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Schoolyard Soil Dwellers:
What's Living
In Your Schoolyard?

As a part of an online project called Schoolyard Soil Dwellers, students are digging up their playgrounds to uncover critters that make the land their home. Participants -- students and teachers -- in this creative online project are discovering the rewards of getting their hands dirty and comparing data across the miles! Included: Teachers and students share their experiences with the project!

"When you expose students to the natural world, they become excited about learning, and they begin to have a better understanding about the need to save and preserve the environment."

Mike Schneider, director of technology for Cahokia School District #187 in Jerome Lane, Illinois, told Education World. "They also begin to overcome pre-established fears that the creatures living in and above the soil are nasty and dangerous. In the end, I hope that the experience makes them become more informed and concerned citizens who are in touch with their natural roots."

Schneider is responsible for Schoolyard Soil Dwellers, an investigation of dirt in the playgrounds of participating schools that has a unique cooperative component that involves the Internet. He became involved with the project when he was working for the St. Clair County Regional Office of Education. Today, the activity is part of a county science literacy grant project that he administers. He is still getting his hands dirty!


"The project was an offshoot of a larger program to develop action plans for turning schoolyards into outdoor learning centers and schoolyard habitats," explained Schneider. "The Schoolyard Soil Dwellers project is one of seven schoolyard activities that I now have in place. It came about as the follow-up to an activity I developed for a unit on sustainable land use."

The goals of the project include exposing students to the natural world and technology, encouraging the development of the schoolyard as an outdoor learning center, and challenging students to conduct inquiry science investigations that are problem-based.

An additional objective is to develop the same curiosity, understanding, and enjoyment of the natural world in students that exists in many of their grandparents. The project has included classrooms from across the United States, and Schneider hopes that it will gain more interest with this spring's edition.

"The students performed the activity, collected their data, submitted it online, and then analyzed all of the online data and came up with their conclusions and made inferences," Schneider stated.

In the classroom, Schneider has enjoyed putting students to work on hands-on scientific explorations of gardening topics. His students have compared the effects of using natural and artificial fertilizers, using natural and artificial ground covers, weeding and not weeding, and planting early or late in the spring on vegetable growth and production. He also has had students test different varieties of certain vegetables to see which ones have the best production in the garden.

Many of Schneider's favorite activities are presented on the Online Schoolyard Experiments & Activities page.


Carol Mahan of the Freeburg (Illinois) Community Consolidated School District has adopted Schneider's Schoolyard Soil Dwellers activity. As a former wildlife biologist for the state of Illinois, she recognized that the project offered an excellent opportunity for students to experiment nearby with natural material.

"I firmly believe that children need positive outdoor learning experiences at an early age, and that these experiences will stay with these children into adulthood," explained Mahan. "The students loved the project. They enjoyed being outside, using shovels, using their own ideas, and learning new things."

Mahan's students loved digging up critters in their lawn! "My students followed my directions to take part in the Soil Dwellers Experiment," she recalled.

"The purpose of the experiment was to compare the number and kinds of insects in an old field/lawn area of our outdoor classroom to a newly restored prairie area. We found one ant, three grubs, one beetle, and three earthworms in the lawn area. In the prairie area, we found one true bug, seven ants, two sow bugs, one grub, one beetle, and two spiders. The total number of insects was low because of a dry fall, but that did not discourage the students. They loved the activity. After we tallied our results, we posted them on the Internet so we could compare our results to those of other schools participating in the project." The project continued.

"The students then designed their own modified version of the experiment," Mahan said. "I used the process to teach students about scientific methods and controlling experiments. Students worked in groups to carry out the projects and learned about getting along with others, allowing everyone a chance to be heard, and sharing the workload. The best feature of the project was the students' enthusiasm for the task. They had fun, and probably learned more about scientific method than I could have taught in several lectures."

Mahan's students echo their teacher's praise for the project. "I dug up a hole and then put [the soil] through a sifter and saw how many bugs I could find," said student Brian H. "The neatest thing was finding the bugs and looking at them through a magnifying glass. I liked seeing the details of the bugs."

Stephanie Z. also enjoyed examining the bugs. "I would recommend the project because you got to see new kinds of bugs you never knew existed, and you learned how to do an experiment."

"I dug up soil in the old field part of our outdoor lab," recounted Adam D. "We measured a 15 by 15 by 15 cm hole. We put the dirt in a bucket, and sifted the dirt, and tried to find as many bugs as we could. After that, we put them in a bag. Then we brought them to the classroom and looked at them. I liked the project because we got to dig with shovels and look at bugs. It was fun."


For teacher Kathy Costello, the reward of participating in the Schoolyard Soil Dwellers project involved more than finding neat bugs -- it was opening students' minds. "The best part was empowering children to make a change in their world," said this Millstadt (Illinois) Consolidated School District teacher.

"We learned about the project because we were part of the original SPLASHD project, run through our Regional Office of Education," recalled Costello. "SPLASHD stands for Students in a Problem-based Learning Approach to Schoolyard Habitat Development. Teams of teachers from schools in the St. Clair County area learned about problem-based learning and applied it to their classrooms by designing schoolyard habitats."

Because she was familiar with problem-based learning and was already planning a habitat, Costello was eager to participate in the project. "The entire seventh grade class -- there were about 95 students -- participated," she explained. "First, they divided into groups based on their interests in the various tasks that the project entailed. Some of the group tasks were public relations, budget, fund-raising, grant writing, prairie species research, supplies and equipment research, and landscape design."

Costello went on: "Next, the groups researched and designed possible habitats. They had some awesome and intricate ideas at first. Then we got it down to what was practical, necessary, and affordable. They presented their ideas to a board of teachers, and the best idea, a prairie design, was chosen."

The students prepared reports, generated data, and made presentations to the PTA and the school board. They exercised all kinds of skills along the way, from making phone calls and writing bid requests to designing PowerPoint presentations and writing grants to the National Science Foundation.

"The outcome was that we now have a small fledgling prairie where the kids can conduct real scientific research," said Costello. "It was well worth the effort."


If Costello's students are indicative of the experience of others, students excel in this online project. "They were eager to participate and a little awed at first with the responsibility of running a project," she observed. "It was great to see them rise to the occasion and treat the project seriously. They donned dresses and suits for the board presentation, carried on adult conversations with the professionals who offered their expertise, and came to be known as the 'experts' among the various groups that were our partners in the project."

Schneider believes that gardening activities, and specifically projects such as this, have much to offer people of all backgrounds, making them a necessary component of science education.

"For the business person, gardening is also agriculture, and the U.S. economy depends on our ability to grow quality vegetables and crops in quantity," he said. "For my mother and grandmother, gardening is a source of enjoyment, pride, and a connection to the natural world that should not be lost. For the scientist, gardening provides many opportunities for students to conduct experiments while reaping the benefits of their labor. For the environmentalist, gardening can provide an understanding of how we can live more sustainably."


The Adventures of Herman the Worm
Learn about worm composting and the value worms have in our environment. A fun site for children with games, reading activities, and a step-by-step guide to making a worm bin.

Ask The Answer Worm!
S.K. worm answers all your questions about soil and stuff.

Schoolyard Habitat Links
Learn more about developing and maintaining schoolyard and backyard habitats!

Find additional activity and lesson ideas in our Spring Lesson Archive.

Article by Cara Bafile
Education World®
Copyright © 2009 Education World

Originally published 03/27/2000
Links last updated 02/23/2009