Schoolyard Habitats: Backyard Getaway brings the joy of ponding to students

1Backyard_oakpark When my husband/business partner Dave and I opened our business, we decided that we wanted to give back to the community. We offered the usual fundraising pond tours like many other pond businesses offer, but the most rewarding program is our school habitat program. Creating schoolyard habitats is not a new concept, but in case you are not familiar with it, the school habitat program offers an outside-the-box learning experience for students. It is a unique tool integrating math, science and life skills curricula into a hands-on project. Students learn how math relates to a pond through measuring and basic math skills. They learn science as it relates to water flow, evaporation and plants. Each project is a complete habitat with a water feature and native wildlife garden. Once completed, the project becomes a permanent outdoor classroom for future generations to learn from and add to. We have been teaching these classes at local schools for several years and every time I am in awe of the young people we work with.

Getting started
For our first school project we chose Manatee Glens ARC (Adolescent Recovery Center), a live-in facility for teenagers with substance abuse and mental health problems, to be the recipient. We approached the facility manager with the idea and she loved it. Of course, none of us were sure how the students would react. At first they were standoffish. Some of the girls did not want to get their hands dirty, and some of the boys looked at what we were doing as work. Slowly, with a bit of coaxing, they came around. Excitement and cooperation grew once they realized that they were actually going to create something that they would get to keep. The students came up with ways to extend the project into other areas of their studies. One student wrote a column for the school newspaper about the project, sharing her feelings and documenting changes in the pond, goldfish and plants.

A couple of years ago we started teaming up with local teaching artists to expand our habitats into combined art and nature projects. Students now create, in addition to their habitat, a mural and mosaic art pieces. This added layer has given us a chance, as a team, to offer a more diversified, hands-on project and allows us to work with many more students.

Each project is unique to the particular school’s environment. Budget, location of the habitat and age of the students are all taken into consideration when planning a project. With that in mind, we decided that a pond- free water feature would be the most beneficial and easiest feature to adapt to any setting. We create each feature using the Atlantic Water Gardens Pond- Free Kit or Colorfalls system. The kits contain everything you need in one box, keeping it simple.

A growing impact
As excitement over the program has grown over the years so has the class size. Our first class included 25-30 students. Over the last couple of years the classes have ranged from 100-300 students over a two- to three-day project. Although the majority of our projects have been created with middle school children, you can create a project with any age. Last year we worked with two sister schools simultaneously, creating complimentary retaining wall features at each school: one an elementary school and the other a special-needs school for children ages three to 22. The students co-mingled, working together on both of their habitats. This project was made possible through a grant from MetLife and the Kennedy Center for Performing Arts.

Our latest project included a pond-free waterfall, a peace garden with mosaic benches and a mural, all created by over 200 students. The entire project was documented on video by one student while several others became journalists interviewing their fellow class- mates. We were extremely impressed with the students at this school. The students at Harllee are committed to ending bullying in schools. These kids worked together without any conflicts, and they voted on which rocks to place in the waterfall, where each plant should be planted and the exact placement of their benches. To show their enthusiasm for the project, they created a 25-foot- long banner filled with quotes from the participants, which was presented at the ribbon-cutting ceremony. The entire school came out to celebrate their new EcoScape with the JROTC, drum line and dance team performing for the students, faculty and parents. The pride was contagious. drum line and dance team performing for the students, faculty and parents. The pride was contagious.

Now that I have shared my experience and excitement for this project, I would like to touch on the subject of profit and publicity. Personally, our main motivation for starting the program was to teach the younger generation about pond ecosystems and wildlife habitats, but making a profit and the free publicity is a nice bonus. As business owners it is our goal to make a profit, while our primary goal as community members is to give back to that community. The school habitat project can accomplish both.

Whether you offer a way to raise funds, or work with the school to acquire grant money for the project, it is important to price the habitat as you would any other project. If you wish to give back, then by all means donate your time. For our first school project, we donated our time and purchased pond materials with funds we raised from our pond tour. The publicity we received could not have been more valuable. From the second project on, we either donated all or a portion of our labor or would include donated equipment or materials we received from our suppliers to help keep the cost down for the school. We have never had to pay for advertising the school projects. Sending a simple press release and inviting the media to ribbon-cutting ceremonies has helped us spread the word about the program and has generated publicity through local newspapers, magazines and even television coverage.

What have I learned through these projects? Making a difference, acceptance, patience and having fun are as important in business as profit and publicity.

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