Creating An Outdoor Classroom

This blog is Part 2 of a series about engaging and teaching students outside. Click here for Part 1: Outdoor Teaching Tips. Click here for Part 3: Citizen Science in your Outdoor Classroom. You can also watch our video “Nature Walks: Five Steps to Success.

Rather than planning a trip every time you want to take your students outside, an outdoor classroom provides the luxury of exploring a familiar spot close to your school whenever you like, for as long as you like. Outdoor classrooms vary in their composition and functionality, but they all have one thing in common: they transform the schoolyard into a habitat for local wildlife.

kids, look, feeder, in, window

Bird blind outdoor classroom. Photo by Phil Kahler.

Below are tips on how to design your schoolyard to attract local birds and have your students get an up close look at their feathered neighbors.

Provide Good Food

Carolina Wrens often eat mealworms. Photo courtesy of Project FeederWatch.

Many pet and birdseed outlets sell mealworms, which are a great food to place out for insect-loving birds, like this Carolina Wren. Photo courtesy of Project FeederWatch.

With such a diverse array of bird species, there is also a diverse array of food you can provide. Many birds, such as Eastern Bluebirds, are insectivores and need a steady diet of bugs to survive. Still others rely on nectar, berries, fruits, or nuts to meet their nutritional requirements. Creating the perfect

 

habitat begins with providing the perfect food for your visitors.

One of the easiest ways to attract birds is by setting up a feeder or feeding station. Birds will travel far and wide in search of food and if they find a steady source, such as a feeder, they may stick around. Maintaining bird feeders is a project that can last all year, and the students can observe how bird sightings change with the seasons.

Native plants provide habitat and food for insects, which are a great source of food for many bird species. To begin expanding your bird buffet, have students research native plants in your area and determine the best spot to plant a garden. Additionally, students can research and plan how to attract native pollinators! The Habitat Network search tool is a great starting resource for garden projects.

Keep Water Flowing

Photo by Kathleen (flickr).

You may see a bird splashing (ruffling its feathers fully in the water) to get clean and cool off. After, the bird may preen to dry its feathers. Photo by Kathleen (flickr).

Water is one of the best ways to attract birds to your schoolyard. Feeders may only attract certain species, but all species need water for drinking and bathing.

Creating a birdbath is simple. Birds only require a source of clean water and a perch. Something as simple as a dish filled with water or as elaborate as a fish pond will work.

Place some sand or gravel in the bottom of a birdbath to provide good footing. Branches near the edge of the water will give birds a spot to perch. Your water feature should have just an inch or two of water; anything deeper is not very useful to birds.

Not only is running water a great feature to have in winter if your water freezes over, but it also attracts even more birds! The birds find water by listening for the sound of dripping or splashing.

Most importantly, water must be kept clean. Bacteria and disease can spread rapidly in water features and make your backyard birds sick. Replace water once a day in still features and once a week in moving features.

Students installing a bird bath. Photo by Dawn Anderson.

Students installing a bird bath. Photo by Dawn Anderson.

If you’re worried that your schoolyard is too wet, a rain garden can help solve your runoff problems by filtering excess water. Building a rain garden can be a demanding job but the reward is well worth the effort.

Have your students plot out the best site for a water feature and investigate any potential problems. Students can build and decorate birdbaths or choose the plants to surround a pond. Make sure you place any water feature where you can easily see it from a distance and near (but not directly below) any food sources you may have!

Whatever water feature your class chooses, allow students to take ownership of their creation.

 

Provide Adequate Cover

Courtesy of YardMap.

Courtesy of Habitat Network.

A place to hide is essential for birds. Hawks and other raptors are often attracted to feeding stations.

Birds will avoid even the most tantalizing feeders if they feel exposed or threatened by these birds of prey.

Providing cover for birds could be as simple as creating a brush pile, or as involved as a gardening or tree planting project. Structure is important for cover and several layers are best for attracting the widest variety of birds.

Let your students take the lead in planning and caring for the features you add. Photo by Michelle Wild.

Students take the lead in planning and caring for new features. Photo by Michelle Wild.

Let your students decide how they want to build their structured cover for birds. If they decide to

provide multiple layers of cover for species, what plants will they use? Your students can use resources

like Habitat Network‘s canopy structure and indexes of native plants to decide how they want to structure

the yard.

When planning your cover, be sure to consider the other features of your outdoor classroom. Place your feeding station near the treeline or brushline so that birds have ample opportunity to hide if they feel threatened. Some low cover should be provided near water features for birds to preen.

 

Offer Opportunities for Nests

Students count eggs in an occupied nestbox. Photo by Anne Ellis.

Students count eggs in an occupied nest box. Photo by Anne Ellis.

One of the best ways to bring birds to your yard long term is to set up a spot for them to build a nest. Many species build their own nests. Others rely on pre-existing holes or cavities made by other birds or mammals.

For cavity-nesting species like House Wrens, Purple Martins, American Kestrels, and many others, nest boxes are useful additions to schoolyards.

It’s easy to provide the optimal nesting conditions for certain birds if you know what they need. NestWatch is a great resource for anyone looking to attract nesting species to their outdoor classroom or yard. Their website provides information on constructing nest boxes, dealing with predators, and native plants that can attract species.

For non-cavity nesters, shrubs and bushes provide good nesting locations improve your chances of seeing a nesting family.

No matter the season, it’s easy to remember the four essential elements for attracting birds to your yard and create a living, dynamic outdoor schoolyard!

Going Further

  • Already have an outdoor classroom? Bring citizen science into your space!
  • Seek inspiration from other outdoor classrooms or share your own on our Action Map!
  • Habitat Network provides dozens of articles and resources for landscaping your yard to better serve birds. Learn how to avoid becoming an “Ecological Trap”, how to “Make Messy Look Good”, and more!
  • Monitor nesting species by becoming a certified nest watcher.

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