As an eighth-grade teacher, I’ve been teaching remotely all year, but on Earth Day, some students were in-person. I took them outside to write environmental messages on the sidewalk in chalk. At the end of a lovely hour in beautiful weather, one of the girls said to me, “This is the most I’ve been outside in a month and a half!” When I asked why, her reply was, “There’s nothing to do outside.”
During my walk home, I thought about this conversation as I passed yards that are a monoculture of grass surrounded by plants from Asia or Europe — typically some yew shrubs near the house, maybe some boxwoods, with ivy and hostas on the edges. The plants don’t really change with the seasons and there certainly isn’t much wildlife attracted to them since the plants evolved to live with creatures on other continents.
A few robins hop around here and there, a couple of squirrels run up some trees when they see me coming. Some yards have the little white flags that warn us away because of pesticide application. Any dead leaves or stems have been removed. Honestly, I agree with my student that there aren’t many interesting things to see or do outside.
We’ve done a good job creating activities for kids to do in our houses. We give them big comfy couches, Netflix and video games, books, toys, etc. Teens want to explore and keep secrets from adults, and we give them an endless source of mystery: the internet and social media.
In our quest to make the outside as comfortable as the inside, we’ve taken all the mystery and wilderness out of our patches of nature, our lawns. It’s not surprising that kids aren’t interested in exploring outside.
Recently, I took my class out to our pesticide-free school garden. A few students made dandelion chains while others watched the fuzzy butts of bumble bees go in and out of the purple creeping charlie flowers and searched for four leaf clovers. In our native garden, we looked in some of the stems for evidence of nesting native bees and moved leaves around, hoping to find butterfly chrysalises. There were shrieks of fear and delight when a spider was spotted. A tiny bit of wilderness. A bit of mystery. Something to do.
May is Monarch Month here in Illinois. The population of this iconic species has dropped dramatically due to habitat loss, climate change and increased use of pesticides. But we can change this. When you create a pollinator patch in your yard by planting milkweed and other native nectar flowers, you do more than just create a place for this butterfly. All of our native bees and insects thrive on these plants and when they thrive, so do the birds that live here.
When you embrace the dandelions and clover, you provide food for the first butterflies and bees of the spring and keep the fireflies alive. When you let that patch of native plants drop its leaves and leave the stems, then rake the leaves of your trees under some shrubs instead of into bags, the insects have a place to go over winter. But best of all, you create a little patch of wilderness. You invite mystery into your yard. You give yourself and your family something to explore through all the seasons.
Oak Park declared 2021 “The Year of the Butterfly” and there are many events scheduled to help you learn more about how to create a patch for pollinators of all sorts in your yard. The Oak Park Conservatory has a website devoted to this at fopcon.org/year-of-the-butterfly.
Laura Stamp is a District 97 elementary school teacher.