Enhancing School Yards to Support Environmental Literacy Through Projects WET, WILD, and Learning Tree
by Laurie Wickenkamp, Student ASLA

Environmental literacy doesn’t come naturally in most educational settings. Consequently, three highly respected programs known as Project WET (Water Education for Teachers), Project WILD, and Project Learning Tree have been developed to demonstrate environmental concepts to students. This article takes inventory of the outdoor amenities that are needed to support the learning activities outlined in Projects WET, Wild, and Learning Tree.

While these three programs are not new, the need for environmental education has been receiving more attention as people are becoming concerned about “nature deficit disorder,” a phrase developed by Richard Louv to describe children who may suffer developmentally due to decreased contact with the natural environment. The first of these three environmental education programs was Project Learning Tree (PLT). PLT was developed by the American Forest Foundation in 1976 to aid educators in teaching environmental education through hands-on activities for students K-12. The main objective of PLT is to present students with complex environmental issues in a non-biased manner so that they “learn how to think, not what to think.” PLT was followed by Project WET in 1995 and Project WILD in 2006. These last two were developed from earlier pilot programs and are overseen by the Council for Environmental Education. The curriculum and activities in Projects WET, WILD, and Learning Tree provide opportunities for place-based experiential learning as a foundation for more abstract concepts.

While most of the activities (approximately 350) in the Project WET, WILD, and Learning Tree manuals are designed for the classroom, approximately 23 percent are meant to take place outside on school grounds. Many of the activities could take place on an asphalt playground where observable wildlife and habitat may be reduced to a few bugs, some tough pioneer plant species and an invasive plant or two. However, this sadly pales in comparison to more diverse settings where students can observe the ever-changing sights, sounds, textures, and scents found in nature. With a few enhancements, even the most bereft of school yards can be improved to provide many of the requirements to support outdoor activities for Projects WET, WILD, and Learning Tree. The basic inventory of minimal outdoor requirements described in Projects WET, WILD, and Learning Tree include an open play field, trees, various habitats, and water.

The open play field is used in 17 activities that engage children physically as they enact scenarios that dramatize the cause and effect of natural events that take place in ecosystems. The ideal open play area is flat turf that is free of obstructions, but if this is not available, the activities can take place on a paved surface. With the addition of a potable water source, the playfield can support two additional activities that demonstrate irrigation and water contamination. The size of the open play field is highly adaptable and can vary according to the number of participants and the amount of physical energy to be expended. If there is a large number of students with abundant energy, the play area can be increased in size to allow them to move more freely. If there are smaller numbers of students or those with less physical capacity, then the size of the play area can be decreased. In addition to the play field, an obstruction-free grassy hill can be used for a physical activity that demonstrates the relationship between plant cover, water runoff, and erosion.

Trees are specifically mentioned in 21 activities. Of these activities, seven could conceivably be undertaken with a single deciduous tree. These activities include measuring size, observing seasonal changes, structure, tree health, and transpiration, as well as observable wildlife that uses the tree. One of the activities in PLT requires seven to ten native trees so that students can use field guides in observing buds, flowers, twigs, leaves, and seeds. With the addition of these native trees, the number of associated activities increases significantly. Students are able to contrast and compare colors, forms, and textures. Native trees also will form a more complex habitat, which in turn attracts more wildlife. In addition, fallen logs demonstrate the process of decay and the need for decomposers, and provide shelter for wildlife. In some instances it may be possible to measure area grid sections to allow for the study of the succession of native plant species and non-native invasive plants, which further supports activities and concepts presented in Projects WET, WILD and Learning Tree. While native trees form the foundation of the school yard habitat, fruiting trees, ornamental flowering plants, herbs, and native perennials may also be added to increase butterflies and beneficial insects as well as hummingbird activity.

Trees provide food and shelter for many species, but the addition of a permanent water source supports even greater diversity, such as aquatic plants, fish, amphibians, birds, reptiles, and mammals. These, in turn, will support activities such as monitoring water quality, discovering animal tracks and nests, and listening to birds songs, as evidence of species diversity. In addition to activities that involve a permanent water source such as a pond or stream, there are also several activities that observe the ephemeral water found in puddles. Humble puddles could be expanded to include bio-swales and rain gardens. The relatively simple combination of a grassy play field and native trees and water provide various habitats for wildlife and provide for approximately 40 more activities described in Project WET, WILD and Learning Tree. If all of the recommendations are implemented, the school yard could support nearly all of the outdoor learning activities (approximately 80) described in these projects.

Laurie Wickenkamp, Student ASLA, is in the MLA program at the University of Oklahoma where she is specializing in children’s outdoor environments. She has completed training to be certified to use the educational materials from Projects WET, WILD and Learning Tree. She may be contacted at: Laurie.L.Wickenkamp-1@ou.edu.

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