A Prairie Ecology (Botany 1320) class taught by Peter Chen plants native seedlings at Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Illinois, USA.

Backyard & schoolyard wildlife habitats

Page snapshot: Descriptions and resources for engaging students in taking actions to address environmental problems in their communities.rite the page snapshot here.

Topics covered on this page: Making lawns more environmentally friendly; How to move forward; Resources.

Credits: Funded by the National Science Foundation. Any opinions, findings, and conclusions or recommendations expressed in this material are those of the author(s) and do not necessarily reflect the views of the National Science Foundation. Page by Don Haas (2023)

Updates: Page last updated September 1, 2023.

Image above: A Prairie Ecology (Botany 1320) class taught by Peter Chen plants native seedlings at Russell R. Kirt Prairie, Illinois, USA. Peterwchen, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons

Making lawns more environmentally friendly

Expanses of green lawn offer nice places for picnics and tossing a football, but the American obsession with lawns has substantial environmental and economic impacts worthy of interrogation. No commonly used turf grass species are native. Lawn care is a $40-billion-a-year industry in the U.S. More than 80% of American homes have lawns and the total area is larger than New York State. We use 90 million pounds of fertilizer and 78 million pounds of pesticides annually on these plots of green. More water is used to water lawns than is used to irrigate any agricultural crop in the U.S. In Western states, 70% of municipal water is used for watering landscapes, mostly lawns. Gasoline powered mowers are especially polluting. 

What can teachers and students do to reduce the negative impacts of lawns? The list of possible actions is very long indeed. Start with an action at a scale that you have the capacity to do.

In one way or another, it will likely involve replacing part or all of the lawn - the turf grass - with native plants. If you are doing this in the schoolyard, it is essential to collaborate with the school's grounds crew and to have support of school administration.

Here are a few possibilities:

  • Raise the deck on your mower. Taller grass allows for more pollinators to do their work and for a wider variety of plants to grow within the lawn.
  • No Mow May? The movement to take a month off from mowing to protect bees and other pollinators began in the UK in 2019 and was initiated by the group Plantlife. Allowing grass to grow longer early in the growing season is intended to let bees and other pollinators have more opportunity to do their work as flowers emerge, The question mark is included because there is some debate as to whether the initiative is actually beneficial. That controversy provides opportunities for research projects to accompany the program. 
  • Add a pollinator garden to your yard or the schoolyard. Even a window box can help pollinators. Some resources are described and linked to below. Connecting to a local garden club can bring in assistance potentially including additional hands, and student mentors.
  • Restore a prairie. Students around the country have worked, in some cases for decades, to restore native habitats on a broad scale within their communities. Since 2001, students at Waubonsie Valley High School District in Aurora, Illinois, have been restoring and maintaining prairie at the Fox Valley Park District’s Eola Hill site. The district partners with the Fox Valley Park District on the effort and the students study the impacts of their work and use the site as a living laboratory. 

A sign for No Mow May.

The yard sign design for No Mow May from Bee City USA. Bee City USA is the lead organization in the U.S. advocating for the initiative. Bee City USA is itself an initiative of the Xerces Society. Image credit: The Xerces Society for Invertebrate Conservation.

How to move forward

Pick an action you are confident you will be able to carry out. Tell other people about the action you are taking and why it matters. Consider the scale of your actions and plan to scale them up over time. Critique your efforts and seek feedback from others. Cycle through these steps regularly. When you return to the first step after you have already initiated a project, the new action should extend (or restart) the initial effort. 

For decades, the National Wildlife Federation has run a program to certify backyard wildlife habitats. In 2019, the program passed its goal of certifying one million Pollinator Gardens. In most areas of the US, the development of wildlife habitat in yards includes replacement of turf grasses - the standard American lawn - with diverse collections of native plants. 

Of course the basic ideas can be applied to any lawn, including those in the schoolyard. 

The U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has produced a Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide that steps through a nine-step process:

  1. Form a Team
  2. Develop a Master Plan
  3. Assess Project Site
  4. Design Project
  5. Decide Money Matters
  6. Install Project
  7. Create a Maintenance Plan
  8. Use the Project
  9. Share Your Story

The guide includes vignettes of student projects in urban and rural schools that are fictionalized by drawn from actual projects. 

A natural area with a sign showing that the area is a certified Wildlife Habitat. Certification is a program of the National Wildlife Federation.

A sign in a natural area showing Wildlife Habitat Certification from the National Wildlife Federation. Photo credit: National Wildlife Federation.


Guides for creating habitats

The National Wildlife Federation, “Certify Your Habitat Garden with National Wildlife Federation.” 

U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service  “Schoolyard Habitat Project Guide.” Accessed August 30, 2023. 

Articles from the popular press

The Week. “Blades of Glory: America’s Love Affair with Lawns.” January 8, 2015. https://theweek.com/articles/483762/blades-glory-americas-love-affair-lawns.

“Death of the American Lawn | Green America.” Accessed August 30, 2023. https://www.greenamerica.org/death-american-lawn.

Ponsford, Matthew. “Designing an End to a Toxic American Obsession: The Lawn.” CNN, March 26, 2020. https://www.cnn.com/style/article/lawns-american-yard-us/index.html.

“Yes, You Can Do Better Than the Great American Lawn - The New York Times.” Accessed August 30, 2023. https://www.nytimes.com/2022/06/15/realestate/yes-you-can-do-better-than-the-great-american-lawn.html.