Rain Barrels and Lessons About Water

Editors’ Note: As this article was being prepared, the guidelines related to Covid-19 were put into effect that, along with other restrictions, have closed schools and restricted public gatherings. We publish this article with the hope that global public health improves and children and educators will soon be able to return to their classes. In the meantime, we have discounted our GreenSchools Investigations online course with e-book by 50% off through April 30, 2020.

Rain Barrels for Water Discovery

The Kansas Wetlands Education Center sits on the edge of the Cheyenne Bottoms, the largest inland marsh in the United States, and a designated Wetland of International Importance. Its 41,000 acres is particularly known for its migratory birds, as well as a rich ecosystem of other flora and fauna.


The center fulfills its mission to educate the public about the importance of wetlands and water resources in a number of ways, including in their relationships with nearby schools, according to program specialist Mandy Kern. Thanks in part to a GreenWorks grant, a combination of rain barrel construction and PLT water-related activities proved to be an effective, fun, and eye-opening way to fulfill the mission.


What’s a Rain Barrel?

A rain barrel collects and stores rainwater from a roof that would otherwise be lost to runoff. Thus, it saves money (by using less purchased water), decreases the impact of runoff, and provides a high-quality source of water for gardening or other non-potable uses.


With a drill and basic building skills, a plastic food barrel can be repurposed into a receptacle that can capture more than 50 gallons of water. With a little paint and some imagination, the sides of the barrel can be transformed into “outdoor art.”


Rain Barrels for Different Ages

The center introduced rain barrels in three distinct settings:

  • At Ellinwood Elementary School, fourth and fifth graders made four barrels (two per grade) to place in the school’s outdoor learning center. They had to figure out the best place for them and work with the maintenance department to connect them to existing gutters and equipment.


  • At McPherson High School, the rain barrels were used as part of a yearlong PLT GreenSchools partnership with two environmental science classes. In carrying out the GreenSchools Water Investigation, students calculated how much water the small McPherson Unified school district uses in a year (7,879,000 gallons at a cost of $24,381.54!). Students learned how rain barrels could at least partially reduce water usage.


  • Finally, the center offered rain barrel construction to families as part of a community Biosphere Block Party, an Earth Day event. More than 100 people worked together to make rain barrels to take home and learn about the advantages of doing so.


students drill holes into a rain barrelPLT Connections

“The biggest asset to this project was adding the extra curriculum from PLT resources,” said Mandy Kern. “We didn’t just go in and build a rain barrel with students. They did investigations and learned about water conservation along the way.”


In addition to the GreenSchools investigations, Kern found the PLT activity Every Drop Counts (Activity #28) was useful with both the elementary and high school students. By going from two cups to 1 drop of water, they visually experienced the tiny percentage of the Earth’s water resource that is potable. The high school classes also delved into PLT’s secondary Places We Live activity about the Ogallala Aquifer, especially relevant because McPherson’s water supply comes from the nearby Equus Bed Aquifer.


“Anytime we can get students outside and show a connection to their learning is great,” Kern said. “The activity showed them why they would want to save rainwater and how it could be cost savings for their school and help the environment and help the garden. She noted a potential extension in the future could be whether plants that used rain versus city water grew differently.


Kern stressed the importance of relationships between nonformal and formal educators. “You can work with the teachers, touch base, ask what they need,” she suggested. “We can help them give their classes that environmental spin. We can show them that we are not taking away from what they want to do, but adding to and enriching their curriculum.”


children decorate a rain barrelOne More Thing about Rain Barrels

Many online resources provide instructions about how to build a rain barrel, such as this one from Cornell University Extension Service.


One thing to look for when purchasing the barrels that Kern learned the hard way: “Make sure the barrels have removable lids!”

Connecting Chicago-Area Youth with Nature

The Brushwood Center at Ryerson Woods is nestled within 565 acres of magnificent woodlands in Lake County, Illinois. It’s also less than 50 miles from Chicago and other urban areas in Illinois.

Taking advantage of its proximity to both the natural and built worlds, the Center has embraced a mission of promoting nature to nurture personal and community well-being. Bosque de Salud, or Forest of Health, is an innovative program to make that connection. Supported in part by a Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) community grant, it gives youth hands-on, educational interaction with the natural world to encourage them to understand their relationship with the environment and inspire a lifetime of stewardship. The students–and their families—come from the Highwood, North Chicago, Round Lake, and Waukegan communities, communities that, on average, are nearly one-half Hispanic and Latinx and have lower median incomes and higher rates of obesity and diabetes than national averages.

A “Pollinator Promise” that reads “I will help my grandma plant some flowers and I will leave water for hummingbirds”
A “Pollinator Promise” that reads “I will help my grandma plant some flowers and I will leave water for hummingbirds”


Kicking Off with PLT

Bosque de Salud/Forest of Health kicked off with a Project Learning Tree workshop to train 22 staff and volunteers from five community-based partner organizations: Cool Learning Experience, Foss Park District, Nuestro Center, Roberti Community House, and Round Lake Bilingual Parent Advisory Committee. They learned how to incorporate PLT activities into the classroom and informal settings, with a focus on how to do so in city neighborhoods. Brushwood then coordinated visits by music and art groups to each partner site.

Students wrote environmentally-themed skits and music, built eco-friendly cityscapes with “upcycled” cardboard and craft supplies, and made a “Pollinator Promise” that involved simple but specific steps, such as planting native flowers, to help local pollinators. Field trips to the Center followed, including events to involve students’ families.


Why a Forest of Health?

As most PLT educators know, the inactivity of today’s youth, often referred to as “generation indoors,” has long-term health repercussions and startling associated statistics. The percentage of children and adolescents affected by obesity has more than tripled since the ‘70s. Mental health is also affected, and quality of life is reduced. But studies show that spending just 5 minutes around trees has positive impacts on people’s immune systems, blood pressure, mood, and focus—even in children with ADHD.

Brushwood Center wanted to extend these health benefits for everyone and to educate and empower by building community-wide awareness around the importance of natural resources and being outdoors. Nanci Sarmiento, Brushwood’s Community Engagement Fellow, helped coordinate the program, which involves her own neighborhood, “The community that I live in experiences lots of stress; because it’s a low-income community, parents are always working, and they don’t have enough time with their children. Personally, my brother and I barely see my dad because he leaves for work around five in the morning and isn’t back until eleven at night,” she said.

Sarmiento added that the Center’s work represents an investment beyond education: the Forest of Health/Bosque de Salud program is a convener for her community, a time set aside for mindfulness outdoors that results in better health for her own family, community, and the environment. Her brother and mother have participated in the activities. “When [my mother] visited Brushwood, her thoughts started changing a lot,” Saramiento said. “We have recycling bins in the house now, and whenever we go to stores, she brings her reusable bags. She understands that everything we do impacts nature, and if we all make small changes, it can create big changes for our environment.”


Participants in Brushwood Center’s PLT Certification Workshop
Participants in Brushwood Center’s PLT Certification Workshop

Nature for All

Brushwood’s community-focused, inclusive approach to environmental education also reinforces that nature is for all to enjoy. For example, Spanish-speaking parents may hesitate to attend events where they need to rely on a friend or family member to translate. By ensuring that events have a bilingual guide or translator available, Brushwood ensures that attendees feel welcome knowing that they won’t struggle to communicate and are able to ask questions. Brushwood’s family days provide a place where daily stress dissolves, and friends and neighbors can enjoy the wonders and many health benefits of the natural world.

By focusing on the area’s specific needs, through PLT, field trips, and family days, the Center is transforming community-wide perceptions of the value of nature, one person at a time.


Learn More

The Forest of Health/Bosque de Salud program was supported in part by the independent, non-profit Sustainable Forestry Initiative (SFI) through funding from SFI’s Community Grants program. It included indoor and outdoor classroom materials from Project Learning Tree, an initiative of SFI, and a workshop facilitated by the Illinois PLT state sponsor, the Illinois Environmental Education Association.

To read more about Bosque de Salud, go to SFI’s blog, and check out Brushwood Center’s blog.

Reclaiming Outdoor Space at Soda Creek Elementary School

The health of the trees and shrubs planted near Soda Creek Elementary School in Steamboat Springs, Colorado, was a decidedly mixed bag. “Anyone driving by could see that some trees and shrubs originally planted were thriving, while others were dead or dying, and others were damaged by student misuse,” said fifth-grade teacher Natalie Sattler.

In the fall of 2017, Sattler and second-grade teacher Cindy Gantick (since retired) decided to engage their students in a joint project to improve the soil and trees at this relatively new school site. But as they became more involved, the project’s scope grew.


students in class outdoorsStarting with Soil Science

The combined classes started with research, including taking inventory of the existing trees and native vegetation on the property. Early sessions included background reading, in which the older and younger students worked together—a lesson in how to work across the different age levels. Students even learned about effective soil sampling with help from a parent and professor at Colorado Mountain College, who analyzed the results, and found that the shallow, low-quality topsoil could not sustain long-term growth of many of the trees planted.

Students armed themselves with this knowledge and devised a path forward. With many feeling scared and stressed by nationwide violence in schools, the idea formed to create a peace garden and outdoor classroom where students could have mindful reflective time and teachers could have a more comfortable space for outdoor lessons. The students identified an area for improvement that could serve as a good site for these purposes and got to work.

As the project’s scope grew from its data-gathering origins, it needed to fit what the students could feasibly accomplish. Originally, the teachers planned to have the students use ARCView/GIS as a mapping and planning tool, but it soon proved too complex for the fifth graders. Initial brainstorming ideas also included a fishpond and water slide, but ultimately, the students proposed a learning space featuring native plants and trees, and a painted mural of native vegetation on an existing wooden fence created by the art teacher and students.


outdoor classroomCommunity Collaboration

“The scope of the project grew exponentially, as did the time commitment to finish it,” Sattler said. “There were many long hours spent during work sessions before the snow fell on the trees that were planted. Students learned the process of making a difference in their community.”

Master Gardeners, local families, the Colorado State Forestry Service, and many others helped—including local businesses, who donated much-needed time and materials, such as topsoil and use of heavy equipment. In addition to learning about soil science and other concepts, Sattler noted that each student became a leader in their own way: by making posters, asking for donations, planting and watering trees, or making sure their fellow schoolmates respected the space and knew about the purpose of the garden.


students mulching outdoorsStudent Engagement and Impact

“They felt part of something bigger than just themselves,” Sattler said. “They learned why native species are better to plant than non-native species, and about collecting and communicating scientific data. Many students learned how to use shovels, rakes, and wheelbarrows as they hauled donated gravel and topsoil.”

“Most of all, they learned that kids can, with some effort, make a lovely difference in their school community,” she said.

“We could probably write a book about the ins and outs of launching this project and its continuous evolution,” she continued. Her key suggestions? Find compatible local partners, foster student ownership by respecting their ideas, and include the administration.”

And finally, a good rule for much in life: “Relax into the process of a project that may need continual improvement—and breathe deep breaths often!”

Students Care for Their City Parks

Over the years, we’ve published many articles about service-learning projects that were completed with support from PLT’s GreenWorks! grants. Our series continues with these two stories of students—from Santa Cruz, California and Madisonville, Louisiana—who worked with their local community to help restore their city’s parks. The grants, matched locally, were used to purchase tools, seeds, and other needed supplies.


Santa Cruz students restore garden outside museum
Santa Cruz students restore a garden outside the Natural History Museum

Taking Care of Harvey West Park in Santa Cruz

Despite being more than 100 years old, the Santa Cruz Museum of Natural History is still finding new ways to educate and engage with the community.

For the Earth Stewards Project (ESP), the museum partnered with Ponderosa High School and Career Training Center’s alternative education program for teens. The students gained work skills (and school credit!) while conducting native plant restoration and trail maintenance. They planted 840 native plants, removed 736 pounds of invasive species, treated 2,779 feet of trail for erosion, and installed 64 feet of fencing at Harvey West Park, a local park.

“The project provided transformative nature-based activities to learn STEM subjects, environmental stewardship, accountability, and a strong work ethic, said the project’s coordinator, Felicia Van Stolk. “By offering hands-on projects outdoors, where students can collaborate and socialize, ESP motivates students to participate in community impact on a regular basis.”

Several Earth Stewards went on to become Museum interns or rangers in the Santa Cruz Parks and Recreation Department. Hiring partners like Groundswell Coast Ecology have been impressed with the students’ achievements. The museum received a Secretary’s Award for Excellence in Sustainability for the Earth Steward Project.

“I learned how to manage and motivate people. I felt pride in getting the job done,” said one student who then worked with the city, also noting, “I never knew that there are more than one thousand different species of grass!”

Van Stolk warned that collaboration with community organizations adds a layer of complication. Nonetheless, “collaboration is worthwhile because we model for students how working together can achieve excellent results.”



Tree planting in Madisonville, LA

Restoring Pine Street Park in Madisonville, Louisiana

Students at Madisonville Junior High School, located in St. Tammany Parish’s Madisonville, Louisiana, bridged the gap between classroom learning and applying that knowledge on the ground. Working with a Master Gardener, they learned how to prepare a tree for planting, select the best location, and maintain it. They focused their efforts on a local park, Pine Street Park.

“They all admitted that it is one thing to learn about it [in a classroom]. It is another thing to do what you have learned,” said teacher Stephen Cefalu.

Madisonville’s project director and the mayor were on board from day one, Cefalu said. “We worked together deciding on what to purchase to plant. They helped with the three bids that we needed to get. They picked up the plants and trees. They had town workers there to assist the students, and they oversaw the entire operation.” The mayor acknowledged the students’ efforts publicly at a weekly council meeting and a school parents’ group.

Cefalu gave this advice. “The first thing that I would do is to brain-storm with the administration as to what your school could consider doing to enhance their local community,” he said. “Why not ask some responsible students for their input?”

From a handful of possible projects, the administrators selected their top priority. “If continuing the projects means contacting local officials, then I would meet with them and discuss your project ideas and get their input,” Cefalu added. “You want to make sure that if you get grant funding, that all parties are on board and on the same page.”

Students are now looking at other places to enhance in Madisonville, and according to Cefalu, they’re ready to get their hands dirty.

To date, Cefalu has raised over $13,000 in grants that have been used to enhance the restoration of Madisonville’s Pine Street Park further. With this additional funding, students have been able to complete three purchasing and planting field trips to Pine Street Park.



Read more stories of past PLT GreenWorks! projects—along with teachers’ tips—for environmental service-learning projects that link classroom learning to the real world.

Ready, Set, Goat



Wildfires are an annual occurrence in the West – but what can kids do about it? Students south of Denver at Rock Canyon High School in Highlands Ranch, Colorado, decided to think outside the box when it came to conducting their own research and applying science to help the community they live in.


With the help of their teacher Jenny Sickle, an AP Biology and Environmental Science teacher, they applied for a GreenWorks! grant from Project Learning Tree to analyze the environmental impacts of goat browsing as a form of wildfire mitigation. 

Student Lexy Bauer measures biodiversity levels while student Loren Rylander tests soilStudent Arjun Avinash measures plants and teacher, Jenny Sickle, collects data in the field


The Goats are Baaaaack 

goats browsing
Goats browsing in Castle Pines

Every summer, the local fire department trucks in goats to browse the vegetation growing throughout several neighborhoods. Now, at the department’s request, local grade 10-12 students are conducting a long-term scientific field study to research the effectiveness of this fire mitigation method, as well as the environmental impacts on plant biodiversity and soil health.


Rock Canyon students partnered with Einar Jensen of South Metro Fire Rescue, and the Estates at Buffalo Ridge Homeowners Association, in what they called the “Ready, Set, Goat!” project in the Castle Pines community. The fire department had the goats but needed data to assess their effectiveness. Enter our student citizen-scientists.


The students set up the project as a scientific experiment: “We hypothesized that goat browsing would be an effective form of wildfire mitigation, as it would limit vegetative growth by six feet and have positive environmental impacts,” the students relayed via their teacher, Jenny Sickle. Loren Rylander and Delaney Yehle, both juniors at the time, took the research one step further by developing a partnership between their school’s Biotechnology and AP Environmental Science classes.

effects of goat browsing


Rounding Up Data 

Students collected data along three separate transects in the Buffalo Ridge neighborhood, where measurements were collected both pre and post-goat-treatment over a span of six months. A total of 300 goats browsed along the two experimental transects, while the control transect received no goat-treatment. The sample collections involved extracting soil and recording plant measurements.


The students discovered that goat browsing was an effective wildfire mitigation tool—at least in the short term—as vegetative density decreased between 49 and 66 percent.


To assess environmental impacts, students measured soil health and vegetative biodiversity, including: soil organic carbon, pH, and the nitrogen, phosphorus, and potassium levels within the soil. While goat browsing was found to be effective over the six months studied, the students recognized that longer-term investigation is still needed. An important part of the project involved communicating the results, especially in their approach to organizing and displaying the data to different audiences. The project went on to win multiple awards at regional and state science fairs, and students talked to the media, community groups, local firefighters, and others about their results.


Student researcher Loren Rylander
Student research team leader Loren Rylander conducts a NPK soil assessment

Laying the Groundwork 

Not everyone has goats to study, of course, but the students shared several ideas that can be replicated. “Community involvement and support can be crucial for citizen science projects,” they wrote. Local resources are also crucial partners. For our students, collaborating with the Colorado State Forestry Department was critical, and Colorado State University soil scientist, professor Jim Ippolito, was an important resource and ally. Finally, “getting a long-term commitment from a team of volunteers is very useful. We found offering volunteer service hours, which are a graduation requirement at our school, encouraged this commitment.”


Each summer for the past three years, Rock Canyon students have been collecting data about plant biodiversity, vegetation characteristics, and soil health in Castle Pines.

Students recorded and quantified the biodiversity results of their experiment


This year, three new students will continue the research project by analyzing the data for longer-term impacts of goat browsing on wildfire mitigation. The team plans to complete this project as a five-year study and will share their results with other communities who are considering this method of wildfire mitigation. 


Learn more about this project from the students’ blog.



What’s Growing in Your Garden?

Golden Bridges student Elie with kale grown from the school’s Giving Garden

It’s summertime and the garden-growing is easy—well, sort of. Planting seeds and seedlings in the spring took a lot of effort, but watering and weeding are part of the summer’s reality.


PLT’s GreenWorks! program has provided thousands of dollars in grants for gardening projects over the years. Tied to a range of PLT activities, gardens provide hands-on opportunities to learn science, math, and other subjects, while also strengthening collaboration, leadership, and responsibility. Check out what these four schools discovered in creating their GreenWorks!-supported gardens during the 2017-2018 grant year.




Giving Garden at Golden Bridges School

Several “generations” of second-graders at Golden Bridges School in San Francisco took on transforming a piece of overgrown, compacted land on the school grounds into a productive vegetable garden. They designed, prepared, planted, and tended what they called a Giving Garden, with fresh greens, herbs, and root vegetables that they then donated to the Excelsior Community Food Pantry. “One of the most successful aspects of our project was collaboration,” said teacher Jenna Frank.

The second-grade students not only organized themselves, but they also took the lead in involving first and third graders, parents, and even local high school students in helping to weed and mulch.

“This service-learning project enhanced student learning by fusing language arts, math, and science content into a real-world and practical context,” Frank said. They read about other famous people who helped humanity, studied life cycles and adaptations, and calculated how to fit the plants in the space available.

Frank used PLT activities Have Seeds, Will Travel (43), Tale of the Sun (16), and Soil Stories (70). “Soil Stories was a favorite activity, as students were able to engage all of their senses during the soil investigation,” Frank recounted. “Their curiosity was piqued by smelling, feeling, and looking at different soil from around the garden.”


Frank made these suggestions for other teachers:

    • Have support from your school’s administration and class teachers.
    • Partner with a local food pantry that is flexible with the food they accept so the produce will be used. Ideally, the pantry would welcome volunteers of any age.
    • Develop a timeline with wiggle room for weather and other variables. Produce that allows for continual harvesting, such as greens and herbs, can help with flexibility.
    • Invite students from other grades or schools to provide more opportunities for collaboration and sharing.
    • Have a maintenance plan that includes weekends and school vacations.


Gone Green at Joan MacQueen Middle School

Students in two MakerSpace gardening classes at Joan MacQueen Middle School in Alpine, California, conducted PLT GreenSchools investigations. They then applied for a GreenWorks! grant to take action based on their findings.

According to educator Jane Smith, the investigations led students to recognize the need for reducing campus waste and replanting the beds in front of the school with drought-tolerant native plants. Using these findings, they conducted a campus-wide educational campaign and constructed composting bins to reduce waste from lunches and snacks, which was then used to improve the soil and support a Native Plant and Pollinator’s Garden.

A student committee met with local ethnobotanists, as well as community and student tribal members, to learn about and select native plants. Sunflowers were grown and their seeds harvested to make snacks. After the garden was established, the students created walking tour signs and invited the community to a campus celebration for National Get Outdoors Day. 

“We also opened lines of communication with our district’s maintenance team about the needs of native plants,” said Smith. “Our advice is to truly plan for sustainability by having multiple layers of involvement by staff, students, parents, and community members. With changes in staffing, it’s key to have as much school-wide involvement as possible.”


One Wednesday at a Time

Fourty-five students joined the Eco Club at Emily G. Johns Intermediate School.

The Eco Club at Emily G. Johns Intermediate School in Plano, Illinois, has a saying that guides their extracurricular efforts: “Saving the World—One Wednesday at a Time!”

Their after-school gardening project had two parts: planting native trees to create a windbreak and an organic raised-bed garden. Students and staff adopted the 28 trees in honor or memory of loved ones, which defrayed the costs and built more involvement in the project. Club members had to plant and tend the trees, which were challenging to establish.

The Eco Club is at capacity with 45 members. Teachers Shannon Stang and Sarah Diamond Haynes welcomed the interest but admitted, “the most challenging aspect of the project was having such a large group. So many helping hands can be an advantage, but it is a real feat to get them all to work together and be productive.”

The students had to take responsibility for the trees. They came up with a creative solution. Each of them brought in an empty gallon milk jug, which they kept in their locker. Every day at recess, they would fill their jugs in the bathroom and water their trees. Trees that needed more water had several students assigned to them. “We didn’t lose one tree!” Stang said. “These are expensive native trees and they are thriving.” Once daily watering was no longer necessary, students used their jugs to make bird houses.

Stang and fellow Eco Club advisor Sarah Diamond Haynes drew from the PLT activity Trees as Habitats (22) to give students a better understanding of how trees provide habitats for animals and insects. “Our suggestion would be to start small and add each year,” Haynes said. “Find something you need but don’t have the budget for. Then reach out to community businesses, who are often willing to discount or help you for free.”



Sweet Sensations: Sensory Garden

Bishop Dunn students move lumber for their raised garden beds.

Bishop Dunn Memorial School, on the campus of Mount Saint Mary College (MSMC) in Newburgh, New York, takes advantage of college faculty and teacher candidates, or preservice teachers, to enrich student experiences. A garden project that began with fourth-graders and the Sigma Tau chapter of Kappa Delta Pi, the international honor society, eventually involved many more students, both pre-K and college.

The fourth-grade students researched and planted a sensory garden and built bird houses that demonstrated relationships using all five senses. They also researched issues related to climate and the impact of climate change on the local environment. “What started as a small project soon became a schoolwide initiative that enabled every student, pre-K to grade 8, to participate,” said MSMC faculty member Ludmila Smirnova. “As the project grew, so did the involvement of faculty from other divisions of the college, such as math and science, and members of the surrounding community.

Teacher candidates wrote blogs on designing and teaching sensory garden lessons and illustrated their professional growth through implementation of the project. Parents and community members have also supported the project. “What began as a Sensory Garden has grown to include an enclosed outdoor classroom, a meditation sitting area, a themed rock garden, a bird haven, and a math trail,” Smirnova said.

MSMC teacher candidates developed their skills as science teachers as they worked during the day with fourth-grade students and in after-school programs with children of all ages. Two college students received funding from the college’s Student Undergraduate Research Experience program to create a math trail in the garden. The honor society members made a presentation at a national Kappa Delta Pi convocation in Indianapolis, to create similar projects in other places.

Bishop Dunn has the advantage of its location on a college campus, Smirnova pointed out. But other schools can explore connections with local colleges or universities, especially schools with which they have a relationship through student-teaching, alumni connections, or other endeavors.

MSMC students participated in PLT professional development and used these PLT activities with students:

      • Nature’s Recyclers (24)
      • Air Plants (28)
      • Pollution Search (36)
      • Reduce, Reuse, Recycle (37)
      • How Plants Grow (41)
      • Have Seeds, Will Travel (43)
      • Water Wonders (44)
      • Invasive Species (12)


Learn more about PLT’s GreenSchools program and discover how PLT’s GreenSchools Investigations connect with ED-GRS’s three Pillars that the U.S. Department of Education uses to define a green school.

Birds, Bees, Butterflies, and Bats

A great way to engage students in the environment is to bring in the critters! Whether fuzzy or scaly, big or small, common or endangered, the wildlife in your area, whether there for all or part of the year, provide plenty of learning opportunities. Photos and other images are great, but a hands-on (or at least eyes-on) experience can leave a lasting impression.

Here’s how four educators used GreenWorks! grants and an array of PLT activities to connect their students to the natural world around them by creating habitat for all sorts of pollinators: birds, bees, butterflies and bats.

Creating Habitat in Minnesota

Students at Princeton Intermediate School in Minnesota learned the relationships between flora and fauna through the Migrating Bird, Pollinator, & Butterfly Ecosystem Project. They created a 4,000-square-foot garden of native plants. A few months later, they could video butterflies visiting their garden.


“Students planned and implemented the project from start to finish,” said teacher Becky Pollard. “They were in charge of researching which native plants would thrive. They also had to plan out planting details such as spacing, depth, and color coordination of plants. The work involved math, online research, team building, and planting and caring for the garden.”

two-girls-gather-soil-for-plantingA community volunteer used his construction equipment to create the space. Members from the Sherburne Soil & Water Conservation Department and the Friends of Sherburne National Wildlife Refuge, along with teachers and parents, showed students how to plant and maintain the garden. Through the GreenWorks! grant and other donations, the garden also has bird houses and feeders, as well as picnic tables and benches.

Drawing from the PLT PreK-8 Guide, Pollard and other teachers used Improve Your Place (Activity 96) and modified Adopt a Tree (21) to “adopt a plant.”

The project’s success had a lot to do with project management. Pollard stressed the importance of locating knowledgeable community members and coordinating the effort with school staff and fellow teachers. As one example: “The plants can’t sit around for days,” she said. “They need to get into the ground, so all other details need to be done by the time they arrive.”

She also stressed the need to plan for weeding, watering, and other ongoing maintenance. Drawing from Adopt a Tree, students “adopt” a plant—which also means dealing with the weeds that surround it.

A time-lapse video humorously shows the project in progress.


CREECS Saves the Bees in South Carolina

Cape Romain Environmental Education Charter School (CREECS) in McClellanville, South Carolina, has the advantage of doing many environmental activities every day. Fourth-grade students already had an observation hive in their classroom as part of Bee Cause, a national nonprofit honeybee project. “The students loved it, but the bees kept swarming and would not stay in the hive,” said teacher Allie Kreutzer. “They came up with the solution to build a hive closer to a real garden.”

The project involved building boxes and a frame for the bees, as well as enhancing an existing vegetable and pollinator garden, Kreutzer explained. The GreenWorks! grant also paid for protective equipment that she as a trained adult dons to maintain the apiary.

She emphasized the need to work with a partner, in their case Blue Pearl Farms, a local farm that maintains bees to enhance blueberry production. Students also went to the farm to better understand the ecosystem and the role of pollinators within it.

When asked about how to manage student contact with bees, she said, “We are fortunate we have no severe bee allergies. We talked a lot about staying calm around the hive, and how bees don’t want to sting you.” Talking to students beforehand, especially those who have preconceptions about bees and other pollinators, is critical.

To understand the importance of bees to pollination and to crops, Kreutzer drew from PLT activities How Plants Grow (41), Germinating Giants (66), Soil Stories (70), Have Seeds Will Travel (43), and Bursting Buds (65). “These lessons helped students understand the importance of bees to pollination and our crops.”

“The hardest part is maintaining the beehive once it’s full,” said Kreutzer. “It is important to have a local beekeeper willing to offer support and guidance along the way.”



Butterflies and Bees in Maine

PLT GreenWorks! grants are available in nonformal education settings, as shown through Homes for Our Endangered Pollinators, a project conducted by the First Church in Belfast, UCC.


Coordinator Elizabeth Haynes explained that students divided into two teams to research pollinators and the plants they need for food and habitat. A local forester and master gardener provided practical information, then the teams prepared pollinator gardens based on their research.

Because the project was not a classroom activity, it had a few unique characteristics, according to Haynes. “The more challenging part was always finding activities that all students felt capable of completing since we had students who ranged from age 2 to age 15,” she said. One solution: “Anything that was hands-on proved to be very engaging with the children.”

Extending from the original GreenWorks! project, they are also using a greenhouse at Troy Howard Middle School in Belfast to grow milkwood seedlings.

PLT activities used included Peppermint Beetle (3), Invasive Species (12), Dynamic Duos (26), Are Vacant Lots Vacant? (47), Planting the Ideal Community (55), Tree Factory (63), and Soil Stories (70).

Haynes noted the importance of a flexible timeline, especially when dealing with fickle weather. “Be ready to adapt the outdoor activities to do them inside if the conditions are too harsh to be outside,” she suggested.

In addition, especially in this nonformal setting, she said, “Be willing to conduct your activity with whoever shows up. We had sessions with three or four students, but other times with 14 or more. We made sure to include all ages even if we had readers and nonreaders.”

Haynes observed something that extends across settings. “All children can learn and are eager when we are learning together about nature since they are curious about their environment.” She also recommended sending an email or otherwise communicating with parents so they could understand the project.


Going Batty in Wisconsin

From birds to bees to—okay, why not bats? Students at Shullsburg High School learned about bat habitat and then constructed 32 bat houses. As a follow-on, students are seeking to place the houses on the property of members of the community.


“The project was an incredible way to enhance student learning,” said teacher Jennifer Russell. “Bats are a topic that makes most people squeamish, but they are a critical part of the ecosystem. The building of the bat houses helped students to understand the habitat needs of the bats.”

Beyond the habitat aspects, “Students demonstrated leadership in the project by becoming team leaders,” she added. “There were lots of aspects of quality control in the project. Students took responsibility for making sure that the houses were painted and stained properly and constructed squarely. Students also worked to help each other out as the projects were built.

“As the project goes into the next phase, I am looking forward to student leadership in asking questions about bat health and monitoring,” she said.

The project connected with the Focus on Forests module for secondary students. “Understanding forests allows students to better understand the wildlife around us. The tie to forests also helps us understand why creating habitat for bats is important,” she said.

Russell’s main advice is to talk to as many community members as possible to find locations for the houses ahead of time. The construction took longer than expected, she said so students had less time before the semester ended to place the houses. Subsequent classes are building the houses as well as reaching out to the community to explain the importance of bat habitat.

See You on the Trail that Students Built!

This year, National Trails Day is June 6. Amid social distancing and self-quarantines to slow the spread of the Coronavirus COVID-19, the American Hiking Society’s annual event is a timely reminder (and depending on where you live) might be a perfect day to reconnect with nature. There are many kinds of trails and some may have limited access to the public at this time; we encourage you to be mindful of staying six feet apart from any fellow hikers and to visit your state’s Parks and Recreation websites to research the available options near you.

But not all trails are found exclusively on public lands; thanks to grants from PLT’s GreenWorks! service learning program, three schools went a step further—pardon the pun—by involving students not only in walking on trails, but also in designing and building them on school grounds. 

High school students in Alabama designed a nature trail with informational signage and seating; middle school students in Indiana removed invasive species and installed part of a hiking trail; and industrial arts students in Michigan built an outdoor classroom alongside a trail in their 110-acre school forest. Two of the schools, Holtville High in Alabama and Vanderbilt Area School in Michigan, have land near their school where trails were built. Fremont Middle School in Indiana worked on a trail at a community nature preserve.

Below, read about these projects and tips from the educators to make them successful.

Building from the Ground Up


At Holtville High School in Deatsville, AL, science teacher Liz Johnson coordinated a project that fulfilled a long-held dream by teachers and students: a nature trail with informational signage and seating. “Students in science and agriculture classes designed it, learning planning and problem-solving while also learning about forest succession and other environmental topics.

The school district owned the land but had leased it for grazing. Allowing the farmer the required time to move his cattle, coupled with syncing schedules with community partners, caused the project to start a semester later than expected—the first lesson the students got in flexibility.

“Our students stepped up and took full control,” Johnson said. “The trail project allowed students real-time, hands-on experiences with working with tools, managing a budget, conversing with successful community businessmen, and building relationships between students and adults within and outside our school.”

In connecting her curriculum with the trail project, Johnson used two PLT activities from the Biodiversity supplement: Global Invaders and Protected Areas. Johnson found an adaptation of the PreK-8 activity Nothing Succeeds Like Succession to work well.

Johnson’s Tips for the Trail

  • Touch base with community partners frequently and share how much you appreciate them and their services.
  • Let students take leadership roles. Working with teenagers has its challenges, and it may take students a while to realize too many leaders can be detrimental to a project, but if students step up and take the lead, try new things, and get out of their comfort zones, there can be no such thing as failure, only learning opportunities. There were many times my students wanted to do things differently than I wanted to, but I let them lead this project and do things their way (within reason).
  • Try to stay in line with your timeline. While the unexpected is expected, planning is key for a project of this magnitude. Holding to your timeline will eliminate unnecessary stress.
  • Consult with a local nature center in planning the materials to use. We did not consider options for the substrate for the trail (mulch, sand/clay mix, etc.) until after our proposal was accepted. At that time, it was too late to edit the budget. In the future, we would like to mulch our trail and “dress it up” a little bit.


Partnering for a Trail


The Clear Lake Nature Preserve and Brennan Woods, operated by the Clear Lake Township Land Conservancy, Inc., in Fremont, IN, encompasses 45 acres to connect with nature and learn about threatened ecosystems. The Conservancy decided to involve students to strengthen the connection. Eighth graders at Fremont Middle School identified and removed invasive species and installed part of a hiking trail.

“The outcome was the trails they built and the ownership they can now take in the land that makes up their community,” said Bridget Harrison, a conservancy staff member. In fact, they accomplished so much that the supplies of wood chips and wheelbarrows were exhausted.

Even the less fun parts of the project—removing bags full of litter—had a teachable moment. “We know how frustrating it was for them to remove garbage bags full of litter,” Harrison conceded. “We think that effort will play a lasting role the next time they are tempted to toss their garbage onto the ground.” After the clean-up and at the students’ suggestion, “No Dumping” signs were installed at key spots along the trail.

Harrison used the PLT PreK-8 activities Invasive Species and I’d Like to Visit a Place Where…. during two classroom visits before the students came to the Conservancy. The first activity “helped students learn what invasive species are; we took that knowledge and applied it right in the field,” Harrison said. The latter activity about favorite recreational spaces engaged the students’ creativity.

Harrison’s Tips for the Trail

  • If you’re working with a large group, split them into smaller teams with group leaders.
  • Prepare for bad weather. The outdoor project began with a downpour. Decks of cards and games, not to mention a back-up place out of the elements, kept order.
  • Build on lessons learned. As noted above, the students were so enthusiastic that they could have used more wheelbarrows and ran out of wood chips. “Good lessons for us to consider for future trail-building workdays,” Harrison said.


Adding on to a Trail


The Vanderbilt Area School in Gaylord, MI, had installed a trail in 2017 in its 110-acre school forest. With a 2018 GreenWorks! grant, industrial arts students took the lead in planning and building an outdoor classroom alongside the trail. Emily Vogelgesang, the environmental education coordinator at the nonprofit Huron Pines, worked with the school to provide support through natural resource and educational connection guidance.

“The most successful element of the project has been the student leadership,” said Vogelgesang. “Students took on a role in their school they normally wouldn’t have and were proud of that.” A highlight was when they brought a group of about 20 community leaders and natural resource partners out on the trail to explain their plans.

A late spring snow storm and a rainy autumn caused a delay, with some of the students involved in the planning not able to see it through to completion. Despite this setback, they recognized their role in creating a usable space for the entire student body.

The school has both elementary and secondary levels, and PLT is used in many grades. The 1st grade/2nd grade teacher used Adopt a Tree to help monitor forest health on a select group of trees. High school students worked through a modified version of I’d Like to Visit a Place Where as part of the planning for the outdoor classroom. “The activity was particularly helpful for them to make connections to the larger why of the project and understand that their work is part of something bigger,” Vogelgesang said. All students participated in elements of Reduce, Reuse, Recycle activity through the Earth Day Bag Project.

Vogelgesang’s Tips for the Trail

  • Help students understand the needs of the people who will use the space. Students’ initial thoughts and designs were great but once they went through the interview process with teachers, they realized the first drafts were not going to be what teachers would utilize consistently. Being able to have input from several points of view is very important for this type of space to be successful.
  • Ensure school or community support for the necessary tools and resources. Without a community member who helped teach the students how to use the tools, the outdoor classroom elements would not have come together.
  • Enlist adult volunteers when necessary. There was a large amount the students handled fine with just teacher guidance but having extra hands at certain points made the project easier.
  • Have a flexible timeline. Weather conditions and school schedules may mean the project takes longer to complete. However, the longer timeline can increase student ownership and pride.

School Gardens Come to Life with PLT’s GreenWorks! Grants

Every year Project Learning Tree® (PLT) awards GreenWorks! grants to schools and organizations for environmental service-learning projects. The annual deadline to apply for a grant is September 30, and students have the following year to complete their project. In 2016, PLT awarded 20 grants, up to $1000 each, to help preschool through high school students design and implement a variety of projects in communities across the country. Students in 16 states took their lessons from the classroom into the great outdoors to apply what they learned and better the natural world around them.

Read about some of the outstanding school garden projects completed last year:

Pollination in Progress – 3rd and 4th Graders Green their Campus by Creating Pollinator Gardens

Asheville, North Carolina
Asheville GreenWorks! and Glen Arden Elementary School

In Asheville, North Carolina, grade 3 and 4 students in the “Eco Readers” club at Glen Arden Elementary School teamed up with Asheville GreenWorks, a local nonprofit environmental organization, to green their school campus and build a pollinator garden. Students organized, designed, and planted the garden while learning about the importance of native plants and pollinators. What was once a grassy, monoculture space, is now a thriving pollinator habitat being used as a learning space by the entire school.

To complement the project, Asheville GreenWorks developed a pollinator education kit to support outdoor learning projects that is now being shared widely with other schools in the area.

The project also helped to support the Bee City Asheville program, an affiliate of Bee City USA.


Dent Middle School students use their skills to solve flood water issues

Columbia, South Carolina
Dent Middle School

7th grade students at Dent Middle School in Columbia, South Carolina took on a noble cause – building rain gardens to mitigate the effects of water pouring through 75 storm drains on campus and then into a neighboring lake. In 2015, a severe flood ravaged the area around the school. A dam located nearby failed and flood waters destroyed homes and businesses throughout the watershed.

Two rain gardens, totaling 500 square feet were completed. Students were required to study geography, soil types, and native plant species, to ensure that their garden would be effective. The students were not afraid to get their hands dirty! Based on their research of what soil types would be best, students had to dig and haul bags of soil additives to the area.

 “Thank you for organizing this event. It is great that you are helping the lakes with rain gardens.” – Peter Chesney – Homeowner/Carys Lake


K-8 students take their learning outdoors by building outdoor classroom

Los Olivos, California
Los Olivos Elementary School

In Los Olivos, California, where the sun is often shining, students built an outdoor classroom to make the most of the weather and get into the great outdoors. Two picnic tables with benches and umbrellas were constructed to give students a space to work on projects outdoors.

In addition to the outdoor learning space, a 3-chamber compost system was also built to teach students about decomposition and the disposal of waste. The addition of the compost bin inspired some 1st and 5th grade classes to work collaboratively to create posters to teach other students about zero-waste lunches. And some students have now become lunch-time compost monitors, encouraging other children to identify what parts of their lunch can be composted!



“In a Garden of Friends…Learning Grows” – Preschool to Grade 6 students build a greenhouse and garden beds for their school and community

Ammon, Idaho
Snake River Montessori School

Preschool to grade 6 students at Snake River Montessori School in Ammon, Idaho, came together to expand their outdoor learning environment and build a greenhouse and raised garden beds. The Upper Elementary students (grades 4-6) proposed the additions to help make learning about botany a more hands-on and fun experience for younger students. Students at the school will now be able to experience planting and the growth cycle from a first-hand perspective, and learn the responsibility it takes to ensure plants are kept healthy.

The school partnered with the local Boy Scouts troop who worked with the students to plan and build the greenhouse and garden beds.The students plan to donate some of the fresh fruit and vegetables that will be grown to local shelters to help others in need.

“We have wanted a greenhouse for a long time to really experience a full growth cycle, no matter what the weather, with the students, and now with this grant, WE CAN!” – Barbara Turner, Primary Teacher

Tree Planting and Gardening Nurture Learning

Elementary-students-measure-divide-school-garden-bedAs a kindergarten teacher and chair of the Garden Committee at Coles Elementary School in Manassas, Virginia, I wanted to design a service-learning project that would ignite students’ learning in science, math, and English, while at the same time teaching valuable life lessons.

The environmental goal of our school is to explore real-world problems and become a community of environmentally-minded thinkers. When students noticed soil erosion from trees that had been removed for new construction on the school grounds, we brainstormed ways to solve this problem. With the help of a Project Learning Tree GreenWorks! grant, I devised and implemented a school-wide plan of action.

For more than 25 years, Project Learning Tree has been awarding GreenWorks! grants to schools and organizations for projects that support children’s learning, ideas, actions, and voices about the environment. The grant given last year to Coles Elementary School sparked science learning across all grade levels as students investigated the value of trees and took action to stop soil erosion on their school grounds.

Plan of Action

Students discovered what plants need to grow as they nurtured their seedlings

The plan involved 480 students across all grade levels with a multidisciplinary approach to learning. Following are a few highlights:

  • Preschool, kindergarten, and first grade students learned what plants need to grow and the life cycle of plants by growing seedlings and planting them in our school gardens. Throughout the year, they observed patterns in plants and seasonal changes in the garden. They also observed trees and wildlife on the school grounds.

PLT activities in the PreK-8 Environmental Education Activity Guide were a huge hit and enhanced student learning. For example, in Activity #1 The Shape of Things, they experienced the many shapes, sizes, textures, and colors found among plants, and in Activity #16 Pass the Plants they gained new knowledge about the parts of plants we eat through a fun snack activity.

  • Second grade students planted hazelnut and chestnut trees. They observed them throughout the seasons and discovered how trees can slow rainwater runoff and reduce soil erosion. They also observed how trees provide food for wildlife. They became good environmental stewards – when a tree was knocked over by wind, they noticed right away and staked it.

We used PLT Activity #31 Plant a Tree, to instruct students on how to properly plant a tree. To help students determine where to plant the trees, we used the simulation in Activity #27 Every Tree for Itself. Activity #21 Adopt a Tree, helped students make observations about their trees and document their findings throughout the seasons.

  • Tthird-grade-students-plant-treeshird, fourth, and fifth grade students took part in all aspects of the service-learning project. They assisted with the planting of 100 native trees on Arbor Day. This was a collaborative effort among students, parents, and the broader community.

To keep the project momentum going in the winter, students researched designs for bird nesting boxes and bat houses. They had a creative voice in deciding which designs to build. Through this project, students discovered why birds and bats are important pollinators in Virginia and why shelter is necessary for their survival.

Classroom-board-display-grant-projectTo teach students how to get the word out about their projects, we completed the PLT Activity #60 Publicize It! They learned leadership skills and how to present information to the community in a way that would grab attention.

To help students learn important concepts about ecosystems, we used Activity #22 Trees as Habitats, Activity #30 Three Cheers for Trees, and Activity #46 School Yard Safari. These activities reinforced the value of trees in reducing soil erosion and providing habitat for wildlife.

Advice to Others

Establish a garden committee made up of staff members, students, parent volunteers, and local experts. A garden committee is important to help divide the work and involve the community.

Leverage the PLT GreenWorks! grant money through community partnerships. We involved our PTA, Arbor Day Foundation, Master Gardeners from Cooperative Extension, 4-H, and other local community groups who provided labor and expert advice. The Arbor Day Foundation donated 50 trees for planting and we obtained reduced prices for materials from local stores.

Benefits of the Project

Students worked cooperatively in the garden as they planted seeds

We taught life skills through tree planting and gardening. Students learned responsibility by caring for the plants, learned how to communicate and compromise with each other, gained leadership skills, and developed self confidence. They also developed skills of observation as they watched interactions among plants, animals, soil, and weather.

We improved student health by spending time outdoors and providing fresh vegetables for them to eat from the garden. Almost 40 percent of our school population is economically disadvantaged and many of our families contend with food scarcity. Learning to garden at school and extending that to their home through the container gardens allowed many students to eat fresh vegetables that they planted for the first time.

Celebrating our Success

Students proudly display their container gardens

Reflecting on our project, we saw that it helped students:

  • Develop critical-thinking skills
  • Learn how to apply science concepts
  • Develop leadership and communication skills
  • Connect with nature
  • Discover how they can improve their environment

To celebrate our success, we provided tours of our gardens and showed off our various projects on the school grounds. At our spring carnival, participants could select their favorite vegetable seedlings to plant in a container garden to take home. What started out as an effort to stop soil erosion blossomed into a school-wide initiative across all grades and the community!