Educating Tomorrow's Naturalists

NWF’s Schoolyard Habitats® program moves beyond traditional schools to introduce more children to wildlife

  • Doreen Cubie
  • Gardening
  • Mar 30, 2015
JUST OUTSIDE WASHINGTON, D.C., in Greenbelt, Maryland, lies the sprawling mega-complex of the NASA Goddard Space Flight Center. While its 10,000 employees have their eyes firmly fixed on flights to the stars, some of their kids are studying a more down-to-earth kind of flight—that of the monarch butterfly.

Built recently on the facility’s grounds, the NASA Goddard Child Development Center has created an NWF-certified Schoolyard Habitats® site to bring the center’s students closer to nature. “We put the plants in during spring of 2014 and started seeing results right away,” says Syretha Storey, director of the center, which combines childcare and early childhood education for preschoolers and kindergarteners. Cultivating only Maryland native flowers paid off when monarchs found the garden quickly. After the butterflies laid eggs, the children brought a caterpillar into their classroom to watch it develop and learn about the monarch’s life cycle, including its first flight.

When the National Wildlife Federation launched its Schoolyard Habitats program two decades ago, the organization focused exclusively on elementary, middle and high schools. Some 4,500 such schools now have certified habitats and have taken advantage of NWF’s nature-based lesson plans, webinars and other online support. In recent years, however, the program has begun looking beyond traditional schools to bring outdoor classrooms to more children in settings such as NASA.

The expanded approach “allows us to provide informal environmental education opportunities, not only to school-age children but also to their families,” says Elizabeth Soper, NWF’s director of K-to-12 education programs. “It also bolsters and enhances the students’ lessons about nature by providing complementary in-school and out-of-school experiences.” Here is a look at four more of the nontraditional sites:

Aldo Leopold Nature Center

Located near Madison, Wisconsin, this center is dedicated to keeping alive the land ethic of renowned conservationist Aldo Leopold while also engaging children in the outdoors. “Since our main mission is to make nature accessible, it seemed like a great fit to join forces with NWF,” says Sierra Muñoz, the center’s communications director.

A mixture of oak savanna, wetlands and prairie habitat, the center’s 20-acre campus already provided wildlife the food, water, cover and places to raise young the Federation requires for certification. Officially certified in 2014, the facility hosts more than 50,000 visitors annually, many of them Wisconsin students on field trips. “The children may learn about wildlife and habitats in their classrooms,” says Muñoz, “but here, they actually get to experience it.”
Missouri Botanical Garden

Founded in 1859, this national historic landmark and its other St. Louis-area sites host more than a million visitors each year, including more than 100,000 students and teachers. The main garden includes the 2.5-acre Doris I. Schnuck Children’s Garden, certified by NWF in 2014. “Here, kids of all ages can explore Missouri ecosystems, including caves, ponds, prairies, wetlands and woodlands in active ways,” says Sheila Voss, the botanical garden’s vice president of education. Throughout the habitat, children, teachers and parents are exposed to activities they can either do at home or at school to attract and nurture native wildlife.

Avery House Nature Center

Nestled among ancient trees in Corvallis, Oregon, this center, a program of the Corvallis Environmental Center, operates environmental education activities for prekindergarteners through fifth-graders. The focal point is Avery House, a restored pioneer home surrounded by a schoolyard habitat that NWF certified in 2014. “We use the plants in our programs to educate youngsters about native wildflowers and pollinators,” says Nature Program Director Meika Vingelen. In addition to year-round activities for preschoolers, the center runs summer camps and field trips for traditional schools and reaches out to local children who are homeschooled.

Discovery Hill

This schoolyard habitat in Austin, Texas, was once “an absolutely barren hillside,” says Marya Fowler, senior education outreach manager in NWF’s South Central Regional Office. “Now it’s a training venue for science teachers.” It also has become a popular field-trip destination for local schools.

Located at the Science and Health Resource Center for the Austin Independent School District, Discovery Hill Outdoor Learning Center (below) was built largely by volunteers in 2013. Today the quarter-acre site is brimming with more than 150 native plant species “flush with pollinators,” says Fowler.

Anne Moore, a second-grade teacher at Austin’s Pleasant Hill Elementary School, takes her young charges to Discovery Hill as often as she can. “They adore it,” she says. Not only do her students get science lessons—dissecting a flower or learning the parts of a plant, for example—they also write poetry there. “A lot of my students don’t go outside for one reason or another at home,” she adds. “At first, some of them were afraid, but they’ve learned to love it.”

Anne Muller, an outdoor-learning specialist for the school district, says that a lot of city kids don’t have opportunities in their daily lives to connect with nature. “At Discovery Hill, they light up when they get to see and learn new things,” she says. “It brings into perspective how important these habitats really are.”

South Carolina writer Doreen Cubie is a frequent contributor.
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