Nature's Classroom

Waves of wildflowers bending in the wind, an expanse of golden meadow grasses, groves of trees bearing acorns, pine cones, and birds’ nests — such pictures of nature may soon be headed to a school near you. Schools across the country are beginning to embrace the idea of reintroducing children to the environment by creating a campus landscape that showcases the wonders of the natural world.

The idea of using natural landscaping has been evolving in the corporate and even college campus development industries for the last five to 10 years as companies and institutions have discovered that a native landscape can be attractive while also reinforcing an image of environmental responsibility. And with a growing environmental awareness among the general public, that approach is now gaining even more steam.

The 2005 book Last Child in the Woods, by Richard Louv, helped connect that idea more expressly to K–12 schools. Louv’s book describes American children’s “nature-deficit disorder,” or how children are increasingly becoming disconnected from nature. He attributes the trend to several causes — a more technological society, parents’ fear of strangers, less access to natural settings, etc. But the case he and other child and environmental advocates make for the benefits of exposing children to the natural world has given schools cause to examine their own surroundings and opportunities for outdoor learning and play.

Natural Landscaping: The Data

Studies now show that connecting students to the environment improves not only their physical well-being, but also their social and educational aptitude. A 2006 Canadian study  (Bell and Dyment), for instance, found that students who interact on school grounds with diverse natural settings were more physically active, more creative, more aware of nutrition, and more cooperative with each other. In another study in California, students who participated in outdoor science programs improved their science testing scores by 27 percent. Many other ongoing studies and research are showing similar results.

Added to these educational and development benefits are a number of environmental gains. Naturalized gardens can be designed with attractive, drought-tolerant grasses, and wildflowers that, after they’re established, can flourish with little or no irrigation, reducing a school’s water use. These same plants are able to sequester carbon from the atmosphere as they slowly build rich organic topsoil. This, in addition to less mowing, helps the school reduce its carbon footprint and promote environmental stewardship within the community.

Conventional garden design and maintenance practices typically prohibit plants from reproducing on their own. Many plants included in these gardens have been bred so that they are no longer able to produce viable seed. Other plants that still retain the ability to reproduce are often thwarted by conventional garden maintenance practices that view the new seedlings as rogue plants that should be promptly removed. As a result, these gardens that are not able, or are not allowed, to produce offspring are not “alive” in the fullest sense of the word.

But with a natural landscape, native grasses, wildflowers, shrubs, trees, and natural processes (as well as alternative maintenance practices) are more fully embraced. Plants are allowed to reproduce on their own. Plants change with the seasons — flowering in the summer, becoming dormant in the fall, dying back in winter, and growing anew in the spring. Variations in precipitation and other weather factors in a given year can favor some species over others, introducing an additional layer of variation beyond the seasons. This constant change, in turn, provides teachers and students the opportunity to witness the cycle of nature and seek out spontaneous encounters with the different plants, insects, and animals that result. Certain types of wildflowers, for example, can be planted specifically to attract butterflies and hummingbirds, possibly allowing for real-life scenarios for the age-old elementary school study of the transformation of the caterpillar into the butterfly. 

Planting Your Own
With all of these benefits in mind, the notion of creating a more natural environment for your school is compelling. Fortunately, it can be a relatively easy and inexpensive prospect — and one that celebrates the natural cycles by which ecosystems sustain themselves. There have been many noted success stories across the country of schools that have begun incorporating wooded areas, gardens, and other natural settings onto their grounds and into their curricula. But how did they do it? What should a school consider before starting on its own natural landscape?

The first thing a school needs to determine is what areas of the grounds would work best for this type of natural treatment. Sections of lawn that are tough to maintain, for instance, might be good candidates. One area of the grounds at Northeast Elementary School in Waltham, MA, for example, is sloped and was making mowing difficult for the maintenance crew. When the school began building a new school playground, they decided to replace that section of lawn with a wildflower meadow to reduce the need to mow. And where another section of the site lines a wooded grove, the landscaping was designed to match, with native shrubs and wildflower perennials, rather than green lawn and trimmed ornamental bushes.

Schools also want to consider the accessibility of these natural spaces, so students have the opportunity to fully appreciate and experience them. For instance, a natural garden could be planted as an extension of outdoor playing fields or can be linked to other areas of the schoolyard by mown grass or stone paths. At the Northeast School, a paved path meanders through the wildflower meadow, so students can get close to the flora and fauna and experience the plant and insect diversity found there. At the very least, these gardens should be visible from classroom windows or other areas so that students and school staff can witness their changes and natural activity.

Professional help.
Figuring out this kind of placement may mean enlisting the help of a landscape architect who will be able to analyze the property, the school’s programming goals, and other outdoor spaces to determine where natural areas would make the most sense and then design a landscaping plan accordingly. But if hiring a pro is outside of a school’s budget, finding less expensive and sometimes free resources is easy enough. There are dozens of online resources geared specifically for schools, including the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service’s Schoolyard Habitat (see sidebar for additional guides and resources). It’s much like doing home repairs — depending on the scale and detail you envision, and the talents and interests of the staff, you can determine whether you can do it yourself or hire professional help.

Labor and supplies. The do-it-yourself approach is the easiest way to keep costs down while providing new opportunities for students to engage with nature. Planting seeds is much less expensive than purchasing more mature live plants and doesn’t require much specialized knowledge. Once the site is cleared and the soil is ready, kids can spread the seeds, stomp on the dirt to establish good soil/seed contact, water the ground, and other easy tasks. Teachers and parents can get involved as well, giving the entire school community a sense of ownership over their new surroundings.

Site preparation. Properly preparing the site is one of the most critical steps in the entire process but also doesn’t necessarily require professional expertise. What is most important is managing aggressive weeds, which can potentially out-compete the new plants and seedlings for sunlight and water resources. Preparing an area with a long history of weedy vegetation for a naturalized garden can take a long time, involving smothering the existing vegetation, applying herbicides, or possibly both.

It is also important that the soil not be compacted from trucks or other heavy equipment driving over the naturalized garden area. Soil compaction changes the soil structure and prevents soils from functioning as they once had, which means the soil is less able to replenish water, air, and nutrients to the plants. 

Plant selection and design.
Clearly communicating the intent of the new landscaping and its natural cycle will help everyone understand what they see and why it looks the way it does. And, again, that sort of communication will only further educate both students and the rest of the school community on the environment and its natural cycles. It is important that naturalized gardens appear as attractive, cared-for landscapes. A solid stand of healthy, vigorously growing, bunch-forming grasses, and wildflowers can communicate an aesthetic of care. Selecting plants that grow no more than three to four ft. in height (short enough for people to see clearly across) and maintaining crisp edges at the garden’s perimeter also help to give the garden a well maintained appearance.

Some species of wildflowers and grasses can grow up to eight ft. tall, so some consideration should be given to where those plants will be located and any safety concerns they could raise. Extremely tall plants could create concealed areas, for instance, and these taller-growing plants can droop far beyond their boundaries in wet weather. Either avoid the use of these plants, or be sure to keep them far enough from sidewalks, doors, or other traveled areas to keep students safe, and away from the edges of manicured lawns, as the sagging plants may then look like they are dying in comparison.

Maintenance. Once established, the amount of care a natural landscape requires varies widely depending on the complexity and diversity of the plants. On the low end, occasional weeding and an annual mowing in late winter or early spring is all you need. But for a more intricate site or a design with more specific and rigid design objectives, maintaining the site can be much like tending to a garden — it needs weeding, watering, and regular attention. This sort of maintenance plan also requires keeping track of which plants are growing intentionally and which are weeds since a more native, natural-looking planting plan might not make such distinctions obvious.

Patience. Perhaps the most difficult idea for younger students to embrace is that planting a native garden rarely provides an immediate “wow” effect. If the garden was initiated with seeds, for example, it may take a good two to three years for the plants to become fully established. As mentioned earlier, communicating the planting project and its goals to the school and its community will help everyone understand what to expect.

The Great Outdoors
With the costs of everything from gas to food continuing to rise, planting a natural landscape can be a relatively easy, environmentally friendly way to help a school keep its expenses down while providing learning opportunities for its students. Teachers can use the changing seasonal cycles of the schoolyard and its inhabitants to illustrate what they’re covering in their science classes — everything from simple seasonal studies or a butterfly’s habitat to more detailed study of plant anatomy or root systems — and students from areas without much access to nature will have the opportunity to develop an interest in and appreciation for nature.

Kevin Beuttell, LEED AP
, is a project manager with Stantec in Boston, MA. Stantec is involved in several natural landscaping projects throughout the country.