Make a Lasting Impression with Schoolyard Habitats

Guest post by Margaret Redman.

Over 5,000 schools around the world have certified their campuses with the National Wildlife Federation’s Schoolyard Habitats program. In order to become certified, schools must provide food, water, cover, and places to raise young for wildlife on their grounds and then use the resultant habitat as an educational tool with students. When I was a work-study assistant in the education department of NWF, I was asked to interview habitat leaders in individual schools. Upon contacting the schools, it quickly became apparent that while most of them still used and enjoyed their schoolyard habitats, other schools weren’t as lucky—their habitats had been removed or weren’t able to be used for education any longer. As a university student in environmental science, NWF gave me permission to investigate this issue further in my master’s thesis.

Students at a Montessori school in Northern Virginia learn about composting.
Students at a Montessori school in Northern Virginia learn about composting.
After conducting hundreds of telephone and email interviews, I had a massive amount of data on what schools with “active habitats” deemed challenges and what schools with “dormant habitats” said were the causes of their habitats’ disuse. These negative factors ranged from minor and unavoidable, such as deer eating garden plants and windstorms knocking over birdbaths, to the extreme, like the educators that lamented having their habitats destroyed by renovations to the school building.

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In conjunction with the interviews, I used a survey and school data to discover other interesting trends. For example, schools located in communities with high levels of poverty were more likely to report a challenge with lack of funding for their habitats than schools in wealthy neighborhoods. As a second example, it was discovered that the largest habitats were the most likely to remain active, but neither urban, suburban, nor rural schools were at an advantage over one another in terms of keeping active habitats. Finally, one of the best predictors of whether or not a schoolyard habitat would remain active was related to leadership turnover. In schools where the person who had started the schoolyard habitat had retired or moved, the habitats were far less likely to remain active than in schools where this person was still involved with the schoolyard habitat.

Building Sustainable Success

But for all of the challenges that I discussed with educators, they also offered numerous success strategies for sustaining schoolyard habitats in the long term. First, schoolyard habitats need to be elevated to school-level priorities rather than isolated projects of one or a few educators, because when the entire school community values the habitat, then it will be easier to combat the challenges posed by leadership turnover. To gain more teacher involvement and appreciation, some habitat leaders suggested providing their colleagues with lesson plans and activities to suit their curriculum. This could be especially important for non-science teachers who might not easily see the connection between outdoor education and the subjects of language arts, math, or social studies. Adding signage to the schoolyard habitat was seen as another way to gain recognition for the educational value of the outdoors.

Elementary school students in Alexandria, Virginia explore the pond in their Schoolyard Habitat.
Elementary school students in Alexandria, Virginia explore the pond in their Schoolyard Habitat.
Some habitat leaders urged schools that were just starting out with the program to carefully plan out their habitat project before implementing it to prevent building a habitat bigger than can be maintained. Another suggestion was to find ways to design the habitat to cater to the curriculum, such as installing a fraction garden to teach math skills or a pond to teach about aquatic organisms. Educators or parents interested in starting a schoolyard habitat at their school can click here for more information.

Of all the schools I contacted, 69 percent still kept up with their schoolyard habitats and used them frequently for education. Considering that educational facilities have been certifying their yards with NWF since the inception of the Certified Wildlife Habitat program in 1973, this is an astounding number. And of the 31 percent of my sample that no longer used their schoolyards for outdoor education, a good number still reported using all or part of their habitats for conservation, beautification, or recreational purposes.

Although my research did not focus on the benefits of the Schoolyard Habitats program, one of the things I was most struck by during the interviews was the number of positive things that people had to say about the program. When I would ask teachers if the habitat had had any impacts on their students, so many of them immediately responded “Yes!” “Definitely!” or “Absolutely!” Teachers provided multiple examples of their students demonstrating stewardship behaviors, being more aware of how their own actions impact the environment, and grasping curriculum units more easily.

To read more about this research, click to view the executive summary or full report.


Margaret_RedmanMargaret Redman received her Master’s Degree in Environmental Science and Policy from George Mason University in May 2013. As Graduate Fellow with the National Wildlife Federation Education Department she conducted research on Schoolyard Habitats and outdoor classrooms.