Growing Wildlife Habitats

By Eve Pranis

"There is such a push to teach kids about biodiversity and interdependence through studying rainforests that are thousands of miles away, but it's much more powerful and effective to first explore these same concepts up close in our own backyards," says Waco, TX, educator Mary Nied Phillips.

In an effort to increase biodiversity on their urban school grounds, Mary's primary students turned a grassy courtyard into a thriving "wildscape."

A coalition of community supporters -- the PTA, native plant society, Audubon center, Master Gardeners, nurseries, and others -- provided materials, labor, and know-how to help make the habitat a reality. Students created a pond area and used their school-made compost to fill raised beds designed in geometric shapes (during math class), then filled them with native butterfly nectar and host plants and birdseed producers like sunflowers.

The habitat has enabled students to realize that by increasing the diversity of plants in the area, they invited more than just butterflies and birds. "My young scientists have become keen observers of lady beetles pursuing aphids, snakes laying eggs in compost, butterfly larvae, and praying mantises," explains Mary. "They're intrigued by the interactions and changes through the seasons, and delighted with the sanctuary they've created for reading, reflection, and play," she adds.

Too often, students sit at their desks and learn about habitats and ecosystems thousands of miles away, while their schoolyard features a barren landscape of mown grass or asphalt. Increasingly, however, educators are recognizing the value of transforming school grounds into learning laboratories that support a rich diversity of life. Many start simply, with a birdbath, brush pile, or a few butterfly garden plants, for instance. Other schools have restored prairies or wetlands, or planted trees and shrubs for food and shelter. By focusing on wildlife and their needs, students can begin to understand the importance of habitat components, how different threads of life connect, and how humans can endanger or choose to act responsibly toward the environment. These tangible experiences also provide a springboard for grasping important environmental issues in far-flung places.

Read on for some other highlights from growing classrooms.


"When my kids decided to put in a landscaped pond to beautify a small alley between school buildings, we had no idea how much we'd learn about concepts like food chains and changes that take place over time in habitats," reports third to fifth grade Marion, PA, teacher Judith Linker.

Judith's students first spent a couple of months digging a shallow pond with a shelf inside the perimeter, then laid a rubber liner they'd purchased through a matching grant. The class planted GrowLab-grown perennials around the pond rim, then filled the ledge with aquatic plants they'd gotten at a discount from a local nursery. "Students added goldfish, which they discovered could survive our pond conditions, then went to a local stream to find other critters to 'seed' their pond habitat," says Judith.

Although the project is in its early stages, changes are already afoot. "The kids were amazed to find frogs, since they hadn't knowingly added eggs or tadpoles," reports Judith. "They're intrigued by the changes they have observed regularly, and are beginning to appreciate the importance of smaller organisms that are the basis of life's pyramid," she adds.

Delighted with their initial success, Judith and her students auctioned off their pond-building expertise at a school fund-raising auction for parents, and now serve as consultants to others in the community.

Urban Wildlife Oasis

"After doing a lot of cleanup and recycling projects, the kids in our high school environmental club got inspired to tackle a garbage-filled half-acre vacant lot near our school," reports Bronx, NY, teacher Tony Thoman.

"When students surveyed the land to see what features and plants were already there, they wanted to tear out a patch of cattails in a wet, muddy spot, then replant the area," reports Tony. This launched a discussion of the value of a wetland ecosystem. "The students agreed to leave it be, use water from a local fire hydrant to keep the area wet, and observe what happens over time," he adds. But they had other plans for the rest of the lot.

With support from catalogs, community gardening groups, and local nurseries, the students researched and discovered what they could plant to create a green oasis for wildlife and humans. The former eyesore now boasts vegetable gardens, butterfly bushes and other nectar and host plants, birdhouses, and a sunflower thicket. It's also home to praying mantises, birds, snakes, toads, and butterflies. "The kids were thrilled to discover that the frogs we got from a teacher's pond and released into the wetland were thriving and had increased in numbers," says Tony. (Less thrilling were the rodents that his young problem-solvers had to evict from the corn and squash patch!)

The high schoolers now serve as mentors to elementary students, fueling the urban youngsters' understanding of how to use and enjoy a garden and natural area. Together they transplant, harvest vegetables, plant bulbs, and observe wildlife. "And the partnership goes both ways," explains Tony. "The older students jump at the chance to share their own knowledge and experiences in the habitat with the younger kids. And their own confidence in what they know is boosted by having to teach it to others," he adds.

Tony advises urban teachers considering wildlife habitat projects to get acquainted with an area and watch it closely to discover what elements already exist, then to nurture those. "There's probably more there than you first realize," he suggests. He also points out the need for patience when working in this type of context with urban kids. "Although it can be a challenge getting urban kids to carefully explore and observe wildlife, the rewards are great," he explains. "Like when a child stops suddenly to watch and admire a beautiful warbler."

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