Turning a Schoolyard into Certified Wildlife Habitat: the Preschool edition

Summary:  an account of how a suburban preschool got certified as a National Wildlife Federation “Backyard Wildlife Habitat.” 
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our new birdfeeders in the perennial bed

Look at the summer camp themes at my son’s preschool: organic gardening, healthy living, and nature work. Beautiful, right? No danger of Nature Deficit Disorder here. The themes, I noticed, overlap with my own studies in the Tennesssee Naturalist Program. Why not combine the two for a short, volunteer experiment? I could merge our respective curricula for a day or two, giving Montessori teaching philosophy and my work with habitat renewal some good, common ground. Just days before summer camp began, I discovered an ideal way to implement this plan: the National Wildlife Federation’s Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat program.

Habitat Hunt

The school’s habitat—outside and in— is a stellar example of Montessori “prepared environment,” a term which hardly describes the infinite care with which teaching space is constructed. Outside, this includes perennial flower beds, mature trees and shrubs, an open grassy area, and an organic vegetable garden on the playground. It is no accident that what is good for the children is also good for wildlife, but the kids do not necessarily know this. What if they helped prepare this prepared environment a bit more—their own playground—and worked to make and maintain a haven for wildlife?

The National Wildlife Federation has this sort of thing down. Their Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat program spells out what wildlife needs—at home, school, a business, anywhere—and how to provide it. An easy site survey reveals elements present or missing, and students simply add enough elements to qualify for certification. I figured the kids could do the Certification program and it would fit right in. Kelly, the teacher who planned summer camp, would love it, she’d get an extra line on her resumé, and the school would look good. The ultimate goodness goes to Mother Earth and the schoolyard creatures, and to the kids who get another hands-on reference to the natural world, of course. But an extra bit of positive PR ain’t shabby, either.


And today, we started. I just got back from a Habitat Hunt, a.k.a. a quick survey of the property. I watched a pro at work: Kelly, checklist in hand, who herded 24 children over the playground looking for sources of food, water, cover and nesting sites for wildlife. It only took about 30 minutes, but the consequences might be deep and wide. The kids were introduced to the idea that their own playground is habitat, and that birds, bees, butterflies and other critters need certain things”to be happy and healthy” there.

Three, four and five year-olds waved twigs, grabbed leaves, searched for flowers, berries, bushes, asking questions, “what’s foylitch? What’s shrubs?” They touched and looked and smelled and listened, and they got it. They understood that all the things we looked for are things that creatures look for, too.

counting the legs of a mystery bug

The wooden stage around the Yellow Poplar tree became “cover” when Katie, another teacher, remembered seeing rabbits slip under it. The kids agreed, but then got distracted by a curious “red spider” on the stage. We paused to count the legs, and Kelly tipped the insect into the newly-designated cover for safety. The thorny hedge rose turned out to be cover, too, and the evergreen pine and the wild area behind the equipment shed.

a pecan

My favorite moment was when the kids found nuts on the ground. Empty walnut and pecan shells, half-dried hulls and remnants of fresh nuts. What riches! Nut trees and animal signs! Something with sharp teeth had been enjoying those nuts. I scratched my fingernails into a soft hull and passed it around.  “Smell,” I said, and then added, “it’s good.”  And it was good.  Citrusy, woody, deep. I was especially pleased the pecan tree was still there: I remember the illicit nuts coming home in my daughter’s message bag twelve years earlier. Today’s nuts were further proof the school’s environment was well-prepared for wildlife.

Kelly carried the checklist, and she marked off the elements we found and circled what elements were missing.  The checklist on the Backyard Habitat site can be completed online or printed as a pdf.  I vote for the latter with children, because they need to see the list on a clipboard as they move around the property. Plus, checking items on a clipboard is always satisfying.  It feels like grown-up work.  Our checklist today was a modified version of the official NWF one: same entries, but Kelly added clipart to each category, so that even non-readers could identify them at a glance. She also comb-bound it, to turn the pages easily, like a picture book.  (Oh, how I love school binding machines.) My original plan was for each child to have a clipboard, and we would travel about in groups of three or so, but in retrospect, Kelly’s version was more efficient. We worked as one group, and she had control of the list.  Kindergarteners and up would probably enjoy an individual list. They could keep it list in a notebook (with comb binding!) as a record of  “Before,” and then add a record of During and After.

releasing an insect into “cover”

Today’s results? Our survey proved that our schoolyard was already quite a friendly habitat for wildlife.  Water was the one element we lacked entirely, and we can fix this with a bird bath, homemade or bought. We’ll need to hang it out of reach (germs, mess, state safety codes) but well in view.  The whole point is for kids to see wildlife in action, especially action made possible by their efforts.

Even though the birdbath meets the minimum requirement for water, we’ll add a butterfly puddling station, too: a shallow dish with water-soaked, organic soil, studded with flat pebbles. The moist dirt gives several butterfly species the minerals they need in order to reproduce, and the pebbles make a safe landing site.

A few extra bird feeders will attract more wildlife for easy viewing, too. And if some are selective feeders—thistle, peanut, corn, suet and nectar as well as black oil sunflower—we’ll get a wide range of creatures with adaptations toward particular foods. (Squirrels, included. They are pests in my yard, but can be entertaining teaching tools at a school.)

looking for berries

We’ll add a bluebird house to supplement the nesting habitat in our mature trees and shrubs. Bluebirds need “secondary cavities” —holes already present—for nest-building, and a typical hole would be found in something no attentive school would tolerate: dead limbs, snags and failing trees. Good bird houses have a hinged  lid that opens for viewing and cleaning.  Great bird houses, worthy of Montessori, open on the side so a child (standing on a milk crate) can actually peek in and get a glimpse of a nest-in-progress, a clutch of eggs, hatchlings, or fledglings about to leave.  I found one with a fixed acrylic sheet behind the hinged wood panel, so that kids can get a long look without danger of objects falling out or of objects poking in!

If it seems like we have much work to do, we really don’t. Just the one birdbath would qualify the school for certification because all the food, cover and nesting habitat is in place, and because the whole property has been meticulously managed by the same administration for many years. The environment is already prepared for wildlife via child life. What we are really doing is making extra work, which in the grownup world sounds counterproductive, but in Montessori terms, where “a child becomes a person through work,”  the extra work is entirely productive. We will do the extras to attract more wildlife for viewing, to give the kids optimum chance to see the results of their efforts, and to spread the word that making a difference is so easy a preschooler can do it.

an extra $30, but worth it for spreading the word

I will offer to hang the official sign at a school entrance: Certified Wildlife Habitat. At the dedication party, the kids will see the sign and understand what it means, even if they can’t read what it says.  And I hope they feel proud of their prepared environment, which they helped prepare.

Many thanks to The Children’s House of Nashville for their enthusiastic support of Wildlife Habitat certification and their perennial dedication to generations of children.

P.S. My volunteer hours are partial fulfillment of the requirements of the Tennessee Naturalist Program, Owl’s Hill chapter, Nashville.

5 responses to “Turning a Schoolyard into Certified Wildlife Habitat: the Preschool edition

  1. I love this! I’m a librarian and we’re looking at all sorts of ways to incorporate play (including outdoor play) and learning at our sites and in our programs. I can really see this working in a library context, too!

    • It is PERFECT for a library. The NWF makes it so easy to do. And being a librarian, you already know all the best picture books to supplement the program! My current bird favorites are Bird Talk, by Lita Judge; Birds, by Kevin Henkes. And I’m in love with Outside Your Window: a First Book of Nature. But don’t get me started on nature-y picture books…

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