By Gisela Chapa, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service

A couple of days ago, I was asked to participate in a schoolyard habitat planting at a nearby school during a science conference. Four students and six chaperones were present. My goal: to keep them occupied while their parents attended a conference on science education. “We’re going to create homes for wildlife,” I shared with the kids. “And we’re going to get dirty.” I got a couple of blank stares and even overheard one child – Ruben – tell his chaperone that he did not want to get dirty. He sounded a little worried.

Over the last four years, the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge has been working with the Pharr-San Juan-Alamo Independent School District to create schoolyard habitats (or ‘mini-refuges,’ as I like to call them) across the campuses in the district. Throughout this time, seeing and hearing reactions like little Ruben’s are fairly common. Kids look in disbelief when they’re told they can get dirty, or might not fully understand the purpose of creating “mini national wildlife refuges” for insects, birds and butterflies in their schoolyard when there are already some trees around.

In the planting process, teachers and refuge staff take the time to help students see their role in the big picture – the Lower Rio Grande Valley, one of the most biodiverse areas in the country, is in peril of becoming extinct in the U.S. Their mini-refuges, no matter the size, help keep some of that biodiversity viable to species of wildlife endemic to our region.

Students and chaperones alike join in the fun of bringing valuable habitat into metropolitan areas.

One of the fastest growing in the nation, the Lower Rio Grande Valley continues to replace thornscrub with concrete in the process of becoming the great metropolitan area that our elected officials envision. Yet, development is not the opposite of conservation, at least in my idealistic mind. Native habitat within the built environment can provide benefits to wildlife, while providing a stimulating environment for humans and a daily dose of nature for our health, just like vitamin C. Integrating the two is simply a matter of understanding the benefits of native habitats to our quality of life. Thus, the purpose of mini-refuges.

While native habitats and green spaces can be quantified into “easily relatable” concepts such as economic impact, property values, health impacts, green spaces per capita, test scores, etc., we miss the essence of the deeper, personal impacts that our natural surroundings have on us; behavior, mental health, emotional well-being and more. These mini-refuges give students the opportunity to experience easy access to nature, and the benefits seem pretty evident the moment we get started. These spaces become a means to observe how students and teachers also benefit from the experience, with the hopes to extrapolate it to similar experiences with different audiences.

Back to Ruben and other kids like him – their hesitation transforms into excitement. The mud on their hands becomes an honor badge of time well spent creating homes for butterflies and birds. Science concepts become firsthand knowledge. Work turns into fun. The experience is the vessel to stewardship. As we finish planting 13 native plants on a little corner of the campus, butterflies fluttering nearby stop for a visit. “Look!” yell the kids. While the group gazes in awe, I can’t help but notice their googly eyes and smiles as big as their faces, regardless of their age. The experience normally ends with chants of happiness and desires to do this at home. They clearly get the benefits of habitat close to home. I would like to believe that this experience was personally meaningful to them and more than just creating habitat. I’d like to think this is the beginning of a lifetime of stewardship.

Students that participate in plantings learn the benefits of mini-refuges while having fun and getting their hands dirty!

From October 10-12, 2018, many of these kids will get to experience how their schoolyard mini-habitats tie to larger landscape goals for the Valley at Rio Reforestation. The event will combine environmental education with more opportunities to get dirty by planting native plant species on former agricultural lands at La Sal del Rey tract of the South Texas Refuge Complex. The property is part of a regional effort to restore and link important habitats that animals need to move across the region.

Gisela Chapa is the Coordinator for Community Engagement and Partnerships at the Santa Ana National Wildlife Refuge in Alamo, Texas.