Join the Wildlife Club!

By Kate Thompson, Safina Center “Kalpana Chawla Launchpad” Fellow

To be quite honest, I wasn’t sure how the children would react to the idea of Wildlife Club (the closest translation we could come up with for “nature camp” in Swahili). After all, it’s their fall school vacation and I’m asking them to do more school. But as we call them into our shady concrete classroom, and explained the idea of Wildlife Club to them their eyes it up. Gideon— my site manager— and I work in tandem. I speak and explain in English and he translates. For the first few class days we covered big topics: What is nature? What do animals need to survive? How do we impact nature?

To avoid making our classroom lessons feel more like the rigid wrote-memorization structure of east African education, we made questions and quizzes into games. To gauge base knowledge, we set up three kids in the corner of the classroom; each child held a sign that read NDIO (YES), HAPANA (NO) and SI JUI (I DON’T KNOW). We asked questions as the kids rush to run towards which sign they believed was correct. In a fit of giggles and excitement they darted, vacillating between corners as they thought through questions such as “Are all bugs pests?” “Do animals only live in National Parks?” “Are humans animals?” Lessons comprised of videos from the wonderful BrainPop among other educational websites, drawing time, and black-board explanations of major concepts.

Each following session started with a game to help the kids shake their silliness out before class. We divided into teams named after animals and did wildlife charades, relay races and other group activities. Next, to assess their retention of lessons (such as talking about the difference between nature and manmade structure) I asked the kids to draw pictures depicting major concepts. I asked them to draw nature, and then a handful of children got up in front of the group to nervously depict what they colored. Even if they had incorrectly “answered” the question (we got gravel roads and mud huts) they got a loud round of applause echoing around the concrete school house, and the incorrect ideas served as conversations starters for segueing into the lesson. “Why don’t we consider houses part of nature?” “Can wild animals still live in towns?” “When we build new towns, where do the lions and elephants go?”

Although fall break is now over and the children returned to school on Monday this week, we’re going to continue Wildlife Club on Saturday and Sunday afternoons each week. Additionally, we are expanding the program to a neighboring children’s home. We also do pop-up activities whenever the kids have down-time. Last week I taught the children to do leaf and bark rubbings of the trees on our campus. Then I surprised them by cutting out their work and transforming it into a collage tree, which I mounted on our new bulletin board outside the office. The kids beamed and reached up to touch the rainbow of leaves and find their names amongst the paper foliage and flowers.

Once I return from a short break for a friend’s wedding, we’ll talk more about why trees and other plants are important to animals, to the larger environment and to humans. Then we’re going to paint a mural depicting how to plant a tree (teaching the kids through art) and end by planting trees in our dusty wind-swept neighborhood. Understandably, in a population that largely lacks electricity and running water, trees are predominantly thought of as kindling and tinder for kitchen fires. However, if we can broaden perspectives and help our children understand how trees and wildlife exist beyond the purpose of human consumption, we can begin to instill a passion for nature amongst the next generation.

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