At Clarksville Elementary School, rabbits, foxes and deer are alwayswelcome in the classroom -- the outdoor classroom, where students can observe wildlife up-close, learn about soil erosion and identify flowers and plants.
Behind the school and backing up to an open field, the environmental study area is the result of a four-year project involving students, parents, community groups and local businesses.
In addition to the classroom, where tall trees encircle four worktables, the area includes a butterfly garden, animal tracks box and outdoor amphitheater.
"It's a remarkably imaginative project -- community teamwork at work," said fifth-grade teacher Kitty Boyan, who developed the idea and oversaw its completion.
"It's going to help students, that's the main thing," Boyan said.
"They love to do science outside, and it helps them to see nature working."
Although the students have been using the environmental area for the past threeyears, it was officially dedicated at a ceremony Saturday.
Children love the idea of having school outside, but Boyan hopes that the students' excitement about the butterfly garden and animal tracks box will develop into a long-term respect for the environment.
"Our planet is dying; this is really sensitivity-training for the kids to help save the world," said Boyan, who was named elementary school teacher of the year in July by the Maryland Association of Soil Conservation Districts.
The environmental studies area had its beginnings ina roundabout way. In 1987, to her surprise, Boyan won a spot in an Audubon Society summer workshop in Connecticut by submitting her idea -- the environment study area -- for a project.
Working with Neal Fitzpatrick of the Audubon Naturalist Society of Central Maryland, Boyan expanded her idea. She began coordinating work on the project andsought donations of money and materials.
Families and businesses contributed lumber, mulch, pine tree seedlings, bird boxes, bricks and many volunteer hours to the effort. Scout troops planted, cleared and weeded and Eagle Scout Brian Townsend designed the butterfly garden.
Michael Logan, director of construction with the Howard County Department of Recreation and Parks, and Michael Marrie, who works in the home construction field, supervised the project.
Boyan estimates that the project cost about $4,000.
"If we had to build this and pay for labor, forget it," Boyan said.
"Student volunteers and their parents have worked on many Saturdays this summer on some of thehottest days you can imagine," said Boyan.
As part of Boyan's back-to-nature teaching philosophy, her students adopt trees and keep journals on them as the seasons change, plant flowers, and go on scavenger hunts to find certain seedlings or vegetation.
As a fifth-grade science class trooped out to the environmental studies area last week, students were delighted to spy a rabbit hopping away from the outdoor classroom.
"I think it's interesting, looking at certain plants to see what nature does to them -- like how do flowers close up when the cold comes," said Joey Cravaritis.
Students checked on their soil erosion project, designed to determine which plants hold soil best. They rattled off the names of the experimental plants -- vinca,ivy and juniper.
Examining the animal tracks box, which contains a salt-covered block to attract animals, students found that there had been some visitors.
"It looks like a mixture of deer, fox and rabbit tracks," said Sara Aronson.
During science class, parent volunteer Isabelle Henderson, did some weeding in the butterfly garden and expressed surprise that her son has developed an interest in gardening.
"It's giving them an awareness, they ask questions about plants and what benefits they are to different insects," Henderson said. "They've learned to respect the bees and to leave them alone because they are beneficial."
Already, some of Boyan's students seem to bedeveloping into future environmentalists.
"If we don't find out about animals' habitats, we won't be able to help them," said Philip Graham-Bell.
"I think we should have a lot of recycling," said T. J. Mathieson. "If we pollute, it takes up space, and the landfills aregetting overcrowded, and that takes up space for houses and people to live."