Easy Family Project: a Jewish Backyard

through a Jewish lens

InterFaithFamily.com published my article about converting your own backyard (or school or synagogue) into a certified wildlife habitat via a Jewish lens.  My other kid-nature posts thus far haven’t been “Jewish” specifically, although we all know that everything is Jewish if you look through a Jewy “lens.” I put “lens” in quotes because I hear it ad nauseum.  A useful term, although overused. I’m pasting the article below, but do go over to the link at InterfaithFamily.com so they know someone is reading it.  My point is to show that the project is easy, fun, good for the earth, good for your family, and of course, gut fir di yidn:*

What you really get is the chance to work with your child as nature detectives, explore the yard on a Habitat Hunt, learn about which creatures live there, what they might need and how to give it to them. And, if you wish, you frame the whole thing with a mitzvah.

Originally published at InterFaithFamily.com:

Here’s a nature project for your home that is so adaptable, any family can do it. It yields acres worth of benefits, too, for whatever fraction of acreage you’ve got: you’ll be preserving native wildlife habitat, staving off the dreaded Nature Deficit Disorder and logging meaningful family time. And you can call the whole thing Jewish.

planting a pot for the hummingbirds

The project can be short term or long, with no previous experience required. All you need a bit of yard — or even just a balcony — and some basic principles. Let’s start with principles.

Item: wildlife has a tough time, what with worldwide destruction of habitat, pesticide use and a zillion other challenges. Item: kids are screen-time-heavy and could stand to clock more hours outside. Item: children can learn loads by watching and helping wildlife, including feeding birds and watching butterflies, chipmunks, lizards, ants and whatever critter happens to be around. It’s simple to translate these items from the world at large to your world at home. You can make your own yard or patio, however small, into a haven for wildlife. And kids, however young, can help.

How? Here’s where a ready-made, customizable scheme comes in. You can wing it yourself, sure, but The National Wildlife Federation has this stuff down. Their Certified Backyard Wildlife Habitat program spells out what wildlife needs — at home, school, a synagogue, anywhere — and how to provide it. Creatures need four basic things: food, water, cover and a place to raise babies. An easy, online site survey reveals elements present or missing in your yard, and it’ll be fun for your kids to add their own ideas to the survey towards qualifying for certification. Options can be simple or elaborate, and you may already have more assets than you realize: a few shrubs, trees and flowers, depending on species and sizes, might provide ample food, cover and nesting sites. Or you can bag all four requirements with a bird feeder, a dish of water and, for both cover and nesting, a birdhouse. This is where that customizable bit comes in. You work with what you have, and what you don’t have, you make. Together, preferably.

Certification doesn’t mean you have to spend your whole summer on this thing or a lot of cash. We did our house in day, and all I had to buy was a pole for my preschooler’s handmade bluebird box. The results, however, last far longer than a day. What does certification mean? It means a donation of $20 to the National Wildlife Federation, who will officially recognize your space as a help, not a hindrance, to wildlife. They’ll mail your kid a personalized certificate, and you can even buy a spiffy sign for the yard.

What you really get is the chance to work with your child as nature detectives, explore the yard on a Habitat Hunt, learn about which creatures live there, what they might need and how to give it to them. And, if you wish, you frame the whole thing with a mitzvah.

Taking care of animals is a universal action of compassion and good sense. It’s also very Jewish. The big mitzvah that springs to mind is tzaar baalei hayim or the ethical treatment of living creatures. It’s a commandment, a rule, an order. The Torah describes it, the Talmud names it. If you mention this phrase to your child — in English or Hebrew — as a mitzvah we perform, you frame the whole nature project as a Jewish act, as you will, by extension, every subsequent feeder refilled, birdbath rinsed and flower planted. All this goodness — designated Jewy or not — helps children feel a happy sense of responsibility for the natural world, their world, and be active participants in its preservation.

Full disclosure: I am not affiliated with the National Wildlife Federation, but I did just lead a preschool through certification as well as my own little yard. You can read about that here.


* Yiddish for “Good for the Jews:” a phrase you might have heard a time or two. ** The paper glasses multiply every concentrated light source into six points: a Jewish Star. Fabulous when viewing Hanukkah candles, but then again, looking at Hanukkah candles through a Jewish lens is a bit redundant. Manufactured by Gemini Specs, made in PA. Highly recommended for goofy people or small children.

7 responses to “Easy Family Project: a Jewish Backyard

  1. Kol HaKavod!!!! What a great way to teach Torah.

  2. Frume Sarah

    Kol HaKavod!!! What a great way to teach Torah.

  3. Wonderful inspiration! I’m sharing with folks I know.
    And, given how incredibly creative you are, Joanna: I thought of you when a friend told me that her granddaughter planned a bird party: they ate only foods that the birds would like — like sunflower seeds and blueberries. (This one feels like a children’s book waiting to happen.)

  4. Pingback: Havdalah Garden in a tub | Bible Belt Balabusta