For the Birds: Restoration, Exploration, and Creative Play in Nature of Early Childhood Learners

Imagine a place on campus dedicated to helping our youngest learners cultivate their innate sense of wonder about the natural world. A place where they can watch the ferns come up in the spring and the birds return as the days grow warmer. A place where they can root under leaf litter and dig in the soil, discovering that it is full of life.

Imagine turning one small section of our suburban campus into a space that supports our native birds and pollinators and that reminds us that we can and should find ways to connect to the natural world every day…a space that encourages and allows this. Imagine Hathaway Brown being a model in our community for fostering these connections and supporting not just our human community, but also the natural community around us. Our new project initiative, For the Birds: Restoration, exploration, and creative play in nature of early childhood learners will do all of this.

Starting this spring, people driving on Sherbrooke Road past the gym and aquatic center might have noticed, if they were looking closely, orange and purple flagging tape tied to some of the shrubs. Just a couple of weeks ago, in early July, a new split rail fence was installed. Why all the attention being paid to this largely unused and semi-wild feeling part of our campus?

These new signs of attention and care are the beginnings of a multi-year habitat restoration project that will expand and enhance the Frances Comey Stevenson Bird Sanctuary, a space that was gifted to the School in memory of Frances Comey Stevenson ’82. The space will be designed to attract birds and native pollinators, but that’s not all it will draw in. It will also be designed as a nature exploration destination for our youngest learners in the Early Childhood program.

Tree cookies and balance beam log July 2016 (1)

This project is exciting for several reasons. First, research increasingly affirms the positive benefits of time spent in nature for children, ranging from reduced symptoms of ADD and ADHD to decreased levels of stress to improved eyesight. Additionally, when children spend time connecting with nature, they are more likely to develop a stewardship mindset, caring for the Earth in later life. If these benefits are not enough, consider as well the fact that Cuyahoga County has seen tremendous loss of green space to urban sprawl over the past 50 years. Northeast Ohio is located right on one of the main migratory bird flyways, but with development, food sources and habitat for these feathered friends has been reduced. HB is excited to create a space that will attract and support not just birds, but also bats, small mammals, and native insects. Our Early Childhood students will now have a space to explore under leaf litter to discover what lives there, to watch birds at the bird feeder, or pecking at our dead snag for insects, and to look for evidence of other critters, watch the spring ephemeral flowers emerge, the fall colors shift and the leaves drop.

And, we aren’t the only ones who think this project is a good idea! The project, a collaboration between myself and Early Childhood Educators Candice Badner and Carrie Rodusky, has won supporting funds from the Ohio EPA’s Environmental Education Fund, the Ohio Department of Natural Resources Wild School Sites program, and the HB Parents’ Association, as well as generous gifts from HB alumnae.

Leading for Life girls - trail installation - July 2016 - 6

Shifting the flora and fauna of this section of campus will require us to work with nature, rather than fighting against it. This takes time. Starting this summer, and continuing gradually over the next three years, we will be removing invasive species, such as honeysuckle, buckthorn, privet and myrtle, and replacing them with native shrubs and understory plants, such as witch hazel, button bush, may apples and ferns. The sod outside the aquatic center windows will be replaced with a woodland edge prairie mixture containing tall grasses and wildflowers. We will install bird feeders and bat boxes, as well as educational signs, all made with the help or our Middle and Upper School students. Leaves left on the ground in the fall will slowly break down to help build the humus layer on top of the hard-packed soils in this site.

Not only does all of this take time, but it also takes work. Lots of hard work. We’ll be looking for help from our HB community in the process. We know many hands makes light work, and we hope you will join us for one of our community work days in the coming year.

For questions or to get involved, contact Torrey McMillan (

Photos: HB’s Leading for Life camp spends a morning helping to construct a new path way throughout the forthcoming bird sanctuary this summer. 

Torrey McMillan is the Director of the Center for Sustainability at Hathaway Brown School



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