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Public Radio's Environmental News Magazine (follow us on Google News)

School Yard Turns Wild

Air Date: Week of

An elementary school in suburban Ohio has turned part of its grounds into an outdoor classroom and wetlands education project. With this experimental land-lab, students learn about biodiversity first hand. Robin Finesmith reports from Living on Earth's Midwest Bureau at WCPN, Cleveland.


CURWOOD: This is Living on Earth. I'm Steve Curwood. Nature is one of the best classrooms, but many school children are missing out. Even the richest suburban schools are often surrounded by lawns and athletic fields that attract little wildlife, and many urban kids might be lucky to see a pigeon on their asphalt schoolyards. But in Parma, Ohio, on the west side of Cleveland, teachers and children are joining together in an experiment to bring wildlife right into their daily curriculum, by turning part of their schoolyard into an artificial wetland. From Living on Earth's Midwest Bureau at WCPN in Cleveland, Robin Finesmith has our report.

(Children yelling and playing)

FINESMITH: Green Valley Elementary School is bordered by a busy, 4-lane road just off of Interstate 77 and down the street from one of Parma's strip malls. In its front yard is a sunken rectangle of lawn about the size of a softball diamond, where 2 rough gullies slope down to a small pond in one corner. This is not at first glance the best location for a wildlife habitat, but come here on a Saturday and the air is filled with the smell of fresh sod.

MALAKAR: This is going to be the sunflower garden, and we had to dig all this out. And we're going to be planting. And over there where that's all dug out is going to be the rock garden. The second grade is in charge of that, and we're in charge of the sunflowers right here.

FINESMITH: Mara Malakar is a Green Valley third grader who's come to school with her dad this weekend to help build an observation deck and clear garden plots for the school's new outdoor classroom and wetlands project. This front yard used to be barren, but now a freshly cut split-rail fence encloses the lawn, and a wildflower garden will soon border one of the gullies that drain into the recently constructed pond. Algae is starting to accumulate at the water's edge, and a pair of Canadian geese are beginning to make regular stops. Green Valley's eco-team has been meeting at lunchtime for months, planning the project under the guidance of fifth grade teacher Jeanne Goldberg. Goldberg got the idea during a workshop sponsored by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources. She says what's known as a land lab gives the kids a rare chance to learn about biodiversity first hand.

GOLDBERG: That's a hard concept even for adults. The big picture of how everything is interconnected. The best way to teach kids about the big picture and learn yourself is to bring it down to smaller areas, like your back yard or this wetlands.

FINESMITH: The new pond and surrounding grassy area, together with a planned butterfly garden, will create a miniature laboratory where kids can observe and experiment for themselves. Other schools make use of outdoor labs, but principal Barbara Filipow says having this one so close makes it an integral part of a hands-on curriculum.

FILIPOW: I think that there'll be more spontaneity and more excitement because as those little things come up in the classroom, those teachable moments, we can move right out front. And you can't do that if you have to drive 5 miles away or 2 miles away.

FINESMITH: The wetlands project is meant to be as self-sustaining as possible. For instance, the sunflower garden will help feed the birds attracted to the water. The kids wanted to stock the pond with fish, too, but teacher Jeanne Goldberg says they'll try to let nature take its course instead.

GOLDBERG: We're going to wait to see if the ducks and the geese bring seeds and eggs on their bellies before we start introducing anything. We're hoping that it will happen naturally. We're not in any hurry. I think it would be best for the children to see what happens here all on its own.

STORER: Well, it's not quite going to just take its course.

FINESMITH: Jim Storer is a conservationist with the Cuyahoga County Soil and Water District who's an advisor to the Green Valley Elementary Project.

STORER: Under natural succession, if you quit mowing this lawn, everything around here generally turns into a maple beech woods, and those are really wildlife deserts as well as anything else, because you don't have diversity. But in this case they're actually planning it to have different types of habitat in it, and in order to keep that they're going to have to maintain it that way.

FINESMITH: In order to maintain that artificial diversity, Storer says, for instance, that some geese attracted to the pond will have to be kept away, since they can crowd out other wildlife and even chase after the kids. That means the students at Green Valley are learning not just about biodiversity, but about wildlife management. That's a tough and contentious concept for many adults, but students like 10-year-old Lauren Bruns don't seem to have a problem with it.

BRUNS: Well, they taught us about how the water interconnects with the flowers in the ground, and how it'll attract animals by itself, so instead of laying food out for animals and everything. And, like, it's hard to understand the conditions of them, but the teachers explain to us about how the geese are, weren't going to help this area much in particular. They needed to be in their natural area, which is more towards the south. And if they come up here for the wetlands area, it will, it will ruin their entire schedule that they have.

FINESMITH: In addition to lessons on migration and natural succession, the kids have been learning about other natural functions of wetlands, such as flood control and water filtering.
They've also been allowed to add their own ideas for the project along the way, and according to fifth grader Lauren Bruns, that's given everyone a feeling of ownership in the project.

BRUNS: I think it's very exciting to see everything happen because, I mean, we're making this happen. It was an idea. It just kept getting bigger and bigger, and everybody worked together, and we got all our ideas in, and we formed it. And this is our land lab.

FINESMITH: The project has also been chosen to serve as a model outdoor school site by Ohio's Department of Natural Resources. And while it's true that the lab is only a wildlife habitat in miniature, the birds and animals starting to make their home there are making it clear that the property is more than just a habitat for school kids. For Living on Earth, I'm Robin Finesmith in Cleveland.



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