Monday, October 15, 2012

NAAEE 2012--Friday

Friday of the 2012 NAAEE conference were spent mostly learning about outdoor classrooms.

The most helpful sessions were put on by the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service.  They have, or are involved in two excellent habitat education programs.

The first is the Pacific Region's Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide.  You can download a copy of the guide here.  This fantastic guide lays out the following 9 steps to a successful habitat project:

Step 1--Form a Team.  This is a critical first step that, if skipped, can really jeopardize the future of your site.  Many of these projects are championed by one enthusiastic teacher, typically the science teacher in the school.  But, if there is no formal committee or team to delegate projects and responsibilities to, to keep informed, to keep momentum, what happens when that teacher leaves the building or retires?  The project falls by the wayside.  I've seen this happen dozens of times and it's quite frustrating.  So, if you are interested in starting a habitat improvement project at your school, form a team or committee FIRST!

Step 2--Develop a Master Plan.  This can also make or break your plans.  I always like to say "Think BIG, Start small."  Having a Master Plan doesn't mean that once a project or idea is in the plan, you can't take it out or alter it.  Master Plans just help you stay focused and thoughtful in your efforts so that you're not wasting your time or energy going after "the next big idea."  Try to draft everything in a thoughtful, timeline oriented plan at the beginning.  You can always modify the plan as needed, but this way you'll have set goals and it won't be so overwhelming to you and your team.

Step 3--Assess Your Project Site.  You don't know where you can go until you know where you are.  This is also a great way to involve your students from the beginning.  You need to know what you have already, how you can use what you have already, then start planning on any modifications, additions, changes, etc.  Conduct soil testing, runoff calculations, plant and animal inventories, temperature variations from various parts of the site, sunlight exposure, water sources, accessibility issues, conflicts in use, and more.  You really need to get to know your site.  This can almost be done before your Master Plan, depending on what you're hoping to do.  At the very least, you can conduct your site assessment at the same time as your developing your Master Plan.

Step 4--Design Your Project.  This is the meat of the plan.  Create a map of your site, based on your site assessments of course.  Once you're map is done, start laying out the first few parts of your Master Plan.  Where are you going to put a butterfly garden?  Where can you put the frog pond? Do you need a foot bridge over that seasonal wet area behind the soccer field in order to get to the woods? Add it to the map!

Step 5--Decide Your Money Matters.  How much is it going to cost to do this?  This part can be overwhelming to your team.  But don't forget, Think BIG, Start small.  Break your plan into manageable, fundable parts.  Don't try to complete it all in one year.  You'll burn yourself out for sure.  Or worse, you'll burn out your team.  Settle on what parts of the plan you want to start with and find funding for those first.

Step 6--Install Project.  Do what you said you wanted to do! Have the students help as much as possible with this part too.  The more you involve your students, the more they will take ownership of the projects and the less likely you'll have vandalism issues, etc.  And it allows them to see the fruits of their labor.

Step 7--Create a Maintenance Plan.  One thing that is critical is to involve your maintenance staff as early in the process as possible.  If your maintenance staff doesn't know what's going on, or worse, doesn't approve or care about your project, it's going to be hard to keep your project maintained.  You and your students can only do so much.  Make sure you involve your maintenance crew in decisions about project placement as well as maintenance schedules.

Step 8--Use the Project.  Get outside with those students and use these wonderful sites! And their not just for science.  Art, writing, history, phys ed can all be taught using outdoor habitats.  Get creative, don't think of it as an extra thing you have to do with your students.  Just think of it as a different way of teaching. 

Step 9--Share Your Story.  For goodness sakes, show off your hard work!!  Tell people what you're doing, the benefits, the fun, the excitement of new and creative opportunities that you're creating for your students.  Have the students tell what their learning!  Create press releases, newspaper articles, conduct dedications of the site, make signs, invite the community to participate, toot your own horn!

These are all critical steps to a successful schoolyard habitat project.  The Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide provides helpful tips and tricks for conducting surveys of the schoolyard, field notes from experienced planners, and suggestions for projects on both urban and more rural sites that can utilize woodland, wetlands and meadows.  This guide is an invaluable tool for anyone planning an outdoor learning area.

The Ohio Division of Wildlife has a program called WILD School Sites that follows these same philosophies about outdoor areas, just a different name.  If you'd like to be involved in Ohio's program, contact us at 1-800-WILDLIFE or  You can find more on our website at 

The second program I sat in on was a program called Nature Explore, which was actually developed by the National Arbor Day Foundation and has been championed by the USFWS in the form of several certified Nature Explore preschools at their facilities.  We heard about one at fish hatchery in Montana and the newest site at the National Conservation Training Center in West Virginia. 

These Nature Explore classrooms are fantastic for providing outdoor learning space for little ones.  They contain areas where kids can build things with natural materials, play in the dirt and mud, look at leaves, climb and explore logs and rocks, and generally enjoy themselves in unstructured play outside. 

If you're interested in learning more on how to become a certified Nature Explore classroom, check out their website at

More on the local sites tomorrow.  Enjoy!

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