It’s day 1 of the environment education program at the GAAP Nature Discovery Center and the kids have arrived. Ten kids, all from different socio-economic and cultural backgrounds and we are going to be asking them to work through our new curriculum, together, for the next two weeks. Here in Chile, however, it can be a very classist society where children from different backgrounds seldom mix and teamwork is not that common.


Our first activity is a simple game where we introduce ourselves and then try to think of something in nature that starts with the same letter as our own name. The kids are a bit shy, but they play along…until we get to Mathias. He is 11 years old, of Mapuche origin (the local indigenous community) and lives in a single-parent household in the poorest part of town. He keeps his head down, he is sullen, and picks at the ground with a stick. He doesn’t want to play the game and he doesn’t remember if he’s ever been in a forest. So, we breeze over to the next participant, and give Mathias some space.


And there it is — our challenge laid out before us in the first 5 minutes. Will all of the kids get along? Will they have fun? Will they learn anything? And will they even bother coming back tomorrow?

After we learn everyone’s name, we start into the main day’s activities where the children are divided into groups and race against time to follow a map of the forest, picking up clues so that they can solve a word puzzle by the end of the day. When the van came to take them home, Mathias quietly turned to us before climbing in and said, “Hopefully I can come every day, I loved it!”

On the second day, the kids participated in an activity called “Five Senses”. They had to explore the forest through their senses: taste, smell, touch, sight, and sound. I had already taken a keen interest in Mathias — he was aloof and uninterested on the surface, but I found him gentle and caring, with a sweet soul underneath. Together we listened to the breeze, creaking trees, birds, frogs and water. 

Then I pulled out this huge crate full of percussion instruments and the kids’ jaws dropped when I told them to dig in! They were tasked with re-creating the forest sounds in their own way. It was fantastic, and in that group, Mathias shone! He completely lost himself in his own interpretation of the sound of water, and using multiple instruments, we were all captivated by his song. It was a magnificent transformation to witness after only 24 hours, from a sullen boy to this bright performer.


For the remaining 6 days, Mathias came every day and participated to a level that I certainly had not expected on day 1. And throughout the remaining workshops, Mathias was warm and funny, interacted quietly with the other kids, participated in everything, laughed often, and showed some real promise as an artist and musician.

For me, Mathias was the proof in the pudding that this kind of hands-on education really works. Kids are allowed to be themselves; they learn as much as they are ready to learn, they live the experience rather than read about it, and each one expresses their new-found knowledge in a different way. At the end of the two weeks, we had come to know and appreciate the uniqueness of each of the 9 children. The last day was emotional and full of hugs, tears and promises to stay in touch, but the most impactful for me was the shy smile and simple thank you from my buddy: Mathias. 

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