As the first days of fall arrive, children across Chile pack up their school supplies and return to class. For the children living with their families at the headquarters of the future Patagonia National Park, the commute’s not long: just a few minute walk to the little schoolhouse. Tucked in a corner of the historic sheep-shearing shed, the cozy welcomes the young scholars with bright posters, art projects, and a toasty wood burning stove in the corner—a contemporary version of the fabled one-room-schoolhouse of the frontier days.
Eleven children attend school at the park. At 11, Martin, son of CP Conservation Director Cristian Saucedo and CP Volunteer Program Manager Paula Herrera, leads the pack. Four-year-old Andres, son of Park Superintendent Dago Guzman, is the youngest currently at school, although a few toddlers at the park eagerly await their day to attend school.
Veteran teacher Alejandra Bardavid leads the educational program at the park. Ale taught in Pumalin Park for several years before moving south to Valle Chacabuco, giving her plenty of experience in teaching at remote conservation projects. Originally hailing from Santiago, Ale has a deep commitment to environmental education. She weaves ecological awareness and time outdoors into the school day whenever possible (the school adheres to certain Chilean standard curricula, so that children can meet standards in key subject areas). She describes her educational philosophy as such:
Our program centers on the importance of staying connected with nature. I hope to build on the instinctual connection we as humans have with the natural world but often lose, when distracted and living in cities, with few positive experiences in nature. At the school, we take field trips and guided observations, where we take the time to recognize the senses through which we know our environment. The children identify the sounds, smells, shapes, species around them. These mindful activities encourage a sense of wonder and lead toward remaining vigilant in discovering something new to observe, understand, interpret, and appreciate.
The classroom of the future park extends far beyond the walls of the schoolhouse. The students observe herds of guanacos out their classroom windows, and walk to class alongside the resident bandurrias (buff-necked ibises). The Natural History Center under construction nearby demonstrates the laws of physics as it takes shape, and the greenhouse nearby illustrates the process of plant growth. Ale strives for a participatory, experiential educational experience for students, in which they do not simply memorize information, but learn to observe, question and interpret.
Since the school spans a range of ages and grade levels, a second teacher, Ester Barrera, joins Ale this year. Along with experience in elementary education, Esther has a passion for music and art. She plays the guitar and sings with the children, and teaches arts and crafts.
This year, the first day of classes brought a special treat: past volunteer Caroline Brosius, from Washington, DC, had mailed down a collection of bilingual children’s books, art materials, calculators, and other supplies. She organized with friends to gather educational books on biology and natural history, as well as fun stories. On the first day of classes, Ale opened the boxes and showed the new gifts, much to the students’ delight. A book about microcosmos proved a particular favorite, with large images of microscopic bits of the natural world. The old classic Are You My Mother? also found some loyal readers.
As Ale says, “we received boxes of kindness from people who we do know know directly but who understand the value of generosity. That part of the gift is an example we treasure.” These books encourage the children to read in class and at home and allow them to explore new information, improve their reading skills, and marvel at illustrations. Many of the children are already avid readers, and dug right into the fresh material.
The new school year ahead is just beginning, but the class at the park is larger than ever before, and the children are off to a strong start. They may live far from big cities, but, as Ale reminds them, they get the chance to grow up in a wild and beautiful place that many around the world long to visit.