Taking the Classroom Outdoors

By Erin Jones

My family has always been interested in watching nature change, – such as watching the day turn to night or watching a turf grass school yard flourish as a rain garden. My mom tells me that she has watched the forest preserves of the Chicago area change over the course of her lifetime. She recalls woodlands being more open with a lot less buckthorn when she was growing up.

In my early twenties I interned with Audubon-Chicago Region. During my internship I learned to differentiate buckthorn from hazel. Buckthorn is a non-native tree that thrives around here and hazel is a native tree species, which is a more desirable tree to have growing in this area. I also learned about the woodland, savannah, and prairie ecosystems of the area, how these ecosystems have changed over the years, and what is needed to restore their health. I was learning about restoration ecology – a relatively young science. I also learned about people implementing habitat restoration plans across the country.
One organization engaging in restoration ecology is Earth Partnership for Schools. Earth Partnership engages students, teachers, and community members in restoring native habitats in schoolyards and natural areas. This restoration includes improving woodland, savanna, wetland, and prairie habitats and planting rain, butterfly, and sensory gardens. Once the habitats are created, they become outdoor classrooms for teachers and students. The habitats allow teachers and students to learn about science, math, language arts, social studies, student-led inquiry, service-learning, and have some unstructured nature play

Each summer, Earth Partnership’s RESTORE program trains teachers and community partners so they can bring Earth Partnership for Schools practices back to their home schools and communities. Today, there are 28 Earth Partnership centers located in 14 States and Puerto Rico. These centers are ready and able to help teachers implement ecological restoration in their school yards and turn the yards into outdoor classrooms.

Changing the landscape of a school yard extends the classroom outdoors and teaches students about natural history and the environment. It is my belief that if we invest more time in exposing our kids to the natural world—then kids will understand and appreciate the environment more and be involved in keeping the environment healthy. I think it is better to learn about the environment and understand the concepts and importance of restoration ecology as kids instead of in their early twenties like I did.

So like my mom, I see changes in the forest preserves of the Chicago area—all as a result of habitat restoration work. Great strides are being made to reduce the populations of invasive species such as buckthorn here. And now, I get to watch the environment change and I get to help create healthier habitats in my community.

About the author: Erin Jones is an Intern at EPA Region 5 working in environmental education. She is currently working on her Master’s in Geography & Environmental Studies at Northeastern Illinois University in Chicago, IL.

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