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Backyard Conservation & Outdoor Classrooms

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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.  

Outdoor Classrooms:

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.

Types of Outdoor Classrooms:

  • Agriculture gardens- vegetable etc.
  • Amphitheaters, shelters, nature trails and other structures
  • Arboretums with native trees, shrubs, plants and nursery areas
  • Art gardens - sculpture, oriental, artist specific gardens (Monet- water lilies; Van Gogh sunflowers)
  • Bird and squirrel sanctuaries
  • Butterfly and wildflower gardens
  • Composting and recycling areas
  • Oyster gardens
  • Ponds, streams and wetlands
  • Rain gardens (See below)
  • Weather stations

Rain Gardens:

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.

For additional information about the types of rain gardens and how to plant them, visit these sites:

Helpful Resources:

  • Habitat at Home
    This Department of Game & Inland Fisheries program will teach you how to turn yards into a mini-sanctuary for birds, butterflies, frogs, and other wild creatures when the habitat elements are improved there.
  • Chesapeake Club Campaign
    The “Chesapeake Club” campaign focuses on the connection between individual lawn care and the health of local rivers and streams. Using humor, this campaign encourages homeowners to help the health of the Chesapeake Bay and local streams and rivers by paying attention to fertilizer use, specifically encouraging them to fertilize only in the fall.
  • BayScaping
    The Alliance for the Chesapeake Bay advocates a "holistic" approach to landscaping through principles inspired by relationships in the natural environment. BayScapes extend beyond the backyard and integrate into the surrounding landscape for the benefit of people, wildlife and the Chesapeake Bay.
  • Virginia Native Plants Marketing Partnership (VNPMP)
    Learn about regional native plant campaigns in Virginia and find local resources.
  • Human-Wildlife Interactions
    As Virginia becomes more developed; wildlife/human interactions are becoming more prevalent. The Department of Game & Inland Fisheries works with urban and suburban constituents, and other agency biologists, to help people have positive experiences with wildlife.

Getting Children Outdoors:

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.

Getting Involved:

  • Stewardship Virginia
    This is a statewide initiative held twice annually to help citizens with projects that enhance and conserve Virginia's natural and cultural resources. You can register your own event or you can look on the calendar and find an event that you would like to join.
  • Virginia Master Gardeners
    The VMG are volunteers with Extension dedicated to working with the community to encourage and promote environmentally sound horticulture practices through sustainable landscape management educational programs.
  • Virginia Master Naturalists
    Learn about Virginia’s environment by attending 40 hours of basic training then participate in service projects to help the environment including wildlife mapping, native plantings, and invasive species removals.
  • Virginia Native Plant Society
    The VNPS is dedicated to the protection and preservation of the native plants of Virginia and their habitats.
  • Virginia Department of Game and Inland Fisheries (VDGIF)
    VDGIF has a complimentary workforce program which in part helps to promote the enjoyment of the outdoors and wildlife. VDGIF also has a Habitat Partners program