What if your elementary school had been located in the middle of a soon-to-be national park? Escuela Valle Chacabuco, the on-site school for the children of year-round Patagonia Park employees, has the unique opportunity to inspire a love of the wild places that exist just outside its doors. Schoolteacher Aubree McAtee, originally from Roseville, CA, is responsible for teaching all of the children of Patagonia Park, ages 4-13, in one classroom. This June, McAtee coordinated with local teacher Soledad Beatriz Ganga Vargas of Cochrane (the closest town to the park) to welcome the children of Cochrane to Patagonia Park. Though the school is located just 30 minutes south of Patagonia Park, for many of these students it was their first trip to see this new protected area.
By Aubree McAtee, Conservacion Patagonica Schoolteacher
A recent workshop that took place on June 12th became the beginning of something great. On this afternoon, the children of Cochrane, our neighboring town, had the opportunity travel to Patagonia Park to meet the children who live and go to school onsite at Escuela Valle Chacabuco. They visited the school, met the teacher (me), and learned about the different learning approach in our classroom. The children who live at Patagonia Park are given the unique opportunity to learn by doing in a prepared classroom environment with a mixed age group. Our small schoolhouse has children ranging from 4-13 years old. Students have weekly opportunities to explore the surrounding ecosystem by visiting different destinations within the park, playing nature connection games, and taking part in community projects.
The goal of the visit was to enhance the connections between the children of Cochrane and their natural environment, local educators and park staff, and increase parents’ confidence with teachers. The visit was part of the Environmental Education Workshop series, which takes place each Friday through the school in Cochrane. For this particular workshop, organized by myself and Cochrane schoolteacher Soledad Beatriz Ganga Vargas with help from Outdoor Education guides Cristián Restrepo Ruiz and Jorge Molina Vidal, the class of Cochrane students traveled a little over 30 km to attend this special field trip. Leaving the small town of Cochrane was a first for many of the children. During these workshops textbooks are left behind and the child gets the experience of feeling, touching, seeing, smelling and hearing this place for the first time.
When they arrived, questions filled the air and smiles were spread across each child’s face as each child took in their surroundings. After getting to know the school, teachers and other children, we parted the schoolhouse and separated into small groups. This became a great moment, because it allowed the teachers to observe how their students act in nature—a space where they are not required to sit still, but a place where they can use their senses to explore. For teacher Soledad Beatriz Ganga Vargas, field trips like these are important for her children. When we spoke afterwards, Vargas commented that, “It was not only the things we saw, but in the ways the children behaved, respected the environment, our classmates, the group leader, etc.”
While walking with the children to Toma del Agua (the main water source for Park Administration), we kept our focus on not rushing the children to arrive at the destination, but allowing them to experience the beauty of exploring and wandering. It felt crucial to stop, reflect, and let the children be children. In so, we discovered animal tracks, picked up bones, crossed streams, jumped in puddles of water, helped each other cross bridges, observed fox scat, found new plants, and encountered lots of guanacos.
Upon arriving at Toma del Agua, we held a discussion on water and its importance throughout the park and the region. It also served as an opportunity for children to explore this peaceful area of water, to have a moment of silence, and enjoy the sounds of the birds communicating. On our return walk back, we encountered a guanaco that had just had a run in with a puma. This was a capturing moment for the children and allowed us teachers to encourage the children to talk about life cycles on their walk back.
For us mentors, these trips are important because they allow the children to see their natural environment from an ecological perspective, and help them view the relationship between man and the environment in a positive way. Vargas noted, “The children got the opportunity to understand the species that share the same habitat as them, and this will allow the children to know and live in harmony within their surrounding environment. Field trips and educational workshops like this allow the students to see everything in person and experience nature first hand. From understanding the real size of a guanaco, to seeing its proximity to these children’s home…it definitely spiked their curiosity.”
As spring and summer are around the corner, teachers in both classrooms as well as the Outdoor Education guides are beginning to work together to invite more local teachers and children to the park. As teachers and mentors we hope to continue to expand the educational programs regionally, inviting more educators and children to embrace and experience Patagonia Park in the coming year.