a Natural Habitat as a Classroom Setting
Lower Moreland Township Schools
Huntingdon Valley, PA
Rohm & Haas Company
through third grade
develop a natural observation site, or an "outdoor
create a trail accessing the existing natural area.
involve the school community in the construction of
the natural area.
integrate use of the trail into the existing curriculum
at each grade level.
has long been recognized that children learn best when
they are actively engaged in their surroundings. Considering
this, children should be provided with many opportunities
for investigating and manipulating the environments
in which they live. These environments should include
not only home and school settings, but also outdoor
settings, such as the natural habitat within a schoolyard.
The outdoor "classroom", no matter what type, offers
a multitude of opportunities for concept development.
Almost every schoolyard boasts some type of natural
habitat that teachers may utilize in their students'
learning. Whether it is a perennial garden enclosed
within an urban playground (see Hepner and Killiam,
Rubber Gardens, 1992), or a wooded area complete
with its own variety of plant and animal wildlife, opportunities
for authentic science learning abound. The following
procedure provides suggestions for transforming the
natural surroundings of the schoolyard into an engaging
classroom environment. For more information on the benefits
of outdoor learning, see reference items 1, 3, 6, 7,
Search the Internet for ideas
and suggestions on developing a natural habitat (See
This site offers not only procedures and guidelines
to follow, but also literature supporting the notion
of the outdoor classroom as a beneficial factor in
children's learning. Also included are samples of
habitat designs, illustrating the many possibilities
for habitats within limited schoolyard areas.
the surroundings and determine the potential of the
outdoor area for observation opportunities.
first trip to the natural area should be one of exploration.
At this time, the characteristics of the land and
the types of living things found there should be noted.
Enlisting the expertise of a horticulturist or naturalist
to explore the site can be helpful, providing suggestions
on how to best utilize the natural setting. During
this visit to the site, indications of erosion as
well as natural paths that might form a navigable
trail should be noted.
goals, develop steps, and set a timeline to create
the natural area.
At this stage, decide what needs to be done in order
to create the trail or natural area that is envisioned.
Setting a timeline to accomplish each of these steps
helps to make the creation of the natural area a manageable
and realistic task.
hazards and take steps to minimize them (e.g. poison
ivy, ticks, etc.). In
creating a natural area, it is sometimes necessary
to remove poisonous plants from the path where observers
may walk. There are several herbicides on the market
that safely eliminate poisonous plants without harming
children. Roundup� is one such product. More
information on the use of Roundup� can be found
by visiting the web site https://www.roundup.com/smg/goART3/Howto/how-do-i-apply-roundup-weed-and-grass-killer-products/43700008
the path of the nature trail and the tools and equipment
needed to construct it.
After visiting the site several times, the best path
for a trail or walkway will be determined. By examining
the path, it will be easily seen what will need to
be pruned, added, or removed. For example, stepping
stones or a bridge may be added, or brush and branches
removed. After determining what needs to be altered,
list the tools and materials needed to do each job.
volunteers to assist in constructing the area. Possible
volunteers could include members of the school community,
such as scouts, families, and school staff. Letters
should be written that describe the project and invite
school community members to assist with its development.
"Experts" can be located in almost any school
community, such as parents who own tree or landscaping
services, or school staff that maintain the grounds.
You may even have materials or services donated by
these community experts.
with construction of the trail. Once volunteers, tools,
and equipment are gathered, construction of the area
can begin. A list of duties that must be completed
should be developed, and volunteers should be assigned
these duties. Some of the tasks may involve cutting
branches, chipping wood, collecting limbs, planting
bushes or flowers, or building benches or bridges.
Organizing the volunteers and duties before beginning
construction can help to ensure completion of the
plan for renovation, expansion, and maintenance. When
the site is complete, it is a good time to begin thinking
about how the area can be improved upon. By making
a "wish list" of items to enhance or expand your area,
you can begin planning for further renovation. Perhaps
the plan can include something new every year, or
each grade level can come up with a way of improving
the area. Also included in the plan should be accommodations
for weekly, monthly, and yearly maintenance. Outdoor
areas will require maintenance such as collecting
trash, replanting flowers and pulling weeds, laying
more wood chips on a trail, or rebuilding a worn bridge.
These maintenance duties can be performed by scout
troops, parents, teachers, or other school community
volunteers. Perhaps several groups will adopt different
parts of your natural area to care for and maintain.
for funding. There will probably be some expense involved in creating a
habitat site, but there will also be organizations that may be willing
to help support the project financially. The U.S. Fish & Wildlife
Service web site offers suggestions for possible sources of funding
or grants to create a habitat site. See
receive more information about funding a schoolyard habitat.
is important to note that the construction of a natural
area offers more to a school than simply an outdoor
learning environment. In addition to building a natural
habitat, a project such as this builds community. Combining
the efforts of students, families, school staff, and
business in the community, a school can create both
an outdoor classroom and a community event. The children
are given a chance to demonstrate their skills and talents,
as much of the work is within their capabilities. The
families enjoy themselves while strengthening relationships
with each other and with their partners, the school
staff. The businesses bring expertise and also strengthen
relations with the community and school. All who are
involved can feel a personal ownership of the area and
of the learning that it will undoubtedly help to unfold.
A project like this helps to develop new batches of
scientists, both young and old.
exploring the woodland habitat made accessible by the
nature trail, students will:
identify a habitat.
understand the importance of a habitat.
recognize habitats in one's own surroundings.
develop respect for nature.
gain an awareness of the diversity of life.
develop an interest in exploring the characteristics
of living things within a habitat.
develop observation skills.
develop scientific inquiry skills.
develop skills in recording and sharing information
ideas for the natural area:
possible names for the area and vote for a favorite.
for animals' homes in the natural habitat.
for other evidence of animals in the habitat.
and compare different leaves.
and compare different rocks, both in and around the
creek bed and on other sections of the trail.
the path of erosion and plan ways of diverting water
from the path.
shrubs to attract butterflies and other insects.
and measure the growth of certain plants in the natural
a small compost area and compare the decomposition
rates of different materials.
the depth of the creek at intervals.
maps of the nature area and go on "treasure hunts"
for natural items and landmarks.
stories, poems, and songs about excursions on the
books about animals, plants and adventures in the
woods (see attached book list).
soil samples and examine with hand lenses.
Literature About Plants, Animals, and Habitats:
Earth's Counting Book
Snails and Slugs
Biggest House in the World
Gift of the Tree
at Long Pond
the Pond: Who's Been Here?
the Woods: Who's Been Here?
Seasons of Arnold's Apple Tree
Growing Apples and Pumpkins
Aboard Spaceship Earth
Tree is a Plant
Tree is Nice
the Small, Small Heart
the Tall, Tall Grass
There Once Was a Wood
it's Like to be a Fish
Other Way to Listen
in the Forest
on the Land
There Was a Tree
First Garden Book
a Seed Grows
Seed is a Promise
Roots, and Fungi: Plants We Eat
Should Definitely Not Wear Clothing
Very Hungry Ladybug
Very Busy Spider
Very Quiet Cricket
Very Lonely Firefly
is a Fish?
it Comes to Bugs
Ups and Downs of Simpson Snail
House is a House For Me
Icky Bug Alphabet
Saves the Day
in the Meadow
in the Meadow
in the Meadow
in the Meadow
Life in the Meadow
in the Field and Meadow
Lives in this Meadow
Wish I Were a Butterfly
the Butterflies Grow
S.R. Down By the Schoolyard. Virginia Journal of
Education, March, 1998.
E. Doing What Scientists Do: Children Learn to
Investigate Their World. Portsmouth, NH: Heineman
S. A Case for Schoolyard Habitats. Pennsylvania
Forests, Fall, 1997.
M.A. and Killiam, S. Rubber Gardens. Project
B. Science with Young Children. Washington:
W. How Nature Shapes Childhood. Amicus Journal,
W. Letting Nature Shape Childhood. Amicus Journal,
M. The Schoolyard Habitat Movement: What it is and
Why Children Need It. Early Childhood Education
Journal, Vol. 25, No. 1, 1997.
This experiment is courtesy of