To Turn a Schoolyard Into an Outdoor Classroom, Just Add Native Plants

With the help of Audubon Minnesota and some controlled fires, a local school recently restored an overgrown field into original prairie habitat.

If you want to restore a prairie, sometimes you have to burn it all down first—with the help of trained firefighters, of course. That's according to Kristin Hall, conservation manager for Audubon Minnesota, who says that occasional fires are a natural part of the prairie ecosystem that originally occupied nine acres of what is now St. Croix Preparatory School in Stillwater, Minnesota. But like 99 percent of all prairie habitats across the United States, this land was degraded by development. It became overgrown with non-native grasses and thistles that didn’t offer good habitat for wildlife. And it wasn’t even a good place for students to play.

So Hall—whose two daughters attend the K-12 school—organized a prairie restoration project with fellow parent Camilla Correll, a water resource engineer with Emmons and Olivier Resources, and Kelly Gutierrez, the school's chief financial officer. The local Bayport Fire Department led two controlled burns last year to torch the existing plants and prepare the soil for replanting. Next, the school worked with partners to drill holes in the soil, spray-paint a large grid onto the ground, and stockpile native seeds such as big and little bluestem, purple coneflower, native milkweed, and prairie blazing star.

A group of students also collected native seeds from a nearby prairie. Ashley Peters, communications manager for Audubon Minnesota, went along on the seed-collecting field trip and says that some young students were so enthralled by these native plants that they picked bouquets and took them home. “It’s teaching these girls that these are valuable plants,” Peters says. “Just because they don’t have big colorful flowers, that doesn’t matter—they’re great birdfeeders for birds in winter here.”

This type of upland prairie habitat attracts a variety of insects that in turn attract grassland birds such as Grasshopper Sparrows and Eastern Bluebirds. Hall notes that grassland birds are some of the most vulnerable to climate change, so restoring habitats like this prairie—which links with other protected land nearby to form a green corridor—helps build resiliency in the system. This connectivity is especially valuable because the school sits near the St. Croix River, which flows into the Mississippi River and is a major migratory pathway for birds.

This past fall, after months of preparation, the school was finally ready for its big planting day. The entire school joined together—more than 1,100 students and more than 120 staff, along with volunteers from Pheasants Forever, one of the project partners. Teachers coordinated students as they marched out onto the field, picked up packets of seeds, and took their places along the painted grid. There, the students scattered the seeds and stomped them down to help them get a good start in the soil. As the plants grow, the school plans to use the prairie as an outdoor classroom. Students will put up bluebird nest boxes, built by a local Girl Scout chapter, and they will observe and track birds, butterflies, and other wildlife that will soon make the restored habitat their home.