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The Schoolyard Habitat Movement

Do young children need experiences in natural environments? From an evolutionary standpoint the answer is probably yes. Our development as a species occurred in natural environments--a wide variety, to be sure--and now, our mostly indoor existence in primarily urban environments is clearly a radical departure from the previous norm.

The departure is so recent that most adults in our country still remember outdoor play as a significant and treasured part of their childhoods, even as they recognize that today's children do not have the same access to the outdoors that they did. Concern about this phenomenon has led some education and conservation groups to spearhead efforts to have schoolyards provide nature-based environments for children. Why schoolyards should provide such habitats and what is being done to create them are the focus of this article.

How Children Have Lost Natural Habitat
The environmental movement's focus on endangered species has made us aware that loss of habitat is a primary cause of species extinction. In other words, if there isn't a place to live, life doesn't flourish or even occur. The adaptability of humans is such that some children do survive in habitats of enormous range, including abject hunger, squalor, and stress. It is clear too that children can grow up an raise their own children in highly urbanized and crowded conditions. Hence, I will not speak here of what the species is capable of but rather will focus on what appears to optimal development for children. I suggest that intense urbanization and industrialization and their follow-ons have deprived children of outdoor, in particular nature-based, experiences.

Urbanization and industrialization have taken nature-based habitats away from children in several ways. A major factor is automobiles. Cars and other vehicles dominate the outdoors in urban and suburban areas--children are simply no match for their high speeds and wide roads. Children's range is thus limited. Furthermore, while many children used to walk to school, interacting with neighborhood yards or vacant lots, now many, if not most, children are driven to school.
Roads and buildings take up land that formerly held plants and animals and usually some form of water; a growing population, concentrated in cities, means less land for play. Furthermore, some of the less expensive housing which is available to families with young children is in densely populated areas, with little open space. In particular, highrise apartments prohibit easy access to outdoor play. Additionally, deteriorated social conditions such as homelessness, crime, substance abuse, and the proliferation of guns make being outside riskier than previously. Vacant lots which used to have some varieties of plants and animals in them now also have the detritus of our times, such as broken glass, old tires, and endless plastic and cardboard packagings.

Finally, because we have not been able to manage the side effects of technology, natural areas such as rivers, streams, and lakes suffer widespread pollution. Low-income families especially feel this effect: wastes such as lead and heavy metals contaminate the soils in many places--three out of five African-Americans and Hispanic-Americans live in communities with toxic waste sites (United Church of Christ, 1987, p. xiv.)

Even where children have access to clean, natural sites, the air can be polluted with harmful particles, gases and ultraviolet rays. The "bad" and "good" ozone problems see particularly intractable. When vehicle exhaust and other chemicals make the "bad" ozone level in the air high, our lungs are damaged. According to the American Lung Association (1996, p. 7), children "are at particular risk because their lungs are still developing, they breathe more air relative to the size of their lungs than adults, and they spend more time outdoors engaging in vigorous exercise." When the amount of "good" ozone in the upper atmosphere is low, ultraviolet rays reach us, with implications for skin cancer, cataracts, and immune suppression. Australian youngsters routinely apply sunscreen before venturing out; children here may soon do the same, a further complication for outdoor play.

Children Have Lost Access to Their Former Habitats
The idea of universal public schooling absorbing perhaps a third of a child's waking hours is historically very new, basically an idea of the twentieth century. While it can be argued that children have never had much time to call their own, given the demands of agrarian and subsistence economies, children's spending so much time away from home is new. The institutionalizing of children, beginning with school, and now child care, has been extended to include team sports, lessons, and camps. The hours spent transporting children among institutions also reduce children's time for outdoor exploration and play.

Accompanying the institutionalization of children has been the fragmentation of neighborhood play supervision. Parents who used to keep their eyes on children outdoors are very frequently today not at home but working elsewhere. Children's access to their own neighborhoods is curtailed for lack of adequate supervision.

The penetration of television into virtually every home in the United States also works to keep children from outdoor play, due to television's attractiveness to children, and parents' use of it for "child-minding." Related technologies such as videos, electronic games, and computers contribute to the indoor nature of childhood, as does air-conditioning for many.

Why We Should Restore Natural Habitats To Children

The Bio-Psychological Reasons
A corollary of the evolutionary argument stated above is the "biophilia hypothesis," which asserts "a human need, fired in the crucible of evolutionary development, for deep and intimate association with the natural environment, particularly its living biota" (Kellert, 1993, p. 21). According to this hypothesis, we are "hard-wired" to affiliate with natural environments, needing such affiliation in the same way we need contact with other people.

Studies of adults reviewed by Kaplan and Kaplan (1989) on "nearby nature" --the sort that children have access to as opposed to distant national parks or seashores--led them to conclude:
The immediate outcomes of contacts with nearby nature include enjoyment, relaxation, and lowered stress levels. In addition, the research results indicated that physical well-being is affected by such contacts. People with access to nearby natural settings have been found to be healthier than other individuals. The longer-term indirect impacts also included increased levels of satisfaction with one's home, one's job, and with life in general. Surely this is a remarkable range of benefits ... (p. 173)

Although the Kaplans reviewed studies of adults, it seems logical to infer that studies of children would reveal comparable benefits.

Furthermore, a substantial body of autobiographical and biographical literature asserts to the poignancy and strength of memories of childhood experiences in natural settings, as evidenced by reviews by Cobb (1977) and Chawla (1994). An account of contemporary children in natural settings by Nabhan and Trimble (1994) indicates that children continue to affiliate with such settings in productive and pleasurable ways.

The Environmental Reason
When children do not play in natural habitats, they tend not to know about the plants and animals that live there (Nabhan & St. Antoine, 1993). Does not knowing lead to not caring? Research has yet to show just how childhood experience develops environmental values, but such values "must be partly rooted in childhood environmental experiences" (Moore, 1986, p. 232). Chawla's (in press) study of environmental activists in both Kentucky and Norway indicated that childhood experiences were significant precursors for their adult activism.

The Developmental Reason
Children are multisensory, physical beings. The younger the child the more the child learns through sensory and physical activity. The variety and richness of natural settings--the wind, the sky, the changing clouds, the moving animals, the cycling plants, the hardness of rocks, the flowingness of water, the varieties of colors and sounds, the wide range of permitted behaviors (shouting and running and climbing)--all contribute to physical, cognitive, and emotional development more than manufactured indoor environments typically can or do. Even old-fashioned outdoor play spaces that offer mainly large motor opportunities, also provide wind, sky, sun, rain, and some vistas of interest.

Natural areas offer children benefits beyond the cognitive. Research at a primary schoolyard in Berkeley, CA, that changed part of its asphalt into meadow with woods, streams, ponds, flowers showed that children have more positive social relationships in such areas and more creative play (Moore & Wong, 1997). Social-emotional development is well served by natural areas.

The Schoolyard Habitats Movement

Early Childhood Education Outdoor Play Endangered
Many preschools have excellent outdoor place spaces because early childhood teachers have a long and sturdy tradition of having plants and animals accessible to children and incorporating outdoor play into their daily activities. However, when early childhood teachers find themselves in public school settings, the bleakness of asphalt and close mown grass in outdoor areas presents a major challenge to outdoor nature experiences. That many preschools and child care facilities are housed in institutions such as churches and, increasingly, office buildings, where the primary mission is not the broad education of young children, also hinders the providing of rich outdoor experiences. For these reasons, the burgeoning schoolyard habitat movement in this country and abroad has much to contribute to early childhood education.

Recent History of the Schoolyard Habitat Movement
Since the environmental movement of the 1970's some schools have had grounds improvement projects. Long lasting national environmental education programs such as Project Learning Tree and Project WILD have helped foster such improvements. In the last decade, a highly successful national program in Great Britain, Learning through Landscapes, which has improved at least on-third of Britain's 30,000 schoolyards, has inspired a national program in Canada, Learning Grounds, sponsored by the Evergreen Foundation, and also a major Swedish program, Skolans Uterum. Learning through Landscapes has also given fresh impetus to the schoolyard improvement efforts in the United States, some of which are described below.

The United States--Many Efforts Loosely Linked
A recent survey (U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, 1996) revealed more than 40 organizations either solely devoted to school grounds enhancement or sponsoring programs to that end. Many of these organizations have a traditional wildlife conservation mission and view schoolyards as places to directly inform children about their natural heritage and engage them in its preservation. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, state fish and game departments, and the National Wildlife Federation are leaders in this regard. Some organizations originated in environmental education and have forged a variety of links among science and education departments of universities, state school systems, natural science museums, arboreta, and conservation organizations.

The daunting task of helping the 108,000 schools in the United States "green their grounds" has created a desire for sharing information and joining efforts among many like-minded groups. Conferences sponsored by the American Horticulture Society, the North American Association for Environmental Education, the Society for Ecological Research, and both the Brooklyn and Cleveland Botanical Gardens have helped bring people and ideas together. The Schoolyard Habitats® project of the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) sponsors a Listserv for organizations working on schoolyard improvement; webpages for NWF, the Evergreen Foundation, and Project WILD provide both information and links to other projects. Most projects are local or state in scope, which indicates that there are undoubtedly many projects not captured by the recent survey but teachers could locate them by calling local and state conservation and education groups and agencies. Soil Conservation Districts are good sources of information. (My state exemplifies the range of organizations: The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is very active in schoolyard restoration, along with the state department of natural resources. Some school systems have projects, and there is a large urban reforestation effort.)

Typical "Greening" Efforts
Schools usually start with small projects, although some schools do major work, especially in new construction. Typical small projects are butterfly gardens, bird feeders and baths, tree planting, sundials, weather stations, native plant gardens, Native American gardens, and compost piles. Larger projects are ponds/wetlands, nature trails, meadows/prairie, stream restoration, shelters for small animals, such as brush piles, and big vegetable gardens. There is a trend to choose ecologically valuable projects over simple beautification ones, e.g., turf converted to meadow contributes more to the local ecology than azaleas planted around a school's foundation.

Optimally, students are involved in the planning, implementing, and maintenance of projects. Important curriculum aims can be served as well as a sense of ownership encouraged. While older children may find digging, clearing, and planting a refreshing alternative to classroom exercises, young children generally find such work tedious and are not expected to do very much. Young children do contribute ideas, however, and often find creative ways to use the environment even while it is being transformed. Making a hole for a new piece of equipment can inspire playful digging as well as make a play worthy dirt pile (Chenfield, 1996). Green but Also Appropriate for Young Children

Harmonizing the needs of children of different ages is important in planning schoolyard greening. Excellent facilities for observing nature can be appropriate for older children but too limiting for young children. A "garden teacher" at an elementary school with extensive gardens had to abandon her lesson plan for the kindergartners when they discovered mud after a rainshower. Before she knew it, shoes had flown off, and feet were joyously squishing.

Early childhood teachers need to assert their children's rights to this kind of full experiencing of the natural world, however. Dirt and sand must be for digging as well as planting; clay can often be found for making things. Some plants must be for picking. Delights such as pinecones, berries, nuts, and abundant flowers should be made available for children's pleasure and investigation. Seeing such things is only part of learning about them. Touching, tasting, smelling, and pulling apart are also vital (Moore, 1993). Shrubs and trees for climbing are the real thing that manufactured climbers imitate.

Early childhood teachers also need to affirm young children's need for private spaces "to get away from their enemies and their friends" (Humphries, 1996). Such spaces can be bushes or tallgrass or a cluster of rocks. A circle of 6-foot pines is "a forest" to young children (Lorain County Community College, 1995). If the perimeter of a schoolyard is secure, small shelters for small children should be possible withing them--barren open spaces where one recess aide can watch 200 children at a time may seem necessary but limit children too much.

Finally, teachers of young children should promote the enduring value of water play. Access to hoses and faucets, ponds shaped with gently sloping sides or elevated with an edge for seating, wetlands, and pump-operated or natural streams are all items to press for when planning changes in the schoolyard. Water-scarce areas can have water tables with tubing and gutters, strategically placed so that overflow ends up on grass or gardens.

Good Schools Have Good Grounds
The schoolyard habitats movement is literally gaining ground. Natural affiliates of the movement, early childhood educators can help assure that the habitats being established to foster diverse plant and animal species also serve the play and developmental needs of young children.

This article was written by Mary Rivkin, Ph.D. University of Baltimore County Education Department Early Childhood Education Program.
It was originally published in Early Childhood Education Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1997.


This article was prepared with the support of the National Wildlife Federation Schoolyard Habitats program.
Thanks to Britt Slattery, Rich Mason, Maureen Heffernan, Sara Griffen, and Adella Anchota for their ideas and insights.


American Lung Association (1996). Breathless: Air pollution and hospital admissions/emergency room visits in 13 cities. Washington, DC: American Lung Association.

Chawla, L. (1994). In the first country of places: Nature, poetry, and childhood memory. Alban, NY: SUNY Press.

Chawla, L. (In press). Life Paths into Environmental Action.

Chenfield, M.B. (1996). The whole truth about hole language--Whoops! I mean the hole truth about whole language--Can you dig it? Early Childhood Education Journal, 23, 3.

Cobb, E. (1977). The ecology of imagination in childhood. New York: Columbia University Press.
Humphries, S. In conversation, August 1996.

Kaplan, R. & Kaplan, S. (1989). The experience of nature: A psychological perspective. New York: Cambridge University Press.

Kellert, S. (1993). Introduction. In S.R. Kellert & E.O. Wilson (Eds.) The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater.

Lorain County Community College (1995). Video: ECE Outdoor Play Area. Lorain, OH.

Moore, R.C. (1986). Childhood's domain. London: Croon Helm (Reprint, Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications, 1990).

Moore, R.C. (1993). Plants for play: A plant selection guide for children's outdoor environments. Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications.

Moore, R.C. & Wong, H. (1997). A natural way of learning: The experience of the Washington environmental yard. Berkeley, CA: MIG Communications.

Nabhan, G.P. & St. Antoine, S. (1993). The loss of floral and faunal story: The Extinction of Experience. In S.R. Kellert & E.O. Wilson (Eds.), The Biophilia Hypothesis. Washington, DC: Island Press/Shearwater.

Nabhan, G.P. & Trimble, S. (1994). The geography of childhood: Why children need wild places. Boston: Beacon Press.

United Church of Christ Commission for Racial Justice (1987). Toxic wastes and race in the United States: A national report on the racial and socio-economic characteristics of communities with hazardous waste sites. New York: Commission for Racial Justice.

U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (1996). Directory of Schoolyard Habitats Programs. Annapolis, MD: U.S. Fish and Wildlife



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