Habitat begins at home and extends beyond your backyard into the watershed and surrounding landscape. Educators need to be prepared to discuss interactions between people and wildlife whether bird watching at the window or managing nuisance deer in the garden. Look for plants native to Virginia as they will provide sources of food and shelter for wildlife. Non-native plants (meaning that they came from other parts of the world and were introduced to Virginia) do not necessarily provide food and shelter for native animals and insects.
An outdoor classroom, also sometimes referred to as a schoolyard habitat or community restoration project, is a space set aside for the development of natural habitats in which students and community members can learn about science and the outdoors through a hands on experience. Although most of what is done in an outdoor classroom relates to the environment, it is also an interactive opportunity for students and adults to learn how math, literature, history, art, and music are influenced by nature and our natural resources.
Outdoor classrooms help to pique the interest of students in the world around them and the importance of wildlife and natural resource conservation. The classrooms also help to encourage citizens and other community leaders to be involved in education and the environment through the donation of labor, materials, specific instruction or financial support. This new setting for the classroom provides boundless educational activities for teachers and students that would not be available in a conventional learning space. The outdoor classroom becomes a sanctuary for abundant species, as habitats that suit their basic needs are created. Students are able to learn what types of plants and habitats are needed by specific animals and can use this knowledge to help design the classroom space based on what species they want to attract. Student involvement in the initial design and future upkeep are essential to the future success of the outdoor habitat.
Outdoor Classrooms can come in many different shapes and sizes depending on a group's resource and space constraints. Something as simple as a flower or vegetable garden or as intricate as a pond, aquatic investigation site, or weather station can be built as an outdoor classroom. Other ideas include butterfly gardens, forest trails, gardens with particular themes (art gardens), amphitheaters, courtyards, bird sanctuaries, and animal tracking boxes. Creativity is crucial and will make the outdoor classroom experience a delight for all involved.
Do you have a depression in your yard where water tends to puddle or the ground stays wet than the rest of your yard? If so, this would be a good place for a rain garden. Rain gardens should be comprised of native moisture tolerant plants. Rain gardens can help to filter water and prevent erosion as the water makes its way into local streams and waterways.
Planting and caring for gardens is a great way to get children outdoors. Visit the Children Outdoors page to learn why spending time outside is important and get additional ideas for outdoor learning experiences.
There are many ways for schools to receive state recognition for promoting environmental education. If a school has an outdoor classroom or monitors wildlife they may qualify as a Virginia Naturally school.
Project Learning Tree, through its Green Schools program, offers grants to schools that are greening their schools and community.