NEW YORK — When seventh-grader David Steinberger saw bluebirds nesting in a garden outside his classroom window, he was hooked.
"Unless you've seen a bluebird, the pictures don't seem that exciting," he says. "Seeing them is pretty spectacular."
Five years later, David is an avid birdwatcher and has even participated in national competitions.
He says his interest was sparked by his science teacher, Deborah Smith, who coordinated the creation of a garden in the courtyard of his school, and then incorporated the garden and its features into her lessons.
All over the nation, schools are cultivating their gardens to help kids learn. Growing interest in this teaching technique prompted the National Wildlife Federation (NWF) in Reston, Va., to create "Schoolyard Habitats," a program thatgives classroom-weary kids the chance to learn in a hands-on environment.
"We've been hearing really positive responses," says Stephanie Stowell, education programs manager at NWF. When the program began in 1996, 350 schools signed up. Today, 2,000 schools in 49 states have certified habitats.
Stowell attributes this growth, in part, to the program's flexibility.
"Anybody can do it," she says. Large patches of open green space are not necessarily required.
"There was one school in Detroit that had no green space whatsoever," she recalls. "They built a raised bed between the building and the sidewalk.... They've attracted butterflies and birds, and it's been a real success."
Another space-challenged school in New York City planted garden beds on the roof of the school and other urban facilities have put plant containers in parking lots and other public spaces.
Though the greenery adds beauty to the school environment, Stowell is careful to point out that these areas are not for aesthetic value. They are meant to provide a habitat for birds and butterflies and, ultimately, to serve as a learning tool.
The NWF provides region-specific suggestions for planting and advises teachers on how to incorporate the habitats into their curricula.
But each teacher's approach is unique.
In the case of Ms. Smith's class at Gowana Park Middle School in Clifton Park, N.Y., grant money and a hefty donation from a local nursery allowed Smith and her students to dig plant beds and put in bushes and flowers that would attract birds and butterflies to the area.
It is a tool that makes abstract concepts real, says Smith. Last year, Smith's students tapped the courtyard's maple trees and made tea and syrup.
"We drank the sap right out of the tree," recalls Smith. "For the first time, I saw a group of kids really understand that there are tissues in trees, and really understand photosynthesis, and it's because they tasted sap."
Stowell says that she has heard similar testimonials from teachers all over the country.
"A lot of kids who have a difficult time learning in a traditional setting find that the lessons really come alive," she says. "It's a great outlet for these kids and they prefer it to being in a classroom."
Inspired by the response of David's class to the project, Smith has helped subsequent classes plant dozens of flower, shrub, and tree species. To complete the natural habitat, a pond and waterfall have since been added.
Working in the garden, Smith and her students have seen and identified more than 30 species of birds. They have also netted and tagged monarch butterflies that were migrating through the area.
"Kids don't want to hear stories, they want to hold it and see it," says Smith. "The response has just been amazing."
The habitat has been particularly important since Sept. 11, Smith adds. Security concerns put an end to many of the outdoor field trips her students used to enjoy, such as excursions to the Bronx Zoo in New York and whale-watching cruises in Boston.
"This is another way to make it real for the kids," she says. "And it's right outside the door."
But her science students are not the only ones who benefit from the school garden, says Smith.
A weather station in the courtyard is used by students to collect and graph data; English teachers bring classes out to write; art students use the area for drawing; and the school's Latin teacher developed a lesson on the scientific names of plants.
The garden has also proven to be an asset in dealing with troubled students. Their participation in plantings and maintenance provides a tangible accomplishment and a sense of pride.
"One boy became really upset one evening when we had a reception in the garden," says Smith.
"He came up to me and said, 'They're trampling the daffodils.' This is a kid who had trashed the bathrooms, but the garden gave him a real sense of ownership."
Though it is too early for hard data, Stowell and Smith agree that these learning techniques are boosting some student test scores in addition to giving them a lifelong love for science.
And the students aren't the only ones inspired by the habitat. Smith says that the lessons have become more enjoyable for her, as well.
"I could never just teach from a textbook again," says Smith. "This has been great for the kids and I'm always learning new things about birds and butterflies. It's been interesting for me, too."