By Joseph Robertia
For some students, particularly those living in metropolitan or urban areas, learning about wildlife and wilderness habitats is an abstract concept learned from books or seen only by taking field trips. Not so for Alaska kids. They need only look out the window to see the woods and quite possibly a moose or some other wild animal.
Wanting to capitalize on the unique opportunities afforded students in this area, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service developed the Schoolyard Habitat program, which aims to make school grounds more hospitable to wildlife, while simultaneously providing a place for children to learn about and connect with nature.
Now in its second full year, the program has expanded to three peninsula schools — Kaleidoscope School of Art and Sciences in Kenai, Sterling Elementary and Tustumena Elementary in Kasiof, which took on an ambitious end-of-the-year project.
“It doesn’t look like much now, but come back in five years,” said Dan Funk, district Schoolyard Habitat coordinator, about the fenced-in, 60-by-40-foot area adjacent to Tustumena Elementary. Fifth- and sixth-grade students spread topsoil, dug holes and planted 200 willow saplings, as well as some garden foods, last week.
The bulk of the funding for the project came from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, augmented by in-kind contributions of materials and labor from the community, and a grant from the Scott Paper Company via the Department of Natural Resources.
“We ordered felt-leaf willow, which is a hearty variety and one often used for stream bank restoration projects,” Funk said, adding that currently, the demand for these willows exceeds the supply.
“The intent is, in a few years, these willows could be cut to be sold for those purposes, and in the meantime, the schools can pack in as much education around them as possible,” he said.
Marina Bosick, a teacher at Tustumena and one of the people who championed getting the program at the school, said the willow planting and eventual harvest would be in line with several objectives already taught.
“It’s our hope to be able to use cuttings from our willows to help with projects on Crooked Creek, where the sixth grade is already a part of the Adopt-A-Stream Program. There may also be other projects on the Kasilof we could help with in the future, as well. Hopefully, these activities will translate into good environmental stewardship,” she said.
The willow is only one part of the project. Some of the designated area will be used for a small garden.
“We didn’t want to do just willow. We wanted to do something annually, and a little more exciting for kids,” said instructor Shonia Werner, another key person in bringing the program to Tustumena.
“We also had the kids plant potatoes. They researched the different varieties and each grade picked their own,” she said.
Since the gardening season coincides with the summer time off for kids, Werner said potatoes were the perfect crop because they can be planted in the spring before students go on break, require minimal care and can be harvested in the fall when students return.
“We’re hoping to build a whole spud festival around the harvest,” she said.
The potato garden will afford cross-curricular teaching opportunities, Bosick said.
“Such as in math, we can weigh them, graph yields of the different varieties, and so on. For language arts, we are hoping to have them write a school potato recipe cookbook. It’s a launch pad for many learning opportunities,” she said.
Bosick added that the hands-on learning will teach kids where their food comes from — a foreign concept to many children who only know the grocery store as the source of their eats.
“Many children in this area have families that grow gardens, but many do not. Actually being able to plant something, see it grow and harvest it will be a new experience for many. Then, when we do our plant units in our classrooms, they will have a schema to hang new concepts on,” she said.
The students who took part in the planting of the willow and potatoes said they enjoyed the experience.
“It was more fun than work, and nice to get outside and away from school,” said 12-year old Zachary Renner, who enjoyed the project so much he also brought in rhubarb from home to plant.
Nyia Peters, also 12, said she also enjoyed planting the willow and potatoes.
“I help my mom plant a lot of tomatoes and flowers, so I liked learning how to plant other stuff,” she said.
Hearing the students say this, Bosick said she was thankful to teach in a place where the goals of the Schoolyard Habitat could be so readily achieved.
“We’re lucky to live and go to school in a place where learning about nature, firsthand, is right outside our door,” she said.