BRANCHING OUT

10 tips for a Winter Eco School

With the winter holidays coming up fast, branches can take note of CHRISTINE SOLE’s experience in planning and rolling out the inaugural Youth Winter Holiday Programme for BotSoc KZN Coastal – which she found to be a learning experience for herself as well!

PHOTOS BY CHRISTINE SOLE 

10 tips for a Winter Eco School

With the winter holidays coming up fast, branches can take note of CHRISTINE SOLE’s experience in planning and rolling out the inaugural Youth Winter Holiday Programme for BotSoc KZN Coastal – which she found to be a learning experience for herself as well!

PHOTOS BY CHRISTINE SOLE
“My favourite part was going to the lake at the Durban botanic gardens to learn all about it and the nature that is there,” said one participant in the youth holiday programme. Here a group of youngsters study a fever tree packed with weaver nests.

 

“I really enjoyed learning about plants, trees and animals. What blew my mind is that Durban Botanic Gardens originated in 1849 in a place where there were hippos and crocodiles. That’s very cool.”

“The Beachwood mangroves reserve is an amazing place to be. I loved it because I got to learn and see things that I’ve never seen before. It has been one of the best outings I have ever been to.”

“I have learned that nature is a very delicate ecosystem and without the wetlands SA would not thrive – it is our responsibility to care for it and its animals and plants.”

Comments such as these from the youngsters who took part in our branch’s inaugural Youth Winter Holiday Programme definitely made the whole kaleidoscope of emotions that I went through putting it together worthwhile. It all began as a kernel of an idea that emerged during a branch committee meeting. 

Soon I was on a rollercoaster from exhausting to exhilarating and from daunting to thrilling. The event turned out to be overwhelmingly successful, with endearing and positive feedback and calls for the holiday programme to be repeated. As one group of parents commented, “We are so grateful for the hours of sunshine and fresh air that the children enjoyed together – and away from screens, devices and digital distractions.”

These are the reasons why we urge other branches to try out something similar – we are certainly going to be running it again.

Here is a guide to what we did and what we learned and will be improving on this year . . .

At the Beachwood mangroves reserve, participants were excited to watch red mangrove crabs at close quarters as they fought over mangrove leaves for food. “I really liked learning about how they could feel the vibrations and then come out to get food,” said one. Another produced this charming drawing of a fiddler crab and a mangrove leaf. 

 

1. THE PLAN

I hold the education portfolio on our branch committee. Luckily for me, compiling a programme for a day’s activities at three different sites was the easy part, having been involved in environmental education in one way or another for nearly two decades.

The broad plan was a three-day event of eco-activities and environmental learning for children held at different locations in the eThekwini area. The places selected were each unique and presented different and exciting environmental education prospects:

– The coastal forest nature reserve, Burman Bush
– An estuarine mangrove community at the uMgeni river mouth known as the Beachwood mangroves
– A ‘living library of plants’ at the historic Durban botanic gardens

Left: At the uMgeni river mouth, participants investigated the dune vegetation and were excited to hear how the beaches and riverbanks were being cleared of rubbish by the waste pickers from the Adopt a River Eco Solutions campaign.

2. THE TIME FACTOR

Next priority was to firm up on the dates. With the winter school holidays in sight, time was a huge element in the securing the venues on the days we had chosen – Monday, Wednesday and Friday – of the last week of the mid-year vacation.

The winter holidays give a fairly broad stretch of time with only one public holiday to be negotiated around. In Durban, we are also usually fortunate enough to have good, dry weather at that time of year for outdoor activities. While this might not be the case in other parts of South Africa, there are still plenty of options for working with institutions or creating interesting indoor workshops.

Agreeing to our branch’s inaugural Youth Winter Holiday Programme was a bit of a lightbulb moment for us all – but it left us quite short of preparation time before the event. In future, we recommend starting preparations as soon as possible after the Easter holidays to make the process more comfortable.

At the old reservoir in Burman Bush nature reserve, the youngsters gathered armfuls of the invasive sword fern and bagged them in our ‘give back to the bush’ activity.

3. SETTING THE AGE RANGE

I settled on the age of participants as between 10 and 15 years. This was a good spread and meant the older ones would help the younger ones along and act as mentors, which worked well.
The one adjustment that I will make to this would be for the guided walks. During these, I would definitely split the participants into two groups – ages 10 to 12 and 13 to 15 as we found that the pitch and content for each age set differed significantly.

4. COMPILING CONTENT

This was the element that was really top of mind for me when I proposed the course initially. Beginning with various roles at the Durban Natural Science Museum in 2006, I was then engaged as a part-time guide for WESSA at their flagship locations in eThekwini, Treasure Beach and the Beachwood mangroves reserve, as well as being a permanent volunteer guide at the Durban Botanic Gardens. In all capacities, I was working mainly with school groups. Along the way I did qualify as a registered tourist guide but I far prefer working with young people.

If you are planning this kind of course but do not have anyone with this kind of experience on your committee, we suggest you co-opt an appropriately skilled branch member or a regular speaker or outing leader.

Just inside the gate of Burman Bush, a coastal forest nature reserve, field officer Musa Mfeka was introducing the participants to the toad tree. Further on, Musa explained the interaction between trees as host plants and their guests.

 

5. LOOKING AFTER LOGISTICS

As a guide in the field, logistical challenges were the element that I least anticipated but which loomed largest over me in pulling the course together. I soon realised that I should have set up a sub- committee for the project or at least brought in some dedicated helpers. Important elements of the checklist included:

– Organising venues
– Putting together an indemnity form
– Advertising the course and gathering participants
– Co-ordinating assistant guides

Fortunately, our branch secretary Sandra Dell assisted with booking participants, compiling the advertising flyer and providing logistical support at the start of each day with registrations, while the ultimate font of guidance was Suvarna Parbhoo Mohan, our immensely busy chairperson, who is also national manager of the BotSoc/SANBI CREW programme.

6. SUPPORT IN THE FIELD

Sourcing assistant guides for each venue proved to be a big learning curve. A minimum of two adults per group would be needed but ultimately this was a floating factor. The ratio of guides to children depends on the age of the participants and we had yet to establish how many takers we would attract to the programme and of which ages.

In the event, we were assisted by Burman Bush field officers Musa Mfeka and Zama Zulu, volunteers Lulu Richmond and Sim Cele and BotSoc members Di Higginson and Megan Goschen.

On the first day of the programme, it also became clear to me that I also needed a dedicated assistant to help with the various exercises that were set. I used some appropriate quotes as handouts for participants to stick into their journals, for instance, but this exercise proved challenging for some of the young ones and was, I realised, where extra help was needed. I was so busy having to help the younger ones to complete tasks and so on that found myself barely managing to gulp some water during the tea and lunch breaks!

(Top) Recognise the help you receive on site if you can – we presented Burman Bush field officers Zama Zulu and Musa Mfeka with copies of Elsa Pooley’s Forest Plants and How to bring butterflies back to your garden by Charles and Julia Botha as thanks for their contribution to our youth holiday programme. (Bottom) The garden of the senses within Durban botanic gardens encourages everyone to do more than look and enlist their senses of hearing (as with water tumbling over this metal sphere), touch and smell.

 

7. TIMETABLING & EQUIPMENT

Creating a day’s template of times and events proved to be a great asset, giving me a framework to plan sequential events at each venue. I had decided that while the group would engage in fun, environmentally themed activities, there would also be some concealed theory.

For this, we supplied nature journals with alternate blank and lined pages for drawings and words, plus a soft pencil. These were free for each child as a take-home record of their day – and the suggestion that they continue to use it.

The participants were in awe of the vast kauri pine from New Zealand that was planted in Durban botanic gardens more than 100 years ago and loved the fun of trying to hug it. 

8. TAKING CONSERVATION TO HEART

The themes followed were essentially biodiversity (of plants and ecosystems and for the older ones, genetics), ecology, climate change and conservation. These were explored along with unpicking the challenging words and concepts, drawing on what the children knew about the topic and building on that.

One activity was to set the children the task of clearing invasive sword ferns from the old reservoir in Burman Bush – to ‘give back to the bush’. It became something of a competition, in which all were winners, to see how big the pile of pulled-out plants could get. One young fellow came up with the idea that this could be part of their Mandela Day contribution! The energy was astounding, resulting in a large number of bags being collected.

Activities to highlight the need for conservation of the natural environment and its resources and the crisis of climate change were included. For the latter, our carbon footprint was depicted and then our handprint pledge offset this negative impact with positive action.

One of the elements of each day was ‘quiet time’, a silent walk during the guided experience at each location to tune in to the ambient sounds and smells. Time was also allowed at the end of the day for reflection and sharing impressions.

These occasions proved very rewarding for both guides and participants. Sharing as a wrap-up took the form of words, drawings or creative pursuits combining both. One young lass who pronounced that she was not keen on drawing or writing, spent some time contemplating and then began decorating driftwood sticks that she had gathered on the beach with names of her new-found friends and graphics. Such a serendipitous gift.

(Left) Participants gathered interesting objects from the ground at the Beachwood mangroves and used them to help them tell a story. (Above right) At the end of each day, everybody gathered together to share some of their reflections in words, poems and drawings.

9. SPECIAL MIX

Finally, perhaps the most rewarding aspect to the Winter Holiday Programme was the unforeseen mix of youngsters that transpired. Close to the date, not all the places were taken and Sandra had the brainwave of filling those places by asking for sponsorship for a child who would otherwise not have been able to attend the programme because of cost.

Local branch members made generous donations to fund some youngsters from children’s homes, places of safety and church groups.

One participant was shy about being involved in our ‘reflection and wrap-up time’ – until inspired to gather these driftwood sticks during our beach visit and decorate them for other members of the group.

10. SPIRIT OF NATURE

Among disadvantaged children and those from privileged homes, there was an extraordinary spirit of generosity and gentleness. They were entirely accepting of each other, with a willingness to learn and experience the wonders of these natural environments together.

Without fail, these youngsters embraced each other and the day in fine spirit – fostering the determination in us to do it all again.

NB No children’s names are given nor faces shown. There are two reasons for this which branch committees need to understand. Parents should give permission for use of an image of a minor child. Secondly, it is absolutely prohibited to show the face of any child who comes from a place of safety or care home where he or she is a ward of court and possibly part of a court case to prevent them from being identified in public and social media, or on any press platforms.

Christine Sole (cagsole@gmail.com) is a long-standing member of the KZN Coastal branch committee.

1 Comment

  1. Wunderbar . you are a star friend

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