A Tapestry of Learning: Creating School Natural Areas

School natural areas provide the setting for our children to learn about the natural world directly. Applied learning in school nature areas often teaches many subjects simultaneously. Science, math, art, history, environmental education, can all be woven into the experience. Learning while doing out in the fresh air makes the lessons more enjoyable and the knowledge more lasting.

In addition natural areas provide a beautiful lower maintenance alternative for the unused areas of the school’s property that is usually covered by expanses of lawn. They serve as an example of environmental responsibility for the children and the community. Location on the school grounds increases the student’s accessibility. Time and funding concerns severely restrict access to off campus nature areas.

How to establish a school natural area.

Please see the references below. Extensive information on school natural areas, funding, and curriculum are available through these sources. The basic steps are:

  • Establish a committee: Teachers, students, parents, neighbors, and interested community groups such as Wild Ones, Audubon, and the Sierra Club.
  • Spend some time on the Internet, studying the sites below and some of their links.
  • Study the schoolyard. What’s there? Both in regard to vegetation and microclimates (shade, sun, wet spot, etc). What was there in pre-settlement times?
  • Work with the experts on the committee and from the community (DNR, University Extension, etc) to develop a overall school site plan which includes goals, objectives, and activities with a time line.
  • Plan to restore the native ecosystem. Native plants communities tend to be hardier, lower maintenance, and more attractive to wildlife. Many of the principles of the natural world involve the interdependence of species. Planting individual plants in a perennial type bed, as opposed to plant communities, increases maintenance and works against this learning objective.
  • Establish a maintenance plan and a good working relationship with the school’s maintenance staff.
  • Fund Raise and write grants to provide the money to purchase materials.
  • Research and utilize curriculum to develop workable lesson plans to be used in planting and later teaching in the natural area
  • Implement the plan using as much student involvement as possible.

You might also find the film entitled A Tapestry of Learning: “Creating Outdoor Natural Areas” helpful in your development of a school natural area. Wild Ones has produced a film to introduce the idea of creating an outdoor school natural area using native plant species. The intended audience would be teachers, parent-teacher organizations, neighbors, community groups and possible school natural area funding sources. Featuring Lorrie Otto prominently throughout, the film captures in just 7 minutes the essence of an outdoor learning center. To order a copy of the film which is in CD-Rom format and includes interactive activities for young and old, go to Wild Store.


Frequently Asked School Nature Area Questions:

What will the neighbors think? Involve them in planning process; educate on aesthetic properties of natural area. Make distinct buffer areas/borders with a strip of lawn and/or decorative fence. Put up signs. More often you’ll get imitation than condemnation.

What about allergies? Established school natural areas are less allergenic than traditional landscapes, since they usually have plants that are insect pollinated rather than the bothersome wind pollinated plants. For most people, ragweed, not the lovely goldenrod, causes hayfever.

How about bees? Almost all “bee” problems are due to the imported German Yellowjacket, which is actually a wasp. It is attracted to food and garbage. A dumpster is their habitat, not a natural area.

The Wild Ones is a national nonprofit group dedicated to the idea of using native plant communities for landscaping. The vision is to gradually change landscaping practices, one yard at a time, toward harmony with nature. If there is a chapter in your area their members would be a valuable source of expertise, plant materials, and probably volunteers to help with your school natural areas project. If you don’t have a local chapter it may be time to start one. Please see our website www.wildones.org.