The Biodiversity Challenge: A “backyard biodiversity” project for your local elementary school

Earth Day is approaching and it is, therefore, an appropriate time to think about ways to share the wonders of biodiversity.  Here is a proposal that was accepted by my local elementary school last year.   This proposal is about an inexpensive and effective way to make biodiversity science accessible and fun for a LOT of children. Please use this approach at your local school! Think big: let’s get schools across the country involved in a “Backyard Biodiversity Challenge”. All it requires is a few hours of your time, and most anyone that works in the field of biodiversity science can pull this together without much difficulty.  A small investment with potentially huge payoffs for our planet.

What is below is text that was used for part of formal proposal to my local elementary school – it needed to be approved through a number of pathways – please take this text, and modify it to meet your needs.  This exercise can be done without the purchase of field guides, but I felt having ‘real’ field guides available to the students was important.  In part, because such field guides were very influential in my own life, and helped to draw me into a life-long passion for biodiversity.

A 'biodiversity' card, done by a student in Grade 1

Backyard Biodiversity

Biodiversity is all the living things around us. Biodiversity is Life. It’s important for our well-being, and helps make a healthy planet. Biodiversity can be discovered by anyone at any age, and I would like to propose a school-wide activity about discovering biodiversity in your own backyard. An activity about biodiversity is also linked closely to Earth Day, Green Team activities, and helps promote a strong environmental ethic in students.

Learning Objectives:

• Hear about the concept of biodiversity, what it means and why it is important.
• Discover biodiversity “hands-on”, and in proximity to your school.
• Observe nature and write or draw about it.
• Produce a school-wide mural of biodiversity.
• Enrich environmental thinking for all students and staff.

The activity will have two components. First, Chris Buddle, a Professor at McGill University, who works in the field of Biodiversity Science, will deliver a school-wide 30-40 minutes presentation about Biodiversity. This presentation will help define the concept in an accessible manner, and will illustrate why biodiversity is important to all of us, and to the well-being of the planet. The presentation will include a photographic journey about biodiversity, from the rainforests of Panama to the high Arctic tundra. At the end of the presentation, Chris Buddle will outline the second component: a school-wide biodiversity challenge. The challenge will be an individual-based activity in which students will produce a natural history card about a species of interest. Each student will receive an index card, upon which they will discover a species in their local environment and write/draw about it. There are many different options, from birds they see in the schoolyard, to trees, to butterflies passing through, to grass on the playground.

Another example of a Natural History card, this one done by a Grade 3 student.

Different grades can adopt different approaches to the index cards: kindergarten students can simply draw a picture of their species; Grade 6 students can write the species name, draw a picture, and provide natural history facts (e.g., where it is found, what it eats, its biology). If teachers are willing and interested, the challenge can be adopted as a classroom project. For example, within a class, each student can be challenged to find and describe a different species so the class will have its own diversity of species. The activity will conclude several weeks after the challenge is initiated. Each index card from each student can be taped to a visible and accessible wall in the school; they can be arranged by obvious groups (e.g., plants, birds, insects) and left up for all to see.  In this way, all students can see the wall and the diversity of species can be easily viewed. It will be visually stunning, and will allow students to make a direct link between the individual species they discovered compared to what others have discovered.


The biodiversity presentation can be linked as close as possible to “Earth Day” in April, and the challenge can start from then and run until later in the spring. It will be important to have the start of spring align with the challenge.


• The presentation will be free; all is needed is some organization by the school about timing, planning, and technical assistance (e.g., a projector and screen would be required)
• Teachers will need to be willing to facilitate the preparation of the index cards. The idea is to document as much biodiversity as possible; to be effective, it would be ideal if teachers can help students find/explore different parts of biodiversity. Again, this activity could be linked directly to other parts of the curriculum.
• Index cards
• Field Guides: two sets of scientific field guides for a wide range of plants and animals. One set will be for the library; the second set will be housed with the Green Team. Students can access these field guides to help them discover biodiversity. Investment in “real” (i.e., professional style) field guides is potentially a life-long investment since some students will carry the love of biodiversity through their entire life. Many biologists trace the root of their career to flipping through field guides when they were young. The following field guides are suggested (approximate prices in Canadian dollars, are from
o National Geographic Field Guide to the Birds of North America (~$21)
o Kaufman Field Guide to Mammals of North America (~$16)
o National Audubon Society Field Guide to North American Trees-E: Eastern Region (~$16)
o A Field Guide to Wildflowers: Northeastern and North-central North America (~$17)
o The ROM Field Guide to Amphibians and Reptiles of Ontario (~$16)
o Mushrooms of Northeast North America: Midwest to New England (~$18)
o Kaufman Field Guide to Butterflies of North America (~$16)
o A Field Guide to Insects: America North of Mexico (Peterson) (~$17)
o A Field Guide to the Beetles of North America (Peterson) (~$17)

Total Cost: approximately $154 x 2 = $308


The concept of Biodiversity is central to the health of the earth, and is linked very closely to a larger environmental ethic for society.  Yours is a perfect school to adopt this kind of school-wide activity; it’s small, close to nature, has an active Green Team, and is in an environmental conscious town. This activity may also draw positive press from the local media; it will be visually appealing, and has the benefit of student engagement at all grades and ages. The students will remember their “species” forever, and the school, overall, will gain awareness about biodiversity in their own backyard.

Note:  I originally posted this text about a year ago, on the Biological Survey of Canada’s blog about “Hosting a Biodiversity Event”, found here


5 thoughts on “The Biodiversity Challenge: A “backyard biodiversity” project for your local elementary school

  1. My father always tells me, as father’s often repeat their best tories, that one of his most memorable moments in grade school was the biodiversity assessment his biology class preformed in the wood lot behind his school. The physical act of engaging with nature, and the need to think in a natural way in order to answer certain questions establishes a new level of appreciation and admiration of our own backyards, which can be just as natural a place as the magnificent landscapes shown on bbc and discovery channel. These programs, while inspiring, tend to obfuscate the definition of “nature” for children, and may detach some kids from the nature that’s all around them… I like this idea for all schools! Good work Buddle!

    • This is a great anecdote, Willie, thanks for sharing. I also remember fondly searching for inverts in the back of my elementary school – those events have a lasting impression

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