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    Natural Learning

    By Tracy Marsh

    Photography by Trevor Tallman

    Some mornings, when teacher Jennifer Musick arrives at Rosamond Elementary School in the California High Desert, her fifth-graders greet her with handfuls of plump, wriggling earthworms. But this is not a case of kids trying to torture their teacher; instead, it’s a meaningful — albeit messy — reminder that the outdoor learning program Musick heads at the school is thriving. 

    That program, Schoolyard Habitats, is part of the National Wildlife Federation’s effort to help children reconnect with the outdoors by attracting and supporting local wildlife. Created in 1996, Schoolyard Habitats helps school communities transform campuses into outdoor classrooms where students can learn about wildlife conservation, apply and sharpen their academic skills, and nurture their innate curiosity and creativity.  

    Through the program, a habitat team — composed of educators, students, parents, and community volunteers — plans and creates a garden that fits their unique environment. 

    Rosamond Elementary is one of 6,000-plus schools participating in the program. Its arid environment made raised beds a natural choice. The school now has 13 beds in which students grow native flowers, tomatoes, chard, sorghum, pumpkins, corn, sunchokes, and — perhaps the children’s favorite — carrots.  

    “I’ll never forget the first time we had carrots as a classroom snack,” Musick says with a chuckle. “All the kids were crunching away with the greens hanging out of their mouths.” 

    The school’s habitat also includes chicken coops built solely by students, a pond with a solar-powered fountain, and worm bins for composting. Plans are to add more raised beds, several goats, an orchard, and a solar oven. 

    Every habitat offers local wildlife food, water, shelter, and a place to raise their young, while also giving educators more opportunities and resources for creative instruction.  

    And the benefits don’t stop there. Schoolyard Habitats provides the type of hands-on learning that deepens kids’ comprehension, keeps them excited and motivated to learn, and boosts their performance across the board. The outdoor space encourages students to literally think outside the box, from reading and writing to citizenship and science. 

    “I incorporate all subjects into the garden,” Musick says. “We put on plays and do brainstorming there. The kids even use it to learn about perimeter and area — and all of a sudden, math becomes more real.”

    For Musick, the decision to lobby for Schoolyard Habitats at Rosamond Elementary was a no-brainer. She wanted her students to experience the wonder and joy she’d derived from childhood summers spent on her family’s farm in South Dakota. And the program is doing just that.

    The best part is the engagement, she says. “Being outside makes everything more real. The kids are working together, using tools, learning about safety,” she says. “It’s brought more kindness into the class. The garden always wins.”