Students get hands-on with wildlife through schoolyard habitats

By Veronica Davison, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Office

A sign created by students at Caleb Greenwood Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., let’s neighbors know this is wildlife habitat, not a weed patch. ©Karleen Vollherbst

Protecting species and habitats for future generations is one of the main reasons Americans say they care about conservation, but for many families, getting outdoors with children and grandchildren isn’t easy.

To help children connect with nature, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service funds schools throughout the nation to establish schoolyard wildlife habitats.  At Caleb Greenwood Elementary School in Sacramento, Calif., biologists with the Sacramento Fish and Wildlife Office provided technical assistance on design, development and ongoing maintenance to create a habitat of native grassland, woodland and a butterfly garden. The project was funded through the Service’s Schoolyard Habitat Program.

Students selected the plant species for Caleb Greenwood Elementary School’s habitat based on the typs of wildlife they wanted to attract, which included pollinators and songbirds. ©Karleen Vollherbst

“The biologists were right there next to the kids when they planted,” said teacher Anna Symkowick-Rose, who students call “Miss Anna the Garden Lady.”

“They were helping them get out the plants, showing them how to take care of the roots, how to keep the plants high — just right there physically with them,” Symkowick-Rose said.

The commitment from students, teachers, and parents has been key to the sustainability of Caleb Greenwood’s project.

“What we really want to see from schools and why we do these projects at schools is for long-term use and stewardship,” said Schoolyard Habitat Program Coordinator Karleen Vollherbst. “So, in the planning process we’re really looking at how are schools going to use this project in the future, how are they going to maintain it, sustain it and use it with their students.”

Students were engaged in every phase of the Caleb Greenwood Elementary School project and continue to utilize the space as an outdoor classroom.

“It’s really helping them look at wildlife,” said Symkowick-Rose, who takes care of the habitat during the summer. “It helps them get excited about learning. They just get to see so much more as a result of having this in our school that they wouldn’t get to see.”

The Schoolyard Habitat Program allows teachers to enhance the existing curriculum and gives students the opportunity to witness the relationship between plants and wildlife firsthand. Students selected the plant species for Caleb Greenwood’s habitat based on the type of wildlife they wanted to attract. Pollinators and songbirds were a priority for the students, with a special emphasis on butterflies.

Symkowick-Rose leveraged the funding the Service provided with funding from the California Fertilizer Foundation, Sacramento Creeks Council, the Parent Teacher Student Organization and Jamba Juice. After three years, the 6,500-square-foot schoolyard habitat at Caleb Greenwood is well established. Plants have matured, and the target species have moved in.

The U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service is a strategic partner with The Wildlife Society.