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Alaska Fish & Wildlife News
October 2011

Schoolyard Habitats Inspire Outdoor Learning

By Elizabeth Manning
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Laura Wick's 4th grade class at Cottonwood Creek Elementary School in Wasilla installs a rain garden to absorb and filter the stormwater runoff from the school parking lot. Photo by Catherine Inman

The photos in Sharon Danks’ book about schoolyard habitat projects are so awe-inspiring they make me wish I were back in elementary school.

Danks’ book, "Asphalt to Ecosystems: Design Ideas for Schoolyard Transformation," chronicles a growing international movement to remake schoolyards and playgrounds to better connect our children with nature.

The “before” photos document drab institutional-looking schools with expanses of gray concrete, basic playground equipment and little greenery.

The “after” photos depict lush green spaces, inviting outdoor classrooms, creative play spaces with ponds, boulder piles and hills, edible gardens and in a few cases, farm animals such as chickens.

Looking at some of the school transformations side-by-side, it’s hard to believe the photos are of the same school.

This inspiring work is taking place internationally, even here in Alaska.

In Alaska, the key leaders in these schoolyard habitat efforts are the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, with its nationwide Schoolyard Habitat initiative, and Soil and Water Conservation Districts, with their local connections and emphasis on habitat restoration.

Other schools are working independently of these agencies to remake their school grounds. Some projects focus on kids’ gardening plots that show students how to grow their own food while others key in on wildlife habitat for outdoor learning or artistic natural play areas that inspire imaginative games.

The Alaska Department of Fish and Game also has an important role to play, primarily because of the Department’s efforts to foster connections between people and nature and to encourage and support outdoor learning.

For over two decades, the Department’s Project WILD and Alaska Wildlife Curriculum lessons have encouraged teachers to take students outside for place-based learning that fosters a deeper understanding of Alaska’s natural resources. Ultimately, the goal is to empower students with the appropriate knowledge and complex problem-solving skills so they will be capable as adults of wisely managing our state’s abundant natural resources.

ADF&G’s teacher workshops have always been popular. But now, with an increased focus on schoolyard habitats around the state, a growing number of teachers will be able to more easily incorporate these lessons right outside their classroom doors.

Increasingly, too, ADF&G educators are being called upon to advise teachers on how best to use these schoolyard habitats.

“In the past year, several schools have asked us to visit their grounds to advise teachers and staff on how to use their school grounds for outdoor learning, or to weigh in at the planning stage,” said Brenda Duty, ADF&G’s Project WILD and youth education coordinator. “We expect such requests to increase as more schools remake their school grounds. We are also tailoring some of our teacher workshops specifically with schoolyard habitat projects in mind.”

At least a dozen projects are already underway throughout the state to “green” school grounds at elementary schools and early childhood centers. They are taking place in Anchorage, Palmer, Wasilla, Fairbanks, North Pole, Nome, Barrow, and Interior villages.

At Knik Elementary in Wasilla, for example, students, teachers, parents and staff planted dozens of new trees and plants and built a trail through an existing forest on school grounds. Catherine Inman, program manager with the Wasilla Soil and Water Conservation District, advised and helped lead the project. The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service provided funding and technical input.

The students did the planting and built the trail last spring. At the end of the school year, the older children were then trained by Inman to lead “naturalist” tours for younger students. The tours taught students about the plants and wildlife found in the forest along the trail, and encouraged them to engage their observational skills and all of their senses as they explored the trail, Inman said.

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Last spring, Knik Elementary students in Wasilla planted over 100 trees to bring out the edge forest habitat zone near their new natural outdoor learning area. Photo by Catherine Inman

At Birchtree Charter School in Palmer, the school community, with the assistance of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and the Wasilla Soil and Water Conservation District, is creating a “living amphitheater” large enough to accommodate the entire school.

Research shows that the outdoor learning made possible through schoolyard habitat projects benefits children. According to literature produced by AKELP (the Alaska Environmental Literacy Plan) and the Get Outdoors Alaska coalition, children are happier, healthier and smarter when connected to nature. They also do better in school, have fewer behavioral problems and are engaged and excited about learning.

While schoolyard habitats may seem important for urban areas but not as critical in Alaska where wild ecosystems are within close reach of most schools, Duty said barriers do exist for Alaskan students to connect with nature even when parks, trails and natural areas are nearby. The growing number of schoolyard habitats in the state should help make nature more accessible to both students and teachers.

“Money for field trips: That’s the number one barrier I hear from teachers when we ask them, ‘What keeps you from teaching outdoors?’” Duty said. “That closely followed by students’ lack of outdoor gear. With a schoolyard habitat, teachers are bringing the field trip into the school yard boundaries. And with regular use, we can also see the growth in physical confidence and outdoor skills. Our hope is that these ‘safe’ outdoor places will empower students to venture out with their parents and partake in other outdoor opportunities throughout the state.”

Another barrier involves generational trends. Studies show that children today don’t spend nearly as much time outside as their parents and grandparents did when they were children. Added to that is increased media use by children; studies have reported that children between 8 and 18 years now spend an average of nearly 6.5 hours a day using electronic media.

For many kids whose families don’t spend much time outside, the best place to reach them is at school, said Jeff Heys, a habitat restoration biologist with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service who coordinates the agency’s schoolyard habitat program in Anchorage.

“Field trips are important but don’t happen often enough to inspire a sense of connection,” Heys said. “A schoolyard is a natural place for kids to experience the outdoors, and a schoolyard habitat broadens that experience to include learning about wildlife and stewardship of our natural resources.”

“Alaska has unparalleled outdoor learning opportunities that we need to engage in every way possible. Not to do so would be a tremendous lost opportunity for our children,” Duty added.

•To learn more about the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat initiative and to find a local contact for the program, visit http://alaska.fws.gov/fisheries/restoration/schoolyard_habitat.htm.

•To learn more about ADF&G’s wildlife education curricula and teacher workshops, visit http://www.adfg.alaska.govand follow the links to the education pages. Or contact Brenda Duty at brenda.duty@alaska.gov, (907) 267-2216.

•To learn more about the Alaska Environmental Literacy Plan, visit http://www.eed.state.ak.us/tls/AKELP/home.html. For information on the Get Outdoors Alaska coalition, visit www.getoutdoorsalaska.org.

•For detailed information on research on the benefits of nature to children visit the Children and Nature Network, www.childrenandnature.org.


Elizabeth Manning is an outdoor writer and an outdoor educator with the Alaska Department of Fish and Game, based in Anchorage.


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