely predict "firsts" (blooms, appearance of birds, and so on), and try to link them to local weather and broader climatic conditions.

The pride Kim's students feel in having created this sanctuary for plants, wildlife, and people has become apparent, she says, as they give tours to other classes and community members. "I've seen them invite younger children to smell mints, show them how a cup plant actually holds water, and explain why it's important to care for endangered plants and the wildlife that depends on them," says Kim. "You know, anything, no matter how small, can make a difference. Children need chances to be involved and interested in their outdoor world and to learn what it means to become good stewards of the environment."

Note: Many organizations located throughout much of the middle region of the country are concerned about the loss of native prairies. Many of these groups assist schools with prairie restoration or simulation projects. To find out if any such resources or projects exist in your area, contact your regional botanic gardens, Natural Resources Conservation Service, or similar agencies.

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