Learning is Natural in Montana Eco-Schools
“I know this tree!” exclaims an excited first-grader, grasping a ponderosa pine seedling. She’s holding one of 150 seedlings distributed to students ranging from kindergarten through eighth grade at DeSmet School. The ponderosa pine is the state tree of Montana and a common sight around the Missoula Valley and Rocky Mountain foothills, so it’s no wonder that this girl expressed familiarity with this native species.
DeSmet School is an active participant in the National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools USA program. Throughout the past year, teachers and students worked closely with our AmeriCorps member, Juliet Slutzker, to improve an existing native plant garden to become a fully useful outdoor learning space and an NWF Certified Schoolyard Habitat®. Eighth-graders proudly presented their handiwork at an all-school celebration on June 2, where the distribution of the ponderosa pine seedlings enabled classmates to provide habitat at home and in their neighborhoods as well as at school.
Other Montana Eco-Schools are also creating diverse opportunities for children to connect with nature at school and beyond. For example:
- Hellgate High School achieved NWF’s Eco-Schools’ Bronze Award for successful waste reduction/composting/recycling achievements. This urban Missoula school features a rooftop garden, solar panels, and an Earth Tub composter. In April, the school was recognized as a 2016 U.S. Department of Education Green Ribbon School.
- Clark Fork School expanded its Garden Learning Center to include a greenhouse, raised beds, a Mud Kitchen, Music Station, Tunnel of Wonder and even a new chicken coop. The school also installed 20 solar panels this year.
- Seeley Lake Elementary and Seeley-Swan High School together operate SLE Outside, an outdoor equipment cooperative that offer students a hands-on learning experience that will teach vital business and money management skills while emphasizing to students, customers and the community the importance of responsible outdoor recreation. In July, SLE Outside will host the Bob Marshall Music Festival, including a trail run, mountain bike races, on-site camping, and outdoor kids’ activities, as well as three days of live music.
- Great Beginnings Montessori School celebrated Bike Day in early June and installed a natural playground to enhance outdoor play opportunities.
- Origins Education engages early learners in eco-literacy activities, ranging from gardening to making music with recycled materials.
Additionally, we are developing relationships with new schools through Juliet’s outreach and service work. For instance, Juliet and University of Montana Wildlife Biology Intern Kaitlin Martin engaged elementary school students at Lolo School in a native plant walk on school property in May, and the school is installing new plants and nesting boxes to certify the campus as a Schoolyard Habitat®.
Children in the Northern Rockies are fortunate to grow up in close proximity to spectacular natural landscapes. With productive partnerships like these, the National Wildlife Federation is helping to bring nature into school to enhance students’ academic experience and encourage lifelong environmental stewardship.