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Notes from the Field

A Model Habitat Sanctuary

Jennifer Wieckowski

Wouldn’t it be great if every school had an outdoor space for children to spend time just being in nature? To be able to witness the beauty of the plants, trees, and wildlife and connect using all their senses? Children reap many benefits from exposure to natural settings, including improved mental health.

Gulf of Maine Institute (GOMI) is helping to create these nature spaces, called habitat sanctuaries, for children from preschool through college. The goal is that students will have hands on experiential learning through building and tending these habitats, using native species to attract and support local wildlife, including pollinators. Using the habitats as home field-stations, they will learn fundamentals about stewarding the land to ensure a robust plant and animal biodiversity for generations to come. They will learn the basics of ecology, about the interactions between land and water systems and how important they are in promoting and sustaining a healthy bioregion. Lastly, the students will learn to act locally and think bio-regionally.

One model habitat sanctuary is in the beginning stages of development at North Shore Montessori School (NSMS) in Rowley, Massachusetts. With GOMI’s support, the children (preschool through 6th grade), educators, parents, and community are creating a setting in which children will be able to learn from, tend to and enjoy for years to come. Understanding and using native plants will help support local pollinators, birds, and other wildlife. The habitat sanctuaries will improve air quality, create shade and shelter and reduce stormwater runoff. This, in turn, improves the quality of water entering the Rowley River and the Massachusetts Great Salt Marsh.

A habitat requires food, water, shelter, and places for wildlife to raise their young. NSMS is using their schoolyard which already covers many of these requirements. To create a model habitat sanctuary, the children built raised beds to plant native pollinator plants (and some fun vegetables) to attract more birds and wildlife. The children discovered firsthand the wildlife that shows up and thrives because of their actions. Upon creating the raised beds, the children learned about compost, its function and importance to the environment. They delighted in spreading the compost, discovering and holding the earthworms, and learning about their role in nature.

Upper and Lower elementary students at NSMS work together to spread compost in their raised garden beds

During the downtime of winter, NSMS students were able to start their seeds for the spring by using a method called winter sowing. The following is a quick overview of this method.

They were amazed at the different sizes and variety of seeds. The seeds were chosen based on growing season, native status and which pollinators they supported. (See Prairie Moon, which is based on the Homegrown National Park movement). Once the seeds were sown in the proper containers, they were left outside to let nature take its course. The seeds germinated when the temperature and light were correct for each seed. Once the seedlings were big enough, they were planted in the prepared raised beds.

Childrens House students at NSMS preparing their jugs for native pollinator seeds to sow outdoors during the winter

Winter sown seedlings after opening in April, soon to be planted in the prepared raised beds.

Bird houses were built by the students after learning about the housing crisis of the cavity nesting birds. Because bird houses are already available at the habitat sanctuary, the children were able to take theirs home to observe bird nesting behavior on a regular basis through the summer.

Sally Farrow from Mass Audubon also came for a demonstration of live local cavity nesting birds for the children to experience in person.

Sally Farrow from Mass Audubon demonstrating a Screech Owl

The next goal at NSMS would be to create a safe and enjoyable space (think secret garden) for the children and the wildlife to commune. The creation of a designated area, with places to rest and pathways to follow, would be lined with native plants and trees for the students, teachers, and parents to enjoy.

Learning to plant and water their school garden at NSMS


Jennifer Wieckowski

Jennifer has degrees in both Biology and Nursing and has 20 years of experience as a registered nurse. She was the assistant nurse manager and educator of a large critical care unit at the Medical University of South Carolina. Jennifer was able to utilize her critical thinking and organizational skills in addition to her computer expertise in successfully managing the staffing in her unit. As educator, she taught many nurses how to review evidence-based science articles and utilize them at the bedside to improve patient care.

Jennifer and her husband Peter, along with son Matthew and daughter Lizzie, recently moved to New England into an antique farmhouse. This move kindled her interest in the history of her farm and led to an educational plunge into permaculture, indigenous practices of land management and homesteading. Time on the homestead has expanded her responsible land stewardship to learning to care for equines (including fostering donkeys for a local equine rescue) and maintaining multiple gardens with a focus on native plant species. Joining her science and management background with her interest and passion in permaculture, she hopes to inspire the next generation, including her own children, to take an active role in land stewardship.

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