Part I of this two-part blog series told the story of why we decided to launch the new GAAP Nature Discovery Program as part of a larger movement to protect the native Valdivian rainforest. Part II describes the impact the pilot program has had on the lives of the children and GAAP staff who participated.

“Hopefully I can come every day, I loved it!” exclaimed Mathias, age 11, at the close of his first day at the GAAP Nature Discovery Center. Months of planning and preparation behind us, in February 2018 we were ready to open the Nature Discovery Center’s doors and invite our first batch of kids to explore the magic of the forest!

For two weeks we spent several hours each morning having loads of fun doing a variety of scientific and artistic activities with an amazing group of eight 8-11 year-olds who came from a variety of socio-economic and ethnic backgrounds. Our 8-module curriculum included topics such as an “introduction to the forest and its charms”; “the 5 senses”; “ecosystems and trophic networks”; “birds and their habitats”; “water and the forest ”; “decomposers”; and our closing integrative module, “the wisdom of nature”.

With all the activities we spent the vast majority of our time OUTDOORS and using ALL 5 SENSES to get to know the forest. The children learned how to use a magnifying glass, dissecting microscope and other scientific tools in several natural experiments. We also incorporated a number of artistic activities for the children to re-imagine and reflect upon the wonders of the forest.

Connecting with the Forest

None of the children previously had the opportunity to spend such a significant amount of time in the Valdivian forest, even though it was only about 20 minutes away from where they lived! For example, Mathias (age 11), Alexandra (age 9), and Catalina (age 11) all exclaimed, “I’ve never been in a forest like this!” Martina (age 11) said she had “never seen native birds in Chile, nor heard them.”

We realized that the forest was largely an abstract concept for these kids, it wasn’t real. But over the 2-week program, we witnessed a subtle and profound transformation in the children. They began connecting with and becoming at home in the forest in a way that they’d never had the opportunity to do before. Gwen (age 8) described what she felt like being in the forest: “I feel free. I smell plants I haven’t smelled before. You can hear the voices of the birds. And you get to see the forest because if you were in the city you would be smelling garbage and seeing other things that are not like the forest. And the forest is much more beautiful than the city.” Alexandra (age 9) said she feels great when she’s in the forest because “it’s awesome to come here and explore.” And Martina (age 11) said when she’s in the forest, “I feel happy. I feel that the forest is nice and relaxing.”

Becoming Future Scientists

During the program, the kids acquired a number of scientific skills; they learned to use the scientific method to observe nature and deduce or draw conclusions from their observations. The children also became experts at identifying specific bird, plant and tree species native to the Valdivian forest! For example, Estefanía (age 11) kept a detailed notebook of all the new species she observed in the forest, including birds, insects, trees/plants/fungi, and mammals. She told us that she would go home and look up more information about the species online in the evenings! All the children particularly enjoyed listening for and learning to identify a number of native bird species including the fio fio, carpintero, bandurria, whet whet, buho, and choroy. Most of the children had never seen these native bird species before; in the words of Mathias (age 11), “I’d seen birds close up before, but never the fio fio!” In addition to new bird species, at the end of the program the children reported never having seen previously a number of insect species (including beetles), a brightly-colored frog called “rana del barrio”, multiple tree and plant species including ferns, lichens and fuscia flowers, and many of them had also never previously tasted or smelled the native canelo (cinnamon) tree leaves nor native berries (including meli and murta). Observing and learning about the forest not only using their sense of sight, but also by touching, listening to, smelling and tasting the wonders of the forest deeply impacted the children and made them more likely to retain their newfound knowledge.

Becoming Future Stewards of the Forest

As the children learned to understand and appreciate all the forest had to offer, we observed significant changes in their behavior toward the natural environment as well. For example, several of the children on the first day were swatting at insects in fear and disgust. But on the last day one of the children knocked an insect of a handrail by accident and Estefanía (age 11) yelled out, “Be careful! Save the insect!” A small group of kids found the insect, picked it up gently and put it in a safe place.

We were so impressed with how the children became able to articulate WHY the forest is important or valuable. Martina (age 11) explained, “It’s important to protect the forest because the trees give oxygen to the world and without trees we wouldn’t exist. Besides, there’s water here and so much life so we have to protect it so more forests like this one can exist, with native species.” Martina’s little sister Emilia (age 9) said, “If we destroy the forest the birds won’t exist anymore because we are destroying their habitat.” Mathias (age 11) explained, “Since there’s so little nature left in this world, it’s really good to protect what we have left.”

At the close of the program we gave certificates to each of the kids who are now officially, “Protectors of the Valdivian Rainforest .” We were so proud of our first class !! In the words of Carolina Jara, one of the GAAP staff, “I’ve been working for many years in environmental education, but truthfully it surprised me how motivated these kids were. They were a really great group! And I congratulate them. They are going to be tremendous adults, very concerned for nature.”

Touching the Lives of the GAAP Staff

The changes we witnessed in the children over the 2-week period inspired in us (the GAAP staff) a renewed commitment to opening children’s’ eyes to the magic of nature. It was deeply inspiring to watch the children’s’ faces light up while they explored the forest, and we became newly convinced of the importance of enabling children to reconnect with nature. Benjamin, one of the environmental educators, said, “this was the best experience I’ve had with children.” Carolina, our other environmental educator, added, “There was an enriching feedback loop between the teachers and the students: we wanted to give something to the children, but we also learned so much from them!” Elena, one of the GAAP directors said, “This project was amazing! It’s the best project we’ve ever done… The best thing I liked about it was seeing the change in such a short time. It was really exciting, the kids bonded, they made friendships in their group, they bonded with us, we bonded with the other teachers, it was a really nice experience.”

“We want more!”

Towards the end of the program the children told us they didn’t want the program to end (and honestly, neither did we!) On the last day we sat down and reflected with the kids on the experience and when we asked them whether they thought we should have another workshop they all started chanting, “Otra vez! Otra vez! (One more time! One more time!)” It was so sweet! In the words of Estefanía (age 11), “This was a nice experience and I would like it to repeat because I like being in the fresh air and I would like to learn many more things.” We’ve heard over the last couple months from some of the parents that their kids are STILL talking about the program and asking when there will be more! Guillermo, one of the GAAP directors reflected, “The objective of the project was to awaken their curiosity for nature, and I think we just completely did that. It was incredible how they just wanted to learn more and more and they wanted to come back.”

Future Plans for the Nature Discovery Center

We’ve learned from parents and local teachers that there really is nothing like the Nature Discovery Center in Valdivia where kids can go for more than a short outing. They explained that longer workshops like ours at the Nature Discovery Center create lifelong memories for the children. In the words of Lilian Ochoa, the mother of Alexandra (age 9), “I think that today nature is so mistreated that it would be good to teach children from the time they’re young to learn how to care for it. As they grow up, they can be valuing nature more and more. This is the idea – to keep conserving and caring for it.”

Having successfully established the strong infrastructure of the Nature Discovery Center building and ecological trails we are so excited to build upon and expand our program to the next level. In the coming year we plan to invite more children and families to experience the wonder of their native ecosystem!

Stay tuned for more about this amazing program! We currently have a plan in the works to purchase an adjacent piece of land to our current property so we can protect additional areas of the Valdivian forest and expand our Nature Discovery Center ecological trail system!