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Growing A Classroom

You’ve probably heard about school gardens. But some schools are taking it one step further: They’re turning their gardens into mini ecosystems, with plants and animals that coexist and thrive. They’re called habitats, and they also offer a special opportunity for students to learn about the environment in action.

Take Newton-Lee Elementary School in Ashburn, Virginia. Principal Carol Winters and volunteers worked to create the school’s habitat, which was finished in September 2011. It now includes native Virginia flora, a pond, and animals like frogs, plus design elements that connect it to local history. (The pond and waterfall represent Virginia’s James River, home to one of America’s first settlements.) The habitat also has details to honor Christopher Newton and Doug Lee, two town residents and the school’s namesakes, who died on September 11. For instance, they planted Bleeding Heart flowers in the shape of a 77, since Newton and Lee were on American Airlines Flight 77 when it hit the Pentagon.

The habitat provides a fantastic learning opportunity for students, says Winters. Whether it’s fifth-graders making fertilizer in the classroom and studying its effects, or second graders documenting the life span of a butterfly, classes are able to utilize the space nearly every day.

Thanks to this learning environment, as well as the abundance of local plants and animals, the National Wildlife Federation certified Newton-Lee’s habitat as an official Schoolyard Habitat last year. The program, which began in 1996, helps schools use a habitat as an educational setting.

“These gardens can encourage kids’ educational experiences, since you can teach just about any subject outside,” says Nicole Rousmaniere of the National Wildlife Federation.

Since Newton-Lee earned the certification–which entitles teh school to an official sign for their habitat and more–there has been even more interest to expand and develop the habitat. “It has bridged the school with the community,” Winters says. “And parents have never seen anything like it. Their kids are learning so much–they’re talking about nature and recycling and how to care for the planet. The kids are learning that we have to keep these plants and animals alive, since they’re part of our heritage and the future.”

Want to start a Schoolyard Habitat?

Three things to put on your to-do list:

Get support:“One of the most important things you can do is get as much of the school community involved as possible, to make it sustainable for an extended amount of time,” says Rousmaniere. Get a group together to drum up support and oversee the project.

Do research:The NWF website has lots of helpful info, including a detailed “hot-to guide.” They also list available grants to help your school find funding.

Start small:“All habitats require food, water, cover, and a place for wildlife to raise their young,” says Rousmaniere. “So you can start with a few plants, a water source, and a covered area, like a birdhouse.”

To learn more,visit


The habitat


Caring ...for people and the planet

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