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Commonly Asked Questions

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What is Biodiversity?

Often referred to as "biodiversity", biological diversity means the diversity of all life on Earth including genetic diversity, species, ecosystems and the natural systems and processes that are essential to life on Earth such as oxygen and soil production and water purification.

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Why change school grounds?

The first step towards understanding why school grounds need to be transformed is to acknowledge that school grounds have not been designed with children's physical and emotional health in mind. Instead, the flat, bare rectangles of grass and asphalt that we have grown to accept have largely been designed for active sports and games, ease of maintenance and the surveillance of children by adults.

In recent years, different groups around the world have studied the impacts on young people who are required to spend a lot of time herded together in outdoor spaces that are largely devoid of interest. Studies show that the typical schoolyard design creates discipline problems and promotes aggressive behaviour. It is clear that transforming school grounds into green habitat for hands-on learning, playing and socializing outdoors transforms students' behaviour and attitude to learning. The results of the State Environmental Education Round Table study in the United States (1999), showed that using the natural environment as a context for learning improved both academic achievement and information retention levels.

The state of the natural world is of major concern for children and youth. Supportive adults working with young people to transform their school grounds into ecologically-sound spaces, demonstrate to children that adults care about their concerns, and their future.

Some of the most commonly-cited reasons for improving the environmental, educational and social quality of school grounds are:

  • to increase opportunities for social, creative/cognitive, and quiet or solitary play

  • to create shelter from adverse weather conditions

  • to provide shade to help protect children from harmful UV radiation

  • to plant buffer zones of trees and other vegetation to help filter out vehicle exhaust and dust from passing traffic

  • to create a high-quality, hands-on cross-curricular resource

  • to make learning fun

  • to develop a new environmental ethic

  • to reduce anti-social behaviours and attitudes and `knock and bump' accidents

  • to restore a sense of community by encouraging the active participation

  • of the wider community

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What is school grounds transformation?

Transforming school grounds means changing barren rectangles of asphalt and grass into stimulating, biologically-diverse outdoor classrooms and healthy, enjoyable play and social spaces.

CBI uses transformation and greening because these terms imply a more holistic approach that integrates active and passive play, social and natural spaces, and hands-on outdoor classrooms.

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What is school grounds naturalization?

Naturalization is commonly used in Canada to describe school grounds greening. It is often mistakenly assumed to mean the restoration of original wildlife habitat. Naturalization usually involves using native plants in ways that imitate nature; however, it can also incorporate exotic plants and traditional design principles. It is this distinction that separates naturalization from restoration.

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What is school grounds restoration?

Good question!  Restoration, in CBI's opinion, should not be used at all to describe school grounds transformation because it has a very specific meaning in ecological terms. Habitat restoration specifically refers to the process of re-establishing to the fullest extent possible the structure, function and integrity of indigenous ecosystems and the sustaining habitats they provide.

In most urban environments and schoolyards, the conditions required for supporting the original indigenous ecosystems have been so dramatically altered that they will no longer sustain the natural areas that once existed.

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What is beautification?

Beautification simply means making something look more beautiful. Planting trees, shrubs and flowers will make the grounds aesthetically more pleasing, but it will not necessarily enhance the ecological, educational, social, play and health-related aspects of children's outdoor school environments.

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What is the "hidden curriculum"?

In the context of the school grounds, the hidden curriculum refers to what children learn through their senses from the environments in which they spend a lot of their school lives. The formal curriculum is deliberately taught to students. The informal curriculum is learned through participating in organized games and sports, and playing and socializing in specially-created spaces. The hidden curriculum is what is passively learned through messages received by the senses directly from the environment and the living and non-living things within it. The

hidden curriculum is very important because it has a powerful effect on children's behaviour and attitude. It affects their sense of safety, well-being, of being cared for, respected and valued as well as their comfort, self esteem and interest in learning.

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What are outdoor classrooms?

Most schools strive to make their indoor teaching and non-teaching areas stimulating and inspiring places. Outside the school building the situation is often quite different. The typical schoolyard is bleak and exposed. Students frequently describe their school grounds as ugly, boring and prison-like. Apart from extensive use of sports fields and hard surfaces for physical education, the grounds are largely under-utilized as an educational resource.

Outdoor classrooms on school grounds are existing spaces that are used, or places that have been specially created for the purpose of taking a hands-on approach to learning. Some outdoor classrooms such as gazebos and sun shelters with seating also form part of areas created for quiet play and social interaction. Others such as wetlands, edible gardens and wildlife habitats are used only for class activities.

Outdoor classrooms can include virtually anything: rooftop gardens; habitat restoration, naturalization and natural succession projects; wildflower or butterfly meadows; ponds and other wetlands; insect gardens; windbreaks and hedges of shrubs that provide food and shelter for small mammals and birds; mazes constructed of raised beds and straw bales; artistic creations such as sculpture gardens, giant chess boards, wall murals, and pavement paintings; vegetable, perennial, herb and rock gardens; roosting boxes for bats; nesting boxes, feeders and baths for birds; composters; and nurseries of native species.  Many European schools keep animals such as pigs, sheep, goats, chickens, ducks and rabbits and some schools in Britain even have bee-keeping clubs.

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Can grounds development be connected to the curriculum?

Just about every area of both the formal, the informal and the "hidden" curriculum can be taught year-round through grounds transformation activities. With the focus on curriculum integration, the grounds can become the "green glue" that helps teachers cross traditional subject boundaries and infuse environmental education across the curriculum.

When students are active participants in planning for greening their grounds, they are observing, recording, reporting findings, researching, handling data, manipulating material, investigating, predicting changes, and communicating through writing, reading, calculating, counting, making choices, judgements and decisions, developing creative thinking skills, and learning to work both independently and cooperatively.

Students can research the historical use of the grounds and learn about what used to exist on the site prior to development. They can learn about how human settlements have evolved over time and what impacts they have had on the natural world.

In addition to providing a meaningful way of learning reading, writing and math skills, the practical hands-on work lends itself well to teaching subjects such as design and technology, art and crafts, outdoor education, physical education, social studies, native studies, geography, history, business studies, economics, and nutrition and health.  Grounds development assists in making innumerable linkages to vital aspects of our daily lives such as the supply of food and water, shelter and clothing.  It is also a useful tool for learning about how we use natural resources and how utilities and services are delivered.

Interacting with the projects as they mature will help students understand that plant communities and the animals that depend on them for survival are constantly changing and evolving. They can learn about how human activities have affected the natural world and what they can do in their personal lives to help reduce our impacts and restore ecological and human health.

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How do we get started?

It is very important to take your time to plan well. Go to the Starting and Surveys webpages.

Go slow!

Do it once, do it right!  The planning process should take from one to two years. While planning, you can help stimulate student interest and gain community support by organizing a few short-term gardening activities. Since the gardens may be only temporary, choose plants that can be easily moved later on if necessary. Shade trees can also be planted in locations where it is certain they will be needed; for instance, for shading play structures.

Be inclusive!

Include everyone in the school right from the initial thinking and grounds evaluation stages to start building a sense of community ownership in the project.


Note all concerns and be receptive to all ideas throughout the consultation process. Listening, addressing concerns, and embracing new ideas makes people feel part of the process.

Be flexible!

Recognize that greening projects will grow and change and perhaps evolve into something else over time. Flexibility should be built into the process to accommodate the changing needs and uses of the grounds over time.


Remember that you will one day pass on the torch to other teachers, students and parents. Keeping people up-to-date throughout the consensus-building and community participation processes helps to ensure that there will be others to continue the work after you leave. Generating long-term commitment should be an integral part of laying the foundation for your project.


Make sure that all areas that can be greened are designated in your final plan, even in spaces where work is not projected to start for five to fifteen years or more.  If approvals are given now for specific plantings several years ahead, people in the future will be excluded from the planning and development processes. Reserving space for future expansion gives others the opportunity to participate and take ownership as well.


Find out about how other schools, school boards and ministries of education in Canada and around the world are supporting school grounds transformation and how teachers, students, parents and communities are responding to the changes.

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How long does the planning process take?

The planning process should take from one to two years. This may seem like a long time, but proper long-term planning is an important part of the project. The year-round surveying and data-gathering exercises fully described on the Surveys webpage are essential to the successful implementation, maintenance, and educational and recreational use of your school grounds projects.

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What size should the project be?

This depends entirely on the size of the grounds and the amount of space you have available for greening. Whatever the dimensions of the area you wish to develop, the same planning process will apply. It is best to start with a long-term vision for the whole of the grounds to ensure that all aspects of their present and possible future use are considered in the plans for your first project.  If you plan to develop a large area over time, it is essential to estimate the realistic phasing of projects and draw up an implementation schedule.

As you do the site and site-use surveys you will eliminate spaces that cannot be greened such as areas used for sports, emergency access, snow storage and the routes that people use to traverse the grounds. You will also have to avoid land above services and utilities infrastructure. Through this process of elimination, you will be able to identify the spaces that can be transformed and this will help you to determine the size of your projects.

Some areas of your grounds that you do not intend to transform now may be identified for possible future development. It is important to designate these spaces in your new site plan for future but as yet undetermined projects. This gives people the chance to add their own ideas over the longer term and recognizes the need to build flexibility into the evolutionary process of school grounds transformation.

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How long will the project take to complete?

Many people ask this question. It might be better to ask whether the project should ever be implemented with a view to completion. There are many factors which could speed up, slow down, or influence the project in some way. This can be very frustrating if the goal is to complete the work in order to have a "finished product".

Every few years there is a complete turnover of students and parents.  The student population fluctuates.  Portable classrooms come and go, as do principals, teachers and care staff. Therefore, the potential for a change in plans resulting from unpredictable circumstances must be taken into your calculations. Any alterations in scheduling plans should always be turned into a learning opportunity.

It is important to consider the educational value of involving students in the consultation, planning and development process. It is through their direct involvement in long-term community-based planning and design activities that they can learn invaluable lessons about environmental and societal change and participative, consensus-building approaches. The learning which takes place during the planning, implementation, use and community-building processes, and afterwards as the various plantings go through their transitional phases, can be seen as a vitally important product in itself.

The development of your plan may take twenty or more years. This may seem a long time, but a lengthy implementation period will expose several generations of young people to the ongoing process of re-greening our schools and communities. Some projects can be designed to recycle themselves into others for the purpose of continuously involving young people in the unending Mobius loop of natural cycles and processes. Reaching the point of total site "completion" is not the objective. The real objective is to expose as many people as possible over an extended period of time to the effort required to restore ecological health and, therefore, human and societal health.

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How much will it cost?

This depends on the size and type of project and on the amount of school and broader community support you can muster.

School committees often spend a lot of time and energy fundraising for expensive play structures which can accommodate only a few children at a time. As parent councils realize the benefits of changing barren rectangles of asphalt and grass into a variety of stimulating, biologically-diverse outdoor classrooms and healthy, enjoyable play and social spaces, funds are often diverted to support greening initiatives.

Many of the skills and expertise needed to research, design and build outdoor spaces can be found among the parents and in the community. The projects can be built at very little cost by salvaging unwanted materials. Trees and other plants are often available at little or no cost from groups in the community. Your planning activities should include identifying the resources and possible sources of free materials, skills and expertise in your community. Go to the Surveys: Skills Identification and Resources webpages.

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What about weeds?

Not everyone will like the appearance of your schoolyard habitat. An area that is attractive to wildlife is not going to be highly manicured and orderly. It's a good idea to explain the reasons for creating the habitat to the neighbours ahead of time. The plants we call "weeds" are desirable in a natural habitat. Planning your habitat should include identifying wild plants that you want to remove such as thistles, plants with poisonous berries or seeds such as nightshade and jimsonweed, and those that cause hay fever such as ragweed. You will also need to identify wildlife-useful plants such as milkweed and nettles so that they are not weeded out of your habitat.

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What about allergies to stinging insects?

Naturally, your habitat will attract bees, but bees and wasps are everywhere. Children in the schoolyard are more likely to be stung by the "yellow jackets" that are attracted to sugary residues on discarded candy wrappers, juice boxes and pop cans. Bees are not in the habit of stinging for no reason, but they can sting when they are agitated by activities that interfere with their foraging. Creating a "quiet" zone around the habitat will help avoid annoying bees at work.

You can keep children with severe allergies away from the habitat while bees are active and also when they are becoming torpid as the cooler weather approaches.

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Who will care for the plants in the Summer?

This is where the importance of developing a sense of school and community ownership and creating low-maintenance gardens comes into play. The more people you involve in the initial planning stages, the greater the number of people who will be willing to help weed and water during the growing season.

When your school grounds plan is implemented in yearly phases, the maintenance tasks are more manageable and it gives people time to get into the habit of caring for the individual projects.

Trees and other plants need to be watered regularly for two to three years after planting until they become established. Many schools have organized student maintenance activities in the Spring and Fall. It is also a good idea to draw up a Summer weeding and watering roster where each of ten families commits to maintaining a particular project for one of the ten weeks of the Summer vacation.

You can also use low-maintenance planting techniques and plant species that tolerate dry conditions to help reduce maintenance requirements.

In Ontario, high school students are required to do ten hours of community service a year for four years. By contacting your local high school, you may be able to find students willing to devote their community service hours to helping your school.

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What about the Winter months?

Over half the school year is in Winter so school grounds projects should be designed for use year-round. Remember that no matter how long the Winter, children still have to be outside in the schoolyard. Go to Types of Projects: Winter Gardens webpage to learn about what you can do to make your grounds more interesting, attractive and comfortable for children during the Winter months. The webpage includes ideas for using Winter gardens for hands-on learning and lists the benefits of Winter gardens to wildlife.

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What are native species?

According to some groups, Canadian native plant species are those that are considered to have grown here before the Europeans arrived.

CBI recommends planting native species wherever site conditions permit, however, non-native, non-invasive species are very useful for planting in stressful urban conditions where native species are unlikely to survive. We believe that it is preferable to plant a hardy, non-invasive, non-native species than a native one that will not survive. Although the planting of local native species makes sense from an ecological perspective, the harsh conditions of most school grounds in no way resemble native plant species' natural habitat.

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How do you plan for tree survival?

Trees on school grounds have a low survival rate when they are planted at grade level in active spaces. CBI has developed a planting method to help schools ensure that their trees grow well.

Go to the Types of Projects: Planting trees, shrubs and vines webpage to learn about how to choose the right plant for the right site. Go to Site Design: Tree planting on school grounds to access CBI's illustrated tree planting guidelines.


How can grounds activities promote health and fitness?

Physical activity

School grounds transformation makes the school environment healthier and promotes physical activity outdoors when students engage in implementing, using and maintaining projects.

Young people are physically less active today than they were 30 years ago.  Over the past 15 years overweight problems have increased 50% among children aged 6-11, and 40% of children have at least one risk factor for heart disease. These health problems are often caused by the lack of physical activity which is frequently the result of the shortage of safe and interesting places to play outside.

Ultra-violet radiation

An important health consideration is the lack of shade on school grounds which exposes children's skins, eyes and immune systems to harmful ultra-violet radiation.  It is estimated that one in six Canadian children will get skin cancer in his or her lifetime.  Planting shade trees and building shade structures helps reduce the risk of sunburn.  Groves of trees are more effective sun screens than single trees.

Air pollution

Planting trees and other plants in schoolyards helps to filter out dust and the pollutants from vehicle exhaust which are known to contribute to increases in asthma and other respiratory illnesses in young people. Students can learn about how greening urban environments helps to reduce our contribution to climate change by shading paving and buildings in Summer and cutting the speed of the wind in Winter. 


Vegetation also serves as a buffer for noise.  Recent studies have shown that noise from traffic has an adverse effect on students' concentration and, therefore, their learning ability.

Planting trees and shrubs between the schoolyard and the road will not measurably reduce noise levels, but the psychological effect of the greenery is that there is less noise.

Healthy Communities

Greater public involvement in greening school grounds and other urban spaces fosters a sense of community ownership and helps to create an environment that is healthier and safer for everyone. Well designed school grounds bring positive benefits to the whole community. They provide both active and passive recreational areas and add value to a community by improving the quality of life.

Emotional health

The state of the environment is of major concern to young people. Giving students the opportunity to participate in redesigning their school grounds shows them that we can make a difference when we all work together to improve the health of the environment for people and for all living things.

Studies show that the more care taken over the school grounds, the greater the likelihood that children will mature into adults with an active concern for the environment, each other and their communities.


Growing edible gardens on school grounds is a meaningful way to learn about health and nutrition. It can help to improve students' eating habits as they become more involved in growing food and more knowledgeable about the negative environmental and human health impacts of agricultural pesticides and fertilizers, food preservatives, and the global food production and delivery systems.

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What about vandalism?

Schools are often concerned about vandalism, but there are ways to discourage it.

The following article is from Greening School Grounds: Creating Habitats for Learning,  Tim Grant and Gail Littlejohn (Eds.), New Society Publishers.  The Canadian Biodiversity Institute would like to thank New Society Publishers for permission to use this article on our website.

Discouraging Vandalism in Schoolyard Habitats

by Beth Stout

Vandalism and the fear of vandalism are major concerns to schools wanting to create or maintain schoolyard habitat sites. In North America, the willful destruction or defacement of property costs schools, homeowners, businesses and others billions of dollars each year. Most vandals are young and the places they vandalize, including schools, are often in the neighbourhoods where they live. Yet instances of vandalism to outdoor learning areas are few, and when the sites are designed properly, the threat can be kept to a minimum while students, teachers and community members enjoy hands-on, outdoor learning opportunities that cannot be duplicated in an indoor classroom setting.

While there is no sure-fire way to prevent vandalism, there are ways to discourage it at your site. The National Crime Prevention Council's "Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design" program focuses on four key strategies, all of which apply in discouraging vandalism at schoolyard habitat sites.


People protect territory they feel is their own and have a certain respect for the territory of others. Fences, pavement paintings, art, signs, and good maintenance and landscaping are some physical ways to express ownership. Identifying intruders is much easier in a well-defined space.


A schoolyard habitat sign should let everyone know that this place is special and why. Just by posting interpretive and other signs, and maintaining them (for example, cleaning off graffiti immediately), you are telling people that this place is used frequently and is monitored and cared for. Incorporate sign design and construction into your habitat project curriculum; it touches on subject areas such as mathematics, art, and language arts.


While schoolyard habitat sites do lessen the need for traditional maintenance, it is still important to keep your habitat area looking presentable to the public. Watering, weeding and general upkeep, especially over the Summer, give the impression that your habitat site is being used and enjoyed and that it is not an overgrown weed patch and not an easy target for vandals to attack because no one is watching. Maintaining the habitat site is the responsibility of students, teachers and volunteers. This is a good way to involve neighbours who can lend a hand and keep your Summer contact person informed about how the site looks and who is using it. To gain the support of people in the community, it is especially important that your site be attractive - not an attractive nuisance!

Location and design

Schoolyard habitat sites can be planned for interior courtyards, fenced-in areas of the schoolyard, or open areas easily accessible to everyone. Where you plan and plant your site depends on the space available and on the steps you can take to discourage vandalism. If your neighbourhood has an ongoing vandalism problem, consider an interior courtyard which will limit accessibility. If your school has the funds, fencing might be appropriate for a more open site.

Try developing your site slowly. First, plant a small area and over a period of time add plants and structures such as bird feeders or a water feature. Give everyone a chance to watch the habitat site grow. Work with your students to design your site to be "user friendly" so that there is something for everyone to do when they visit, whether it's a class studying insects, a group of visiting students and teachers who are looking for ideas for their own site, or neighborhood residents who want to sit on a bench and watch the birds. To give as many people as possible a feeling of ownership, hold an open house for the whole school and invite everyone to bring something for the habitat. Whether it's a plant for the butterfly garden, a stone for the path or pond, or a worm for the soil doesn't matter, as long as it connects everyone to the site.

Natural surveillance

Criminals don't want to be seen. Placing physical features, activities, and people in ways that maximize the ability to see what's going on discourages crime. Barriers such as bushes, sheds or shadows make it difficult to observe activity. Landscaping and lighting can be planned to promote natural surveillance both from inside a building and from the outside by neighbours or people passing by. Maximizing the natural surveillance capability of such "gatekeepers" is important.


Involving students in the design of habitat sites is one of the best ways to give them a feeling of ownership and to discourage vandalism. When you and your students are mapping and taking inventory of the site, include human uses of the area. For example, do students currently beat a path across the lawn or through the underbrush; is there graffiti on the walls; is the area well-lit at night; is it an area that will lend itself to use by the community at large; can neighbours see what's happening at the site? Take the answers to these questions into consideration as you proceed. If walls have a history of attracting graffiti artists, students can research appropriate vines or shrubs to plant in front of them; if the area is too dark at night, include funds for lighting in your budget; if students have already cut a path through the area, include that path in your site design; and if your site is not in full view of the neighbours, consider moving it so that it will be.


Most schools require that all visitors stop at the office before going further inside the school. In this sense, the office staff are gatekeepers who keep track of everyone who visits. School neighbours can also act as gatekeepers just by keeping an eye on the habitat site. When visitors are aware that they are being monitored - even informally - it helps to discourage inappropriate behavior. Other ways of "gatekeeping" include keeping a visitors' book at the site; encouraging active use of the site by as many community groups and classes as possible, including classes from other schools; and in the Summer encouraging volunteers to maintain a very visible presence by scheduling their activities on various days and at various times of the day, including early morning and evening which are the best times for watering anyway.

Activity Support

Encouraging legitimate activity in public spaces helps to discourage crime. Any activity that gets people out and working together at your habitat site increases community involvement with your project and could lead to unexpected support such as donations of materials or volunteer help. The greater the number of people who are involved with, and care about, your site, the more eyes and ears you will have in the community. Some ideas: hold a community open house; conduct a "bug" count and invite classes from neighboring schools; offer regularly scheduled habitat tours and advertise them in the local paper; hold celebrations in the habitat on special days such as Arbour Day, Earth Day, International Migratory Bird Day and birthdays; develop a mentoring program for your habitat project and reach out to younger students with special activities; hold regular clean-up days to keep up with maintenance and demonstrate that the site is important - for both wildlife and people! Invite high school students to perform service-learning or community service projects.

Access Control

Properly located entrances, exits, fencing, landscaping and lighting can direct both foot and automobile traffic in ways that discourage crime. Another way to maintain access control is to declare the importance of the habitat site to the life of the school by including specific references to it in your school code of conduct and to encourage your school district to include school habitat sites in their policy manuals under "Vandalism" or "Care of School Property by Students." Make sure that everyone understands that vandalism is a crime, that crimes are reported to the police, criminals are prosecuted, and restitution is demanded.

What if we are "hit"?

Despite our best efforts, vandalism is widespread and it can happen to your habitat site. So what do you do if you've been "hit"?

  • Contact the appropriate authorities. Vandalism is a crime and must be reported to the police. Ask the police to keep an eye on your site as they patrol.

  • Contact your neighbours. Let them know what has happened and ask if they saw anything you can relay to the police. Ask them to keep a closer watch on the habitat site and make sure they have the phone number of the person to call if they have any information.

  • Clean up immediately! Show the vandals that you will not tolerate their actions and that you will paint over graffiti, replant shrubs, clean up signs, and replace structures such as birdbaths or feeders.

  • Counsel and continue to educate your students. It can be depressing, even devastating, to be the victim of a crime. Often schools provide grief counselling for students mourning the loss of a classmate or recovering from the tragedy of school violence. Offer your students time and space to express their emotions and concerns about destruction and defacement of a place they worked so hard to create. Students who have been active in the habitat project can visit other classes and schools to talk about what happened and how to prevent it from happening again.

  • Rethink the design and use of your site. As much as possible, incorporate the four strategies above into the redesign, and always involve students in the design process: their ideas for deterring vandals and involving friends and neighbors are valuable.

  • Remind yourself of the reasons why you planted the habitat site in the first place. Schoolyard habitat sites are outdoor learning areas for students, teachers and members of the community. They provide homes for wildlife; facilitate the study of nature and other subjects; encourage parent involvement; reduce the need for field trips and maximize teaching time; and they are beautiful to look at and enjoyable to be in.

Creating a habitat site on school grounds is one of the most positive contributions you can make to the life of your school and the surrounding community. But creating a place for wildlife right outside the school brings with it the responsibilities of stewardship. Vandalism of schoolyard sites, while uncommon, does happen. But don't let the fear of crime deter you; rather, let the joy of creation guide you in taking steps to reduce its frequency and severity.

Beth Stout is the Educational Outreach Coordinator for the National Wildlife Federation in Portland, Oregon. This article was adapted, with permission, from Clearing, Fall 1999.


Schools in the U.S. that certify a habitat area with National Wildlife Federation are eligible to receive a 19" x 13" aluminum sign designating the school as a certified Schoolyard Habitats site. For information on the NWF Schoolyard Habitats program, visit:

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