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Restoring our Relationship with the Land - Linking Children to Nature

Contributed by Molly Fifield Murray, University of Wisconsin Arboretum, Madison, Wisconsin, USA.


Sixth grade students at Oregon Middle School in Oregon, Wisconsin, are excited about school. They are involved in a highly successful educational reform project at their school and what grabs them is what they are doing. They are planting, tending, sharing and learning from the restored prairie in the school’s front yard. They investigate plant adaptations on the prairie, describe prairie insects musically, and explore the history of their school and pioneers by studying their prairie’s land history. They collect prairie seed for schools throughout the area - local third, fourth and fifth graders have visited this naturalized outdoor classroom. They have mathematics, science, language arts, social studies, music and art classes in their prairie.

The staff of the Arboretum's Earth Partnership Program who have trained and worked with this school, are repeating this scenario around the State with thousands of children. The idea is catching like wildfire. We see, and teachers agree with us, that this is a highly successful way to inspire students, invigorate schools and strengthen education.

The Earth Partnership Program, sponsored by the University of Wisconsin-Madison forges links between students, their schools, their communities and their environment, through the restoration of native plant and animal habitats on once barren grounds. The University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum has been a leader in the restoration of native ecological communities for more than 60 years. In recognition of the powerful potential for using the restoration process in school classrooms and with children, the Arboretum initiated the Earth Partnership Program in 1991. Since that time, over 300 teachers in 89 schools have been trained and they in turn have reached thousands of students.

Why the Earth Partnership Program?

If children are to learn how to solve problems, learn to love learning, and learn to work cooperatively amongst themselves and with adults, then they must be given opportunities to ask questions and be part of the search for solutions. If children are to learn about the environment that sustains the human race, to develop a sense of wonder and place, then they need to be offered places to stimulate their natural curiosity and compassion. For children to realize that an individual can make a difference and have hope, then they have to be given opportunities to actively engage in something positive. They need to be offered problems to solve in school that are real, where they can see the fruits of their decision-making. The Earth Partnership Program shows teachers how they can work with students, parents and community members to create profound opportunities as they create a beautiful school yard of restored native habitat.

Arboretum staff have found that as the students learn about and relate to the natural environment through the arts, science, social studies, math and language arts, so they begin to develop a sense of place in the world, to act as stewards to the native communities and begin to develop the attitudes, knowledge and skills necessary to become active citizens. This does not occur at the cost of the standard curriculum; rather this Program provides a meaningful context for much of the material that teachers already cover. In addition, school restoration of a prairie site opens the doors for many new experiential, hands-on techniques for teaching science and other subjects.

Operational Procedures

The two Program components that have been the keys to its success are the in-depth teacher-training workshops and the ongoing school and community support. The two-week workshops offer training in activities to engage children in the process of habitat restoration and historical exploration of their community. Activities include mapping, site analysis, ecological research, exploration of music, art and other avenues through which people relate to the environment. Staff seek out a pair of teachers from a committed school or school district to act as school and community leaders to begin the effort of bringing together the coalition of school, citizen and community interests for their project. They receive an initial two weeks of training and return the following year with a team of four more teachers for another two weeks of training.

In addition to the workshops, the Program offers comprehensive ongoing support for the schools. This includes; community activities for students and their families, student research guided by ecologists, field trips for students, continuing education for teachers and community members, curriculum development support, networking with other communities, and in-service staff development.

Why Restore Habitats in School Yards?

For thousands of years, human beings have learned about the environment because they had to know where to find firewood or where to find medicinal plants or food. Since the 1950s the places where children in our country grow up have changed remarkably, so that for many people the only living things nearby that are not human are under direct human control; pets, lawns, and a few trees or flowers that an energetic gardener has planted. The ability of children, or adults for that matter, to interact easily and daily with a natural community has been extinguished. Wild places still exist, but they are often far away. Children do not often get the opportunity to interact in an intimate way with wild objects, losing a sensory and emotional engagement with the environment. This often affects their behavior. Studies have shown that children at schools with asphalt playgrounds are more apt to engage in aggressive domineering behavior. When playgrounds are naturalized, children have a wider range of choices as to the type of play. Students who want to avoid competitive games or bullying behavior can go for a quiet walk among the plants. This is why restoring habitat to school yards is so important. (Titman 1994; Nabhan and Trimble 1994).

Many schools in the United States today have very little nature around them. Playgrounds are often paved with asphalt. Biology is taught inside classrooms from books instead of by observing plants, animals, weather and other natural processes outside. Only 9% of children in 5th and 6th grade listed experience with nature as the way they learned about the environment. Over 54% learned what they know about the environment from television. And yet the years from age 7 to 14 are the most important years for learning, it is when childrens’ brains learn in a uniquely receptive and playful way. It is the best time for societies to pass on culture and traditions and it is also the best time to allow children to interact with animals and plants. Through this they can develop a sense of place and a sense of how the natural world works (Trimble and Nabhan, 1994).

School curricula are more apt to have children studying the rainforests of South America than the watershed and ecological systems of their home. Even though the two are linked naturally, studying only the distant ecosystems prevents children from understanding what has happened to their local environment.

There is an effort by educational reformers to change the way subjects are taught in the United States so that students have a better understanding of how to apply knowledge, solve problems, and maintain an engaged interest in learning throughout their school careers. The University of Wisconsin’s Earth Partnership Program is one initiative that addresses both the need to reform how children are taught and also to change the physical nature of the school and neighborhood landscape.

In our Earth Partnership Program we teach teachers and children about the environment that gives us food, air, and supports the plants and animals with which we share the earth by involving them in planting a small model of a natural community on their school yard. Children become not only active gardeners by planting seeds and plants in a prairie garden, they become active hands-on learners.

But why the restoration of a natural habitat instead of a vegetable garden? The Earth Partnership Program promotes the restoration of natural habitat in school yards for three purposes. Firstly, to increase local biodiversity, secondly to provide rich curricular activities that improve teaching, and thirdly to give students broad new experiences with the natural world.

Firstly, local biodiversity needs to be improved because most of the natural ecosystems that once existed in our area have been reduced until they are confined to parks or preserves. The prairie in Wisconsin is reduced to less than one-tenth of one percent of its original area. Very few people have a chance to see the hundreds of flowers and thousands of insects, birds and mammals that live on the prairie, reducing opportunities to experience a beautiful and complex piece of nature.

Secondly, the process of analyzing a site, planning to restore a model of an ecosystem, planting it and then studying it, is rich with teachable concepts and opportunities. Instead of sitting in a classroom learning biology, math, history or language arts from a book, children can go outside and see real, living insects, butterflies or bees pollinating flowers in the complex relationships of an ecosystem. They can collect the seed from those pollinated flowers and learn how to grow more. They can see what a square metre or one hundred square metres looks like.

Thirdly, our experience shows that children can be much more interested in learning when they deal with real things, in a rich context. History comes alive when children track down whoever owned the site, and how often it was sold to someone else. The selling of land could often be tied to an historical event, such as the agricultural depression of the 1930s. Children are more interested in this history because it is tied to the people who owned the land that the children are planting. They can look at records about these land owners and learn something about their lives. For instance I learned through census records from 1880 that my great-great grandfather and great-great grandmother could not read. They had immigrated to Wisconsin from England. All of their eight children could read because of the emphasis in frontier America on providing schools. These real connections help children learn and want to learn.

As students investigate their school yard restoration, they can share the excitement of exploring real scientific questions for which the answers are currently unknown and share their findings with adult scientists. In the context of the restoration, the experiment becomes more than an outdoor exercise for learning the scientific method – it becomes a search for an answer needed to understand the workings of their prairie and all prairies. Students involved in building and studying nearly-extinct native ecosystems begin to understand the passions that motivate the work of scientists. For some students this can become the experience that propels them into a scientific career.

School site restoration provides a much-needed unifying framework for inquiry-based learning across grade levels and disciplines. Rather than teachers using scattered activities in different disciplines, each of which demands different equipment and background knowledge, restoration provides a broad context in which to conduct many different experiments at different levels. Each inquiry contributes to a growing base of knowledge about the school’s new ecosystem, and more importantly, generates even more questions for further student investigation.

School site restoration creates an inexpensive outdoor learning laboratory. Creating a school yard restoration does not require a large portion of land or substantial money. It requires students, teachers and a community who are willing to enter jointly into an educational experiment. At the Arboretum staff are still learning and refining prairie restoration based on the models begun 60 years ago. The Arboretum prairies are still not entirely like the prairies that once existed in Wisconsin, but they are helping us to better understand the prairie ecosystem in the process. For the Earth Partnership Program for schools we have chosen to teach first about prairies because of our long experience with them. These schools are actually joining our long term experiment with restoration.

At the same time staff wanted to find a way to teach about the environment in all subject areas. They wanted this teaching to be as fully integrated among subjects as possible and to have a contextual, problem-solving framework that related the lessons to real problems. Of course, they wanted to draw upon the strengths of the University of Wisconsin-Madison Arboretum, ecological restoration and offering people a way to live Aldo Leopold's land ethic – being ethical citizens of the land community.

The Prairie

In Wisconsin, indeed in most of the prairie region, people of other cultures had lived with the prairie ecosystem for thousands of years, not just the last 200. The last glacial period ended in Wisconsin about 10,000 years ago. As the climate warmed, the ice retreated and grassland species populated the State from the southwest. The vegetation most common in southern Wisconsin was a grassland with widely spaced trees, known as savanna, covering some 7.7 million acres. There were 2.2 million acres of open grassland without trees, called the tallgrass prairie. What is called the ‘prairie biome’ covered one-third of the United States (Curtis, 1954).

Even before glaciers retreated from Wisconsin, there is evidence that Paleolithic people were utilizing the land resources by hunting the great species such as the woolly mammoth. As the grasslands moved into the State under warmer climatic conditions, these ancient peoples adapted or learned from others how to live with this ecosystem.

The grassland ecosystem of the mid-continent contained 150 species of grasses; over 600 hundred flower species, so the prairie can have 20 to 40 different species of flowers coming into bloom each week. The prairie teemed with numerous herds of large herbivores, carnivores, hundreds of species of grassland birds and flocks of thousands of migrating birds that used the prairie as a stop-over between summer nesting grounds and winter homes. There were also thousands and thousands of insect and invertebrate species. No one knows how many insect species belong to the prairie but there are at least 18,000 insect species in one state alone. Europeans, seeing this vast grassland for the first time as they came out of the forests of the eastern United States, had difficulty describing it to people in the old countries. They described it as a ‘sea of grass’, with waves like the ocean as the wind blew across it. In fact, they even had to navigate by the stars as if they were on the ocean, because there were vast areas with no landmarks as far as the eye could see.

The primary processes in maintaining the great tallgrass prairies and open savanna of the eastern part of the prairie province were grazing by herbivores and fire. Early explorers told of bison, at one time numbering as many as 50 million. They also wrote of single herds of 20,000 elk, an animal that both eats grass and browses by eating woody twigs. The bison and the elk in Wisconsin, in particular, were important in maintaining the openness of the prairie by the browsing and trampling of trees.

Lightning started many grassland fires, but the American Indians also used fire as a tool for hunting, warfare and to improve the grassland near their hunting grounds so as to attract the bison. There is evidence that on average, a given piece of land would experience a fire once every six years. Fires were important in inhibiting the invasion of trees and shrubs into the prairie (Curtis, 1954; Madson, 1994).

The grassland ecosystem of the mid-continent evolved and adapted to the climate, geology and natural processes, as mentioned earlier. These adaptations include very deep and extensive root systems that were an adaptation to drought, harsh winters, grazing and fire. While many European grasses that are now used for American lawns have root systems 6 to 12 inches deep, are not tolerant of the climate in the prairie region, and require a lot of watering and fertilizer. The prairie species had root systems that reached 6, 12 even 20 feet deep, with millions of rootlets that filled the soil. These root systems constantly renewed themselves by sloughing off and regenerating as much as 30 per cent of their biomass each year. This would put organic material deep into the soil. The roots were able to hold water and draw up nutrients.

The extent of underground animal life in the soil, such as worms, nematodes, ants, and small mammals, was as great by weight as the weight of the massive herds of bison above ground! All of this underground life led to the prairie ecosystem creating the wonderfully productive soils, called prairyerths, that have enabled North American farmers to be so productive. The soils of America’s ‘breadbasket’ are a product of the prairie.

When settlers arrived to establish farms and towns, they not only plowed up the prairies and savannas, but they also stopped the fires, and replaced the native herbivores with cows and pigs. One of the first things a settler would do was plow a fire break around the homestead, as Laura Ingalls Wilder (1935) depicted in Little House on the Prairie. By stopping the fires, these settlers discouraged the prairie plants, which were adapted to fires, and allowed woody plants to grow into dense woodlands instead of open savannas. The native savanna and prairie were settled by farmers and covered by towns so that only isolated remnants remained.

Why Should this Matter to Us?

It has to matter because people in the United States, indeed, much of the world, are dependent upon the food grown on prairie soils. Unfortunately, farmers in the United States have essentially been destroying the soil since the prairie was plowed, either through soil erosion or more recently through nutrient loss. Their fields have required increasing inputs of chemical fertilizers. The soil that remains in the vast corn and wheat fields no longer resembles the prairie soil because the vast intertwining root systems are gone and the rich underground life-forms with them. In addition, the loss of the prairie ecosystem greatly changed the ability of the soil to hold water or remain in place, so that the rivers and streams now carry a much greater load of water and sediments. This eroded soil is eventually carried by smaller rivers and streams into the Mississippi River and down to its mouth, where a vast delta of soil from the prairie has been built up below New Orleans.

This change has occurred very rapidly; in less than 150 years. So rapidly, that only a few voices were raised in concern over this change from a highly complex ecosystem, that had evolved over thousands of years and supported many cultures of people, to a simple input-intensive system of monoculture that supports modern society. This massive destruction has come to the point that there is concern about the extinction of individual species as well as the loss of the group of species which functioned together to form the grassland communities. Many look for reasons to explain why individual species should be saved. ‘The butterfly weed is beautiful, let’s save it’. ‘Purple coneflower has powerful medicinal properties for humans, let’s save it’. But the concern over the loss of individual species is really misplaced, for most of the species thrive better within the community of plants and animals in which they evolved. So for the most part, it is difficult to save any significant number of species without saving the community. It would be like saying in human society that we wanted to save the most glamorous movie star or doctors that can heal us. But movie stars and doctors cannot survive if the rest of a city or society is destroyed. And so small groups of people throughout the country are now trying to do what the Arboretum started over 60 years ago; to restore areas of functioning natural communities of plants and animals that evolved together over time and together make up a healthy ecosystem.

Of course, as Aldo Leopold (1949) said, 'the first rule of intelligent tinkering is to save all the parts.' So the first rule for restoration, is the PRESERVATION of the few remaining remnants of the natural ecosystems. This is done through preservation of natural areas by organizations such as The Nature Conservancy and Audubon Society which buy remnant natural areas to preserve them.

As people work to ensure the preservation of the remnants of these ecosystems, others are using restoration to study the ecosystems. Restorations increase the genetic pool of the species and spread the communities or act as buffers around natural areas to help avoid loss to natural catastrophes. In addition these ecosystems are important in a global, not just local, sense. Many of the birds and some insects that live in Wisconsin in the summer, migrate south in the winter, some as far as the tip of South America. School children in Wisconsin study the monarch butterfly. It eats only milkweed when it is a caterpillar. These butterflies migrate from Wisconsin and other states to Mexico for the winter. When children in Wisconsin plant milkweed in their school prairie they are helping a species that crosses national boundaries.

Staff at the Arboretum have learnt that the attempt to recreate an ecosystem is a very humbling experience and are still learning how to do it. We have learned that the process of restoration in many ways also restores the humans who are engaged in the process. In urbanized and industrialized society, restoration is a kind of gardening that gives people a chance to be in touch with nature again, to pay attention to the seasons, to learn the rhythms of nature, and to understand that human beings are a part of nature, not apart from it.

The Earth Partnership for Schools Program was started because it was not possible to show all Wisconsin school children the Arboretum grounds in order to give them experiences with nature. To really make a difference in their lives, we needed to find a way to put natural areas where children spend a lot of time, and where they could both study and enjoy a restoration.

Workshops were established for training teachers in the restoration process. During these workshops, the teachers would also experience many activities, new ways of teaching and curriculum integration ideas. Through the prototypes staff learned that one-shot workshops do not necessarily result in effective sustained programs. That is why ‘lead’ teachers are created, a full team at each school, to get involved in the curriculum at all levels, and to offer workshops and follow-up visits to achieve assimilation into the school environment. Lead teachers receive 160 hours of instruction throughout the workshops as well as consulting time with staff. Associate teachers receive 80 hours of instruction and consulting time. They receive Prairie Restoration for Wisconsin Schools, a binder which includes a how-to and why guide to restoration, species lists and bibliographies, and at least 100 activities and a K-12 scope and sequence.

During the workshops the teachers’ growing enthusiasm was witnessed and their discussions of how they can use hands-on methods in their classrooms. Their enthusiasm flows directly to the students. For example, one teacher said, ‘I have taught science in fifth grade for years; it was boring to me and therefore boring to the students. Now with these new ideas, methods, and a fascinating living prairie to study, I find I am curious and interested right along will my students.’

Teachers have noted that they have been more motivated to take students outside when they have a restored prairie, where ‘…the experiences bring the lessons to life’. A fourth grade teacher at Kennedy School in Madison said that her students are now writing letters of much higher quality because they are motivated to write to officials about environmental concerns such as stopping the mowing of roadside vegetation that supports the monarch butterflies. Teachers find students are more creative writing about nature when they are sitting surrounded by flowers than when they are surrounded by walls.

Teachers learn a variety of activities that address different learning styles. For instance, an activity called ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ was used to introduce students to the study of insects and the skills of critical observation. Students sit outside observing an insect for 15 minutes. Then they describe the insect through music rather than through the characteristics of insect orders. They then listen to the ‘Flight of the Bumblebee’ by Rimsky-Korsikoff as it has been played by many people, from flautist James Galway, to string quartets, to cellist Yo Yo Ma and Bobby McFerrin. Students try to decide which best depicts the insect. This stimulates their observational skills much more than studying a collection of dead specimens, because they see the insects in the context of their environment but are forced to describe them in an unusual way.

The use of restoration at schools can be done in any situation, anywhere in the world. Firstly, students and teachers study what types of plants or plant community might have been on the site. Or they determine what ecosystem could currently exist on the site under the existing conditions such as soil type, shade, hydrology, slope, direction of the slope toward the sun and other environmental factors that determine what plants will live there. Secondly, the students and teachers determine what to plant, by studying a model of that ecosystem, if one exists. In Wisconsin there are no good models for savannas because they have all been farmed, leaving only the large trees without the grassland groundlayer. Students have to piece together the types of plants that comprise their best guess of what was once there, plant them and see if they thrive. This is done by carefully observing plants in groups that might have once been savanna, pick out those that would work best in savanna conditions and experimenting with what will thrive. Sometimes they are lucky and find an old study, usually by a doctor looking for medicinal herbs, who wrote down what he found growing together.

Thirdly, teachers develop an action plan to cover all aspects of the project. They plan how to involve other teachers, and what curricula to change. Teachers then work with their classes to decide where the prairie will go, how to prepare the ground for planting, how to get rid of existing vegetation that is not appropriate to the prairie, when to plant, and how to manage the area over many years’ time. Students are involved in every stage, so they can see the results of their work as the prairie grows.

Arboretum staff have found that it is very important to involve the community of parents and other interested adults with the restoration project. This is particularly important at first, because most adults have never seen a prairie and need to know what is going on. It is helpful to have families involved who can help to take care of the planting during the first few years – watering or weeding – until the prairie is established and does not need much maintenance. The plan for students is to involve them in some aspect of environmental study on their restoration site each year with age-appropriate activities. First graders can study simple shapes, learn colors and letters while they are outside observing nature. Older students will do scientific experiments, write music, create stories and use the natural habitat in many different ways.

Students discover that human beings can improve an environment through their actions. They can get beyond the helplessness and despair they might feel if they only study the destruction of the rainforests or the plight of whales. By learning that their actions can make a difference, they become better citizens of a democracy, willing to take action either in the way they live, by the letters they will write, or in the way they will vote for responsible care of the environment.

Thomas Berry, a Roman Catholic monk and philosopher wrote,

If we have powers of imagination, these are activated by the magic display of color and sound, of form and movement such as we observe in the clouds of the sky, the trees and bushes and flowers, the waters and the wind, the singing birds. If we have words with which to speak and think and commune, words for the inner experience of the divine, words for the intimacies of life, if we have words for telling stories to our children, words with which we can sing, it is again because of the impressions we have received from the variety of beings around us. If we lived on the moon, our mind and emotions, our speech, our imagination, our sense of the divine would all reflect the desolation of the lunar landscape.’
(Berry, 1988)

Our relationship with the earth involves something more than pragmatic use, academic understanding or aesthetic appreciation. The plants and animals that make up the ecosystems of the earth have a right to exist beyond their usefulness to humans. We cannot be so arrogant as to assume that we know how important an ecosystem is to the health of the planet, for we have seen when we have tried to restore ecosystems that we have a lot to learn, even after 60 years. Our children should be properly introduced to the world in which they live, to the trees and grasses and flowers, to the birds and the insects and the various animals that roam over the land – to the entire range of natural phenomena.

Aldo Leopold (1949) said in A Sand County Almanac,

When we see land as a community to which we belong, we may begin to use it with love and respect. A land ethic enlarges the boundaries of the human community and human ethics to include soils, waters, plants and animals, or collectively the land. It changes the role of Homo Sapiens from conqueror of the land community to plain member and citizen of it.’

As children sow the seeds of the prairie, they sow the seeds of hope that ecological restoration gives us. People, wherever they are, can learn to live with the land and heal the wounds caused by past mis-guided actions. Environmental education does not always have to be negative and fill people, especially children, with despair. Restoring the land demonstrates the love and respect that enriches it and ourselves, through the development of a healing relationship with the diversity and beauty of the natural landscape.


Berry, Thomas (1988) The Dream of the Earth. Sierra Club Books, San Francisco

Curtis, John (1954) The Vegetation of Wisconsin. University of Wisconsin Press, Madison

Leopold, Aldo (1949) A Sand County Almanac. Oxford University Press, New York

Madson, John (1993) Tallgrass Prairie. Falcon Press

Murray, Molly Fifield (1993) Prairie Restoration for Wisconsin Schools Earth Partnership Program. University of Wisconsin, Madison
Nabhan, Gary Paul, and Trimble, Stephen (1994) The Geography of Childhood. Beacon Press, Boston

Titman, Wendy, (1994) Special places, special people: the hidden curriculum of school grounds. Learning through Landscapes, World Wildlife Fund. U.K.

Wilder, Laura Ingalls (1935) Little House on the Prairie. Harper Collins, New York


The Earth Partnership Program is supported in part by the National Science Foundation

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