Native Plants for School Grounds Can Grow into a “Teaching Garden”

By Ginny Sullivan Gazette Contributing Writer

Research shows that children benefit from spending time in nature. The benefits are enormous and far-reaching—including increased attention, greater physical activity, more complex use of language and improved social skills. But how should we incorporate this understanding into the places we design for children’s play? Whenever I consult with schools about making changes to their outdoor play space, I advocate for the creative potential of a rich natural environment. And when they are asked, teachers and children say this is what they want as well.

The dependence of monarch butterflies on milkweed illustrates the system of relation- ships that define life on Earth. Photo by Rebecca Reid.

Boiled down to their essence, the requests of both children and adults are for shade, shelter, interesting things to see and interesting places to go. Their requests focus on the opportunities for interaction with the environment, for doing and experiencing things in concert with the natural rhythms of the outdoors. They want to watch birds and butterflies, and explore natural processes.

When I design school grounds, I specify that the landscaping use native plants precisely because they will attract and animate birds, butterflies and other insects, sustaining a living ecosystem within which children can learn about nature.

Just what are native plants, anyway? According to Sue Reed, local author of the book Energy-wise Landscape Design, “The main thing that makes a species native is its history of interactions with the other residents of its habitat.” In other words, native plants are those that have co-evolved over a long period of time with other plants and animals in a place, to interact and provide each other with the things they need to live productive lives.

Native plants contribute to the larger work of nature. For example, the larvae of monarch butterflies appear to feed exclusively on several milkweed species indigenous to North America. Milkweed does the work of nature by supplying food to the monarch caterpillars and enabling them to grow into the beautiful orange creatures treasured throughout North America. These butterflies do not appear by magic or through commerce. They are part of an intricate system of relationships between plants and animals that defines life on Earth. If there are no milkweed plants growing in fields, parks, roadsides, schoolyards and homes, this process will come to a rapid halt. No milkweed, no butterflies. This simple story—no milkweed, no monarchs—is a stand-in for a thousand others and is at the heart of my recommendation for gardening with native plants.

And yet, gardening with native plants is controversial. People ask, “Will the Play Hill be beautiful if it is planted with native trees and shrubs?” It’s almost as if there are two categories of plants in the minds of some: pretty plants and native plants. Perhaps the best way to answer this question is to ask another: beautiful to whom? We can say for sure that the native plants will be beautiful to the birds and butterflies that will find nectar, seeds and pollen there, at just the right time to support their life cycle. And when they come, this environment will be beautiful to the children and the science class that asked for birds and butterflies and will have a chance to see monarch and Karner blue butterflies, bluebirds and kingbirds close up.


Such a play yard will, as it grows, be a lush place of sun and shade with intriguing pathways through shrubs and trees blooming and producing seed. In each season it will be a different study in texture and color, green and yellow or orange and red, with many contrasting shapes and sizes of berries, seeds, stems and leaves. Sitting quietly on a bench in the cool shade and with a breeze on a warm day, a child or a teacher might find it lovely. And in the winter the bare stems will read black or gray against white snow, shadows will create patterns on the hill and birds will perch next to a feeder. Children can watch the seasons play out and see the grateful creatures come to find food, water and shelter provided by the plants. Non-native plants, although perhaps beautiful, usually don’t provide the ecological services that the local flora offer and sometimes they actually are detrimental to the birds and insects who live here.

Especially in our schools, especially at this time of rampant habitat destruction, we need our landscapes to give us more than just a pretty face.

This is a big idea. It is both controversial and important. By using native plant species for wildlife at our schools—and our homes—we can offer our children a teaching garden in the best sense of the word. A landscape of native plants is a place where the ongoing intricacy of the natural world can teach its own lessons, both subtle and bold, to the curious minds it engenders.

Ginny Sullivan is a principal in Learning By The Yard, a design and consulting firm in Conway. She is co- author, with Wendy Banning, of Lens on Outdoor Learning.

Earth Matters, written by staff and associates of the Hitchcock Center for the Environment at 525 South Pleasant St., Amherst, appears every other week. For more information, call 413-256-6006, or write to us.

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