Schools Nature’s curriculum inspiring conservation
With one in six Australian birds at risk of extinction, BirdLife Australia is playing an important role in educating students on how to help protect our feathered friends, writes SARAH COLES.
Many of Australia’s bird species are under threat, their habitats disappearing due to the climate crisis, land clearing, bushfire and flood. Species like Carnaby’s Black Cockatoo and Regent Honeyeater are endangered, while others, including the Orange-bellied Parrot, are at risk of extinction. But all is not lost.
BirdLife Australia is a conservation organisation that protects birds and their habitats through advocacy, research and on-the-ground monitoring work. The organisation is perhaps best known for its Birds in Backyards program and the Guardian/BirdLife Australia Bird of the Year poll. (Last year’s winner was the Superb Fairy Wren, with the Tawny Frogmouth coming in a close second.)
Alexandra Johnson is its Birds in Schools Project Officer. As a former teacher, she embodies an unwavering commitment to environmental education. “As a program, Birds in Schools is really interesting,” she says. “You go into a school and generally they won’t have noticed birds in their environment. As soon as you point birds out, it opens up a whole new world for them. It makes every day richer.”
The 11-lesson Birds in Schools program is available through BirdLife’s online learning platform. It assists teachers to deliver engaging sustainability education and empowers schools to help protect their local birds.
Birds in Schools offers a two-hour teacher training module at the start of each school term. This equips teachers with skills specific to the program such as identifying bird species, conducting a bird survey on school grounds, and entering data into ‘Birdata’, BirdLife Australia’s database.
Alexandra says “a broad range of passionate teachers” has been involved, including art teachers.
Mounting scientific evidence shows that birdwatching improves children’s ability to focus
Students participate in citizen science projects – conducting studies in their playground and local area and entering their findings into BirdLife’s database. This type of crowd-sourced research plays a crucial role in the organisation’s efforts to protect Australia’s birds, Alexandra says. “Our researchers and scientists use that information for our conservation work.”
Birds in Schools is designed for grades 3 through 6, but the program has also been taught to younger children and high school students with great outcomes. As Alexandra explains, “Information about birds is often new for all levels.”
As a side benefit, mounting scientific evidence shows that birdwatching improves children’s ability to focus. Spotting a Rainbow Lorikeet in the schoolyard teaches children to observe and compare, while building a habitat for White-plumed Honeyeaters fosters empathy and an ecological mindset.
Birds in Schools concludes with the formation of an action plan to help make the school grounds more bird friendly. The program promotes activities such as fencing off a small section of the playground to plant native plants local to the area and adding nesting boxes and birdbaths.
A large part of the program’s success is due to the community education component, where students communicate the importance of bird conservation to their friends and families.
“The community education action could be very broad,” Alexandra says. “Maybe it’s around protecting existing habitat. Maybe it’s around teaching others how to do a survey.”
Past participants have created local bird guides, built nesting boxes in woodwork class, and taught other students and family members how to identify local species. “Students imaginations are the limit with community education,” Alexandra says.
She has found that kids who struggle in a traditional classroom setting often flourish during the Birds in Schools program. “The kids who have trouble concentrating – you get them outside and they’ll be spotting birds, learning their names and bird calls. Just seeing those students engaging with real scientific research outside, and loving it, is really nice.”
To register for Birds in Schools or find out more, email [email protected]. Schools can also participate in citizen science via Birdata, BirdLife’s database.