School Yard Habitats

The idea is simple. Give kids a chance to learn about nature in an outdoor setting. That can be difficult for urban schools. The National Wildlife Federation is helping schools to bring nature to their campuses. Houston Public Radio's Capella Tucker visited one elementary school that has already established a school yard habitat.

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Enclosed in a chain link fence with a wooden gate are a number of raised beds. HISD Elementary Science Manager Sandra Antalis:

"These are sunflowers that are obviously beyond their prime. What we really like to encourage campuses to do and this campus does a great job of it, is to provide lots of different experiences. The sunflowers are here, they go to seed, they become more flowers, as they go through the life cycle. But also those sunflowers produce food for animals and humans."

But this is just the beginning of the science lessons for children at Kolter Elementary school.

"Let's go ahead and walk back to the other area."

Walk past a couple of tall bushes and there's a pond with lillies. A deck reaches out off the shore.

"So that the students are able to lay down on their tummies, take a dip net, take water samples, take wildlife samples, observe them and put them back into nature."

The students also learn about the water plants. A little farther down and the terrain changes.

"The area in the back as you go back around this edge has taller trees and shrubs. Again, a different type of plant growth but one that is maintained naturally in this environment. Obviously there is a lot of work behind the scenes, but you're not going to see a lot of the commercial watering systems and things like that. (Reporter: Is that a bat house that I see down farther) Yes, there's a bat house and as you look in this direction if you look up you're going to see the gourds that are made into the martin houses. So these gourds were natural materials that were adapted then to be houses for the birds and you can see they are well used. There's some nesting material coming out."

About 45 HISD elementary schools have some type of school yard habitat. Later this week, the district is holding a day long summit so other schools can learn how to get started. The National Wildlife Federation is helping out. Education Vice President Kevin Coyle says the habitats do improve test scores because science is better learned in the environment.

"Instead of these kids sitting in a classroom and you know with someone lecturing to them and they have to sit still. They are out moving around, they are active and very interested in what's going on and it enlivens their interest in learning."

The schools rely on grants and community partnerships to start habitats. Many schools can begin with container gardens or plants along walkways. HISD's Sandra Antalis says many schools can start a habitat with $5,000. The habitat at Kolter cost about $50,000 over many years.

"The biggest part of this though is the labor part and so you have to have a really good, tightly, well-manned committee on your campus that's willing to plan it, set it up, maintain it."

You can see pictures of Kolter's schoolyard habitat at KUHF-dot-org. Capella Tucker, Houston Public Radio News.

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