It's never too early to become a wildlife steward.
Several schools throughout Washington County have taken the lead in creating sustainable wildlife habitat on school grounds that invite critters and provide outdoor classrooms for hands-on scientific exploration and inquiry projects.
With the cooperative efforts of Oregon 4-H Wildlife Stewards, Oregon State University Extension Services and other community partners, teachers and parent volunteers are also helping to ensure that students acquire a life-long interest in taking steps to protect the environment.
'It's important to promote stewardship of the land and instill the value of caring for the environment while children are young,' said Jackie Kubat, a 4-H wildlife steward. 'This could be the generation that takes that value into adulthood.'
Kubat is one of the parent volunteers coordinating a five-year project at Raleigh Hills Elementary School to create a wildlife habitat education garden on the south end of school property.
The garden will serve as an outdoor science instruction area where classes will be able to conduct field studies, monitor what's going on within the habitat and study plants and critters that will call the wildlife garden home.
With one year under its belt, the ambitious Raleigh Hills School project is breaking new ground.
'It's going along nicely,' Kubat said as she showed off the newly planted top third of the garden.
In May, students planted two areas with 225 native groundcover plants along with Oregon grape, Kinnikinnick and elder berry.
They also transplanted sprouts of carrots, onions, beets, lettuce and other vegetables into the school's new and improved hunger garden.
Students helped sprout the vegetation from seeds as part of classroom projects.
'A lot of the kids had never touched a seed before and half of them had never tasted a beet,' said Ellen Kingstad, another 4-H wildlife steward and volunteer parent coordinating the effort.
The school had a hunger garden for quite a few years tucked away in a fenced corner of the plot.
Rather than exclude it from the wildlife habitat education garden, designer Lori Scott incorporated it and other features on the project wish list into the overall plan.
The design allowed for an assortment of fruits and vegetables to be planted in eight raised, wood beds - two of which are easily accessible for students confined to wheelchairs to work in.
When the produce is harvested, it will be taken to Cornell Farm, the school's partner in the 'Plant a Row for the Hungry' program, and distributed to the homeless.
In addition to planting, students have also built four bat boxes to provide a safe resting place for bats and eight worm bins to house more than two pounds of red wiggler worms.
The worms will play an important role in creating compost and nutrient-rich soil for the garden. They also help recycle four to 11 pounds of salad bar leftovers from the cafeteria per day.
'We're creating a living lab for kids and an outdoor classroom that meets the needs of different grades studying different units,' Kingstad said. 'Everything we do is curriculum-based and used as an enhancement to the science program at the school.'
Creating a wildlife garden on campus has become both a source of pride and enthusiasm among staff and students alike.
'I think this is a great way to teach urban kids about habitats firsthand,' said Terri Oliver, a Raleigh Hills teacher that spearheaded the effort. 'My own philosophy is that kids need to be involved in habitat work and efforts to nurture habitat.
'It's important for our children to take action at the local level and do it in their neighborhood. It will build awareness and could influence others.'
'Habitat projects give kids a sense of hope,' Kubat said. 'It's also very empowering to be able to take action and know that you can do something to help the environment.'
Children are not blind to environmental concerns in their own backyard and around the world, the women said.
'I think kids recognize that there is an environmental crisis at some level,' Oliver said. 'Habitat depletion manifests itself in different ways.
'There are simple ways to provide habitat for wildlife that live in our neighborhood. When you empower children by teaching them to recycle, build worm bins or take care of all the aspects of our urban habitat, kids can know that they are making a difference in a small way. If every person makes a small difference, it becomes a big effort.'