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Natives in the School Yard

Natives in the School Yard

What do earthworms, lawns, dandelions, malaria, honeybees, and Europeans have in common?  The Answer: They are all non-native species that were not in North America in the year 1491.  In the book “1493: Uncovering the New World Columbus Created.”, Charles C. Mann argues that “from the outset globalization brought both enormous economic gains and ecological and social tumult that threatened to offset those gains.” Indeed, our humanized world has become so developed that we are losing the natural world that helps to provide us with oxygen, flood control, clean water, topsoil, pollinators, and carbon sequestering.

So as we study the globalization of our world due to explorers, we must investigate the impact that process has had on Indigenous people and all our native species.

The term native species is not clear cut.  According to Oxford a native species is “A species that is within its known natural range, and occurs naturally in a given area or habitat, as opposed to an introduced species or invasive species. Also known as endemic species, indigenous species.”  For Ginny Sullivan, principal in Learning By The Yard, a design and consulting firm in Conway, MA,  “native plants are those that have co-evolved over a long period of time with other plants and animals in a place, to interact and provide each other with the things they need to live productive lives”.

A classic example of this native interaction is the monarch/milkweed relationship.  Monarch larvae feed exclusively on a few native species of milkweed.  No milkweed = no butterflies.  At issue is the general lack of use of milkweed for humans - milkweed is not an overall pretty plant, nor do we use milkweed for food or medicine.  Milkweed is just that - a weed. Humans, who have always manipulated the natural world, have taken our yards and filled them with plants that are more pleasing to us - easy to keep neat, bigger flowers, insect and disease resistant, prettier.  So even though a lawn may be green, non-natives usually do not serve the environmental function for the native species.

So what can we do to help increase the number of native plants? In his book, “Nature’s Best Hope”, Douglas W. Tallamy, professor in entomology and wildlife at Delaware University, describes  conservation that starts in your yard.

Create a “Homegrown National Park” where nature can thrive in our rural, suburban, and urban areas.  One great place a teacher can start is in the schoolyard.

Tallamy describes ten things each one of us can do to help our native wildlife.

  1. Shrink the lawn. While lawn is a lovely place to walk and play, there is little ecological value in turf. Turf requires constant maintenance ($$), contributes to run-off, and supports very few wildlife species.  Schools should not have wall to wall lawn, but instead more like area carpets.
  2. Remove invasive species. Invasive species can be very detrimental to native species by changing the ecological balance.  To find out about the invasive species in your area, start with the USDA National Invasive Species Information Center (NISIC) or your local Extension Office.
  3. Plant Keystone Genera. Keystone Genera form the foundations of a local ecosystem, especially for making food for insects. Native woodland trees like oaks, cherries, willows, birches, cottonwoods, and elms plus herbivorous goldenrods, asters, and sunflowers provide shelter and food for many native animals.  These powerful native plants will be the cornerstones of your schoolyard ecosystem.
  4. Be generous with your plantings. The only way to increase diversity is to plant grouping of plants, including trees.  Trees are meant to be close together where their roots intertwine and support each other.
  5. Plant for pollinators. Bumble bees are native insects that really need our help. Some of the best plants for them are sunflowers, goldenrod, asters, and blueberries.  Besides planting these in your school yard, have your students plant these seeds to take to their own backyards.
  6. Network with neighbors. The best way to grow your own Homegrown National Parks is to work with like-minded neighbors to focus on a community goal.  Many insects and birds need habitats and together you can help monarchs, bumblebees, hummingbirds, or other endangered moths and butterflies.

The rest of the suggestions include building a conservation hardscape, creating caterpillar pupation sites under trees, avoiding sprays or fertilizers, and educating your neighborhood civic associations.

As we take time this year to study and appreciate Indigenous people, we can also take time to learn about and provide hope for all of our native North American species.  Take your students outside and look around your school yard and make an inventory of what plants and animals (including insects) are present.  If your school is like most places, your area is mostly lawn, concrete, and a few separated trees.  Is your school a place of belonging for your students and also a place for our native species? You and your students can become part of the cure to help restore natural areas we all need. Make your school yard part of the Homegrown National Park.


Colleen Epler-Ruths is the STEM Education Consultant at the Central Susquehanna Intermediate Unit.  She has 20+ years of experience in the public science classroom where she taught physics, computer science and other science courses.  Her PhD work focused on spatial skills impact on student learning.  Besides a tech guru, she is an outdoor enthusiast, Penn State Extension Master Gardener, Ambassador for STEP UP physics and a Fulbright Global Educator.  This year she is learning beekeeping and grand-parenting.

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