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Schoolyard Habitats® Pathway

Schoolyard Habitats Pathway IconSchoolyard Habitats® have the ability to bring the natural world to every student, every day. These outdoor classrooms are the perfect space for students to learn how to attract and support local wildlife while also improving our environment and overall health. As a bonus, a school that addresses this pathway can easily certify their school as a National Wildlife Federation Schoolyard Habitat.

As today’s schools are challenged to improve student performance and campus safety and efficiency, redesigning the school grounds and reclaiming the landscape as an outdoor classroom and laboratory can assist schools in achieving both objectives. Schoolyard Habitats® are quite literally nature’s playground for creativity and innovation.

students planting native habitats

Fast Facts

  • Research in the U.S. has found learning in nature has a significant positive impact on student engagement during subsequent lessons indoors.
  • According to social practice theory, people aren't likely to take action to protect the environment in any sustained way unless they incorporate caring for the environment into their identity.
  • Studies show that many children learn better with hands-on experiences in the types of outdoor settings that Schoolyard Habitats afford.

Following the Framework

Utilize the Seven Step Framework to complete your pathway.

Step 1: Form an Eco-Action Team

The Eco-Action Team is the driving force behind Eco-Schools USA. Ideally, your Eco-Action Team should be representative of the whole school community—including people beyond the school walls, such as facilities staff, board members, and members of the greater community. Eco-Schools USA has developed a worksheet to help guide the development of this team.

Step 2: Conduct an Environmental Audit

The Environmental Checklist is an essential tool for understanding the current environmental situation in your school. It provides the basis for your Eco-Action Plan. Eco-Schools USA has developed an activity to get your students started.

In addition to the optional Environmental Checklist, pathway-specific audits allow teams to utilize a pathway-specific lens to dive deeper into problems and solutions, and provide the basis for the team’s Eco-Action Plan.

K-2 Conducting a Schoolyard Habitats Audit | K-2 Baseline Audit | K-2 Post-Action Audit

3-5 Conducting a Schoolyard Habitats Audit | 3-5 Baseline Audit | 3-5 Post-Action Audit

6-8 Conducting a Schoolyard Habitats Audit | 6-8 Baseline Audit | 6-8 Post-Action Audit

9-12 Conducting a Schoolyard Habitats Audit | 9-12 Baseline Audit | 9-12 Post-Action Audit

Step 3: Create an Eco-Action Plan

The action plan follows as the result of analysis and conclusions drawn from the Environmental Audit and sets forth a series of goals, actions, and a timeline for achieving environmental improvements.

1. To get started, preview the sample action plan for the Schoolyard Habitats pathway. This example is designed to be a springboard to developing the team’s own action plan.

2. Use the blank action plan to develop the team’s vision.

Sample Action Plan (K-5) | Blank Action Plan (K-5)
Sample Action Plan (6-12) | Blank Action Plan (6-12)

Step 4: Monitor and Evaluate Progress

Monitoring and evaluation are intrinsic elements of the action plan, helping to check progress toward goals, make adjustments for greater success, and validate that actions are making an impact.

Step 5: Link to Existing Curriculum

Enrich your classroom curriculum with Eco-Schools projects and activities.

Step 6: Involve the Community

Communities are made up of diverse perspectives. When students consistently and authentically work to include community members from all walks of life, not just the school community, they are gaining access to dynamic networks whose end goals are the same, making their place in this world happier and healthier.

Step 7: Create an Eco-Code

The Eco-Code is the school’s mission statement and should demonstrate—in a positive, inclusive, and imaginative way—the whole school’s commitment to improving their environmental performance.

Step 1: Form an Eco-Action Team

The Eco-Action Team is the driving force behind Eco-Schools USA. Ideally, your Eco-Action Team should be representative of the whole school community—including people beyond the school walls, such as facilities staff, board members, and members of the greater community. Eco-Schools USA has developed a worksheet to help guide the development of this team.

Step 2: Conduct an Environmental Audit

The Environmental Checklist is an essential tool for understanding the current environmental situation in your school. It provides the basis for your Eco-Action Plan. Eco-Schools USA has developed an activity to get your students started.

In addition to the optional Environmental Checklist, pathway-specific audits allow teams to utilize a pathway-specific lens to dive deeper into problems and solutions, and provide the basis for the team’s Eco-Action Plan.

K-2 Conducting a Schoolyard Habitats Audit | K-2 Baseline Audit | K-2 Post-Action Audit

3-5 Conducting a Schoolyard Habitats Audit | 3-5 Baseline Audit | 3-5 Post-Action Audit

6-8 Conducting a Schoolyard Habitats Audit | 6-8 Baseline Audit | 6-8 Post-Action Audit

9-12 Conducting a Schoolyard Habitats Audit | 9-12 Baseline Audit | 9-12 Post-Action Audit

Step 3: Create an Eco-Action Plan

The action plan follows as the result of analysis and conclusions drawn from the Environmental Audit and sets forth a series of goals, actions, and a timeline for achieving environmental improvements.

1. To get started, preview the sample action plan for the Schoolyard Habitats pathway. This example is designed to be a springboard to developing the team’s own action plan.

2. Use the blank action plan to develop the team’s vision.

Sample Action Plan (K-5) | Blank Action Plan (K-5)
Sample Action Plan (6-12) | Blank Action Plan (6-12)

Step 4: Monitor and Evaluate Progress

Monitoring and evaluation are intrinsic elements of the action plan, helping to check progress toward goals, make adjustments for greater success, and validate that actions are making an impact.

Step 5: Link to Existing Curriculum

Enrich your classroom curriculum with Eco-Schools projects and activities.

Step 6: Involve the Community

Communities are made up of diverse perspectives. When students consistently and authentically work to include community members from all walks of life, not just the school community, they are gaining access to dynamic networks whose end goals are the same, making their place in this world happier and healthier.

Step 7: Create an Eco-Code

The Eco-Code is the school’s mission statement and should demonstrate—in a positive, inclusive, and imaginative way—the whole school’s commitment to improving their environmental performance.

Sustainable Development Goals

goal 3 - good health and well-being
goal 4 - quality education
Goal 10 - reduced inequalities
Goal 11 - Sustainable cities and communities
goal 13 - climate action
goal 15 - life on land
goal 16 - peace, justice, and strong institutions
goal 17 - partnerships for the goals

Top 10 Tips for Your Schoolyard Habitat

  • Consider the use of native plants that are indigenous to the soil conditions and climate. For a list of native plants in your state, visit the Lady Bird Johnson Wildflower Center native plant database.
  • When planting, consider the soil conditions (pH factor, soil type, and moisture levels).
  • When planting, consider the orientation and surrounding conditions (north side of a building versus a southern exposure, proximity to solar heat gain from surrounding pavement or buildings, shady versus sunny conditions, and exposure to severe winter winds).
  • Avoid invasive species.

  • Install an automatic rain shut-off device on sprinkler systems. Monitor systems and devices frequently.
  • Adjust the irrigation schedule for seasonal changes.
  • Be sure all hoses have shut-off nozzles.
  • Use drip irrigation systems instead of sprinklers.
  • Shut off water supply to equipment or areas that are not used.

  • Avoid high-maintenance plants. Select plants that will not drop flowers, nuts, and berries for locations adjacent to sidewalks and parking facilities.
  • Avoid plantings that are notorious for weak branching, and ones that generate significant debris or are vulnerable to severe wind and winter damage.
  • Provide shrubs or groundcover for areas that are difficult to mow, require soil stabilization, or will not sustain turf due to shade or slope conditions.
  • Choose plants that are resistant to disease. Plant elm varieties resistant to Dutch elm disease, dogwoods in locations that make them less susceptible to anthracnose, and avoid ash varieties that are prone to borers.
  • Be aware of combinations of plants that result in rust disease, such as hawthorns and junipers.

  • Prune ornamental trees in September to ensure maximum winter hardiness and to allow for flowering growth to appear in the spring and summer.
  • Prune suckers and cross branches to retain the desired tree form.
  • Respect the character of the plant when pruning shrubs. Many shrubs should be allowed to mass together as opposed to being pruned into an unnatural globe shape. Height should be maintained where necessary, but in most cases pruning should be done at least on an annual basis. Excessive pruning in older plants can leave bare areas destroying character and can take several years to recover.
  • Typically, excessive pruning and maintenance requirements result from installation of the wrong plants for the particular location. Think carefully about the plant's needs, including sunlight, drainage, and soil conditions.

  • Most developed areas today are designed to waste water, funneling rain down gutters and drain pipes rather than allowing it to soak into the ground where it can recharge the water table. In addition, the large amount of pavement on streets, parking lots, and playgrounds contributes to the degradation of water quality. When rainwater flows across paved surfaces, it picks up pollutants and carries them into the nearest lake, river or ocean.
  • Rainwater catchment or "harvesting" is an ancient practice now enjoying a revival as an alternate water supply. The practice involves collecting rainwater from a roof or other surface before it reaches the ground and storing it for future use on school gardens, trees, and other planted areas.

  • Saves Water: Xeriscaping can reduce landscape water use by 50 to 75 percent. For most of North America, over 50 percent of residential and commercial water is used for landscapes and lawns.
  • Minimal Maintenance: Xeriscaping requires only occasional pruning and weeding. Watering requirements are low and can be met with simple irrigation systems.
  • No Fertilizers or Pesticides: Using plants native to your area will eliminate the need for chemical supplements. Sufficient nutrients are provided by healthy organic soil.
  • Pollution Free: Fossil fuel consumption from gas mowers, edgers, and blowers are minimized or eliminated with minimal turf areas. Small turf areas can be maintained with a reel mower.
  • Provides Wildlife Habitat: Use of native plants, shrubs and trees offer a familiar and varied habitat for local wildlife.

  • Cover the soil's surface around plants with mulch, such as leaves, coarse compost, pine needles, wood chips, bark, or decomposed granite.
  • Mulch helps retain soil moisture and temperature, prevent erosion and block out competing weeds.
  • Organic mulch will slowly incorporate with the soil, and will need to be applied or "top-dressed" from time to time.
  • To be effective, mulch needs to be several inches thick—no bare soil.

  • One of the most effective ways to protect students and staff from ultraviolet rays (UV) is to plant shade trees where they can congregate (around playground equipment, benches and tables, and along sports fields to offer refuge for spectators, players and officials).
  • Make use of existing shade by placing seating (logs, rocks, benches) under trees.
  • Program outdoor activities under existing shade trees.

  • Engage the school's maintenance team at both the local and district level. Track the cost of maintaining the school grounds before and after installing native plants, shrubs, and trees, then present a summary.
  • Consider new lawn care equipment (within the past two years). Energy efficiency has improved greatly and can offer major savings for school budgets.

  • Most schools have enough space on their grounds to grow fruit and vegetables, at least in planters or hanging baskets. Consider growing enough to provide the ingredients for taste tests, cooking lessons, local shelters, or your school’s kitchen. Secondary schools can take this further by setting up market gardens and selling the produce as a business enterprise.
  • Garden organically. If the team is inexperienced, start with crops which are not overly prone to pest damage—such as new potatoes or fruit bushes—rather than vulnerable ones.
  • As well as fruits and vegetables, remember herbs. These are usually easy to grow, attractive, multi-sensory, good for wildlife, and can expand children's taste horizons.
  • Find out when different crops will be ready. You don't want to spend months growing food which will ripen during summer vacation when there is nobody there to harvest it.