Students throughout Latin America are spilling out of classrooms and into schoolyards--and turning small observations into much larger life lessons.

By Alex Markels
Photography by Andy Anderson

In a simple one-room schoolhouse perched on a hillside in a verdant forest in Bolivia's northern Yungas region, fields of citrus trees splaying the landscape beneath, Esteban Cayllagua tries out a new lesson plan on his 25 young pupils. Instead of leading the six- to nine-year-olds in the rote recitation of multiplication and vocabulary, an approach that once defined this Andean nation's standard curriculum, the teacher writes a question on the blackboard--a mud-brick wall painted black: "What kinds of plants grow in the corners and center of the schoolyard, and how many are there?"

The students cluster around small wooden tables and busily write down the question on blank sheets of paper. When they're done, Cayllagua divides them into groups, then instructs them to go out and investigate. Pencils and paper in hand, the children bolt for the doorway and scatter around the schoolyard, a sunbaked rectangle of cement that sits below the pueblo of Tocaña. The settlement's 50 or so families eke out a living from the rocky terrain by legally growing coca leaves and oranges. This mountainous cloudforest region, a precipitous 9,000-foot drop below Bolivia's Altiplano, is home to nearly a third of the country's 1,374 bird species and countless other animals and subtropical plants.

"Here's one!" a black-haired boy shouts as he yanks a clump of grass from the ground. He scribbles the word hierba on his paper, then riffles through the brush for another specimen. "Look at this!" he says as he uproots an orange flower and sets it next to the tuft of grass. "Look how pretty!"

Cayllagua soon calls the children back to the classroom and instructs each group to tally its results on long sheets of butcher paper, attaching the specimens--flowers, herbs, and grasses--with tape. The children present their findings to the class. Cayllagua warmly praises their work but seems unsure of just what to do next. He turns to Alejandra Roldan, a local conservation biologist who is helping to integrate the lesson plan into the teacher's curriculum. Enticing the children to reflect on what they've found, Roldan holds up a tuft of grass and asks, "What kinds of animals eat this?"

"Vacas! Llamas! Mulas!" the children shout.

"Yes, the cows and llamas and mules all eat lots of grass. And why do they eat so much?"

"Because they're hungry!"

Roldan poses a new question: "If you had lots of money to buy as many cows as you wanted, but had only a little bit of land to put them on, how many would you buy? Would you buy 10, or 100, or 1,000?"

"I want 2,000 cows!" yells one boy.

"I want 40,000 cows!" shouts another.

"But how could you feed them all with only a little land?"

Perplexed, the children fall silent.

"Okay, so you buy 1,000 cows and put them on your land, and they eat up all the grass. What then?"

"They're going to starve!" a child finally shouts.

"Maybe we shouldn't have so many cows," says another.

Insights like these might seem basic, but Roldan and a growing cadre of ecologists and educators believe they are key to building a sense of environmental awareness and conservation that, until now, has largely been nonexistent in Latin America--let alone in most of the rest of the world. The teaching method, known as "schoolyard ecology," uses the schoolyard as an extension of the classroom, a hands-on laboratory where children learn about their physical and biological surroundings through exercises that also allow them to develop basic academic skills.

"Many of us think that this is the best long-term route toward conservation," says Peter Feinsinger, a tropical ecologist and conservation biologist, who, in the 1980s, first developed the schoolyard-ecology concept. "Merely telling people that they've got to conserve the environment doesn't work. They need to find out for themselves, to question and learn and understand what's going on with ecological processes and how what they do affects the local environment."

Early childhood may be the ideal time to encourage such insight. Recent studies suggest that there is a "sensitive period," from about age 8 through 12, during which an attachment to the physical world is formed--much like the developmental phase in which children acquire language skills. "Exposure to the natural environment during this period could have a lasting effect," says renowned Harvard University biodiversity expert E.O. Wilson, who explores such phenomena in his soon-to-be-published book, The Future of Life. "The effects might not be immediately obvious, but over time they may deepen the sense of attachment and loyalty children feel toward the living environment."

Finding innovative ways of nurturing that attachment is precisely what schoolyard ecology is all about. Using the basic tenets of scientific inquiry--questioning, investigating, and reflecting--Feinsinger and a grassroots network of ecologists and teachers have fashioned a program, a loose but wholly science-based outline that teachers and children can use to understand the physical world around them. "We're trying to foster environmental consciousness," Feinsinger explains. "But we're not doing this by telling people what attitude they ought to have. We're merely giving them the tools and the encouragement to figure things out for themselves."

With funding and organizational support from the Audubon Society, Feinsinger and his colleagues have trained more than a thousand teachers in South America and the United States to incorporate the schoolyard-ecology approach into their standard curriculums--not just in science classes but also in nuts-and-bolts subjects like reading, writing, and arithmetic, and even social sciences, literature, and art. "The method is spreading like wildfire," says Alejandro Grajal, director of Audubon's Latin America and Caribbean Program, which sponsors the Schoolyard Ecology Education Initiative. He estimates that the program involves 25,000 students in a dozen countries, from Mexico to Argentina.

The notion that schools should teach children about their physical surroundings is hardly revolutionary. Yet as Feinsinger and a group of graduate students discovered in the 1980s, few elementary or secondary schools incorporate local flora and fauna into the curriculum or include a hands-on investigation of nearby ecosystems. Nor do science textbooks, intended for wide distribution, feature native plants and animals.

"In the Florida schools, they were using textbooks that featured examples from Minnesota," recalls Feinsinger, who once worked as a professor at the University of Florida in Gainesville. "There was no real connection between what they were teaching in school and what was actually happening right outside the classroom."

So he and his students drafted The Handbook of Schoolyard Plants and Animals of North Central Florida, and distributed thousands of copies to local schoolteachers. They encouraged colleagues around the country to develop similar materials and incorporate them into core curriculums.

Inspired by Feinsinger's approach, a team of science educators soon developed a national schoolyard-ecology training program, which has since been attended by more than 500 elementary-school teachers. "Peter gave us a vision for how to teach science outside in a hands-on way, rather than just the pulleys-and-pendulums approach that typifies indoor science teaching," says Alan Berkowitz, head of education at the Institute of Ecosystem Studies in Millbrook, New York, and leader of the National Science Foundation–funded project. "He was tenacious in insisting that the schoolyard not just be used as an outdoor version of a textbook, but that teachers turn the questioning and investigating over to the kids."

Feinsinger soon began spreading the seeds of schoolyard ecology in Latin America, too. In 1993 he gave a talk on the subject in Argentina and was later asked to create a full-blown workshop. He began holding workshops in other countries, from Colombia to Chile and Brazil, training ecologists and teachers, who, in turn, applied the principles of la Ensenanza de Ecologia en el Patio de la Escuela, or "Ecology Education at the School's Patio," in local schools.

Convinced that it could help promote conservation among the campesinos and indigenous people who live closest to many of the world's most sensitive ecosystems, two years ago the Audubon Society's Latin America and Caribbean Program took on schoolyard ecology as its flagship education project. "The initiative is a crucial step toward raising environmental consciousness in Latin America," says Grajal, whose program has invested more than $270,000 in promoting schoolyard ecology throughout Latin America. "It creates a culture of conservation that can help make many of our other efforts stick."

For example, schoolyard-ecology programs in Bolivia and Peru have been dovetailed with Audubon initiatives to help save rare birds like the Peruvian plantcutter and the puna flamingo. Lessons in both countries have investigated how the birds are affected by the things that local people do, such as the common practice of poaching the eggs and chicks of rare flamingos that live in northern Bolivia's high lakes region. "The kids thought the flamingos were very common because so many of them nested in the Laguna Colorada, near their school," recalls Grajal. "They were surprised to find out they are actually endangered, and that most of them nest only in that one lake." Such information may or may not persuade people to protect the birds, but Grajal believes it's vital to any conservation effort. "It's very hard to ask people to save the local ecosystem if they don't even understand the ecology of their surroundings," he says.

Nowhere is that more true than in Bolivia, a country with a multitude of ecosystems and habitats, from the desertlike Altiplano in the north to the thorny Gran Chaco and Amazonian jungles in the east. Its varied terrain is home to about 40 percent of the total bird species found in South America and animal life that includes rare jaguars and maned wolves. Much of the country's indigenous, largely undereducated population is unaware of the devastating effects of such routine practices as slash-and-burn farming and customs like hunting wild birds for their feathers. "Until a few years ago, there was no environmental ethic in this country," explains Tito Hoz de Vila, Bolivia's former minister of education. "The idea that throwing garbage in the street had an environmental effect simply wasn't understood."

Educational reforms instituted since the mid-1990s have freed teachers to include new, more progressive lesson plans, such as those exercised by practitioners of schoolyard ecology, and Hoz de Vila says his ministry is now developing teaching materials that will bring conservation and environmental themes into the schools. Still, he admits that numerous hurdles remain. "For the teachers, these themes are new, and there are not enough teaching materials yet," he explains. "We also have a lot of trouble keeping good teachers in the countryside." Many migrate to the cities, Hoz de Vila says, leaving educators in country villages who aren't well prepared to integrate new teaching methods, or even capable of doing so.

Roldan knows this firsthand. In the Coroico area, about 100 miles east of La Paz, Bolivia's largest city, the 36-year-old conservation biologist has struggled to train about 50 teachers from more than a dozen area schools. Roldan, whose soft-spoken voice belies her determination to make the program a success, travels on foot and by four-wheel-drive truck on some of the world's most treacherous roads. She spends countless hours holding seminars, attending classes, and advising teachers on how to incorporate the schoolyard-ecology concepts into their everyday teaching.

Just getting to the schools can be problematic. Reached by a frighteningly curvy one-lane road known by tourists as the "Highway of Death," Bolivia's northern Yungas region is often inundated by heavy rains that wash out bridges and leave roads all but impassable. Then there are numerous other challenges: high teacher turnover, chronic shortages of materials, children of varying ages and skills in the same classroom, and the difficult introduction of new subject matter to teachers who are already struggling to cover the basics.

Roldan's attempts, for example, to cajole Cayllagua and his students into understanding the bigger ecological picture are typical. "I'm always trying to turn the things they learn in the schoolyard into larger concepts, something most teachers here don't seem to be able to do on their own," she explains. "They do fine at questioning and investigating. But when it's time to reflect, they always look at me as if they don't understand the significance of what they've been teaching."

Even so, there are signs that the children have been inspired to act more responsibly. For instance, after a lesson on insects in the schoolyard, teachers at Colegio Hermann Gmeiner-SOS, near Santa Cruz, had their students build an exhibit of insects collected from the grounds. Maria Isabel Monasterio teaches third and fourth grades at the school in the eastern lowlands, a region covered by schoolyard-ecology conservation biologists Geovana Carreno, Edmundo Rivera, and Beatriz Parra. While students from other classes began collecting live insects, recalls Monasterio, "the children from the schoolyard-ecology class asked me if they could substitute plastic insects for real ones. After learning about the insects and how they lived, they didn't want to kill them."

Perhaps the most meaningful lessons stem from the investigation of problems in the students' own backyards. There are plenty of opportunities for that in Bolivia's northern mountains, a region populated mostly by subsistence farmers for whom slash-and-burn agriculture is the norm. Recent road-building efforts in the area have also caused serious erosion problems; one mudslide last year destroyed a school and several homes.

"The kids are naturally curious and concerned about things happening around them," says Roldan. "When the mudslides hit the school last year they were very interested in understanding how and why this happened. So we put together a schoolyard-ecology lesson in which the kids went out and investigated the erosion problems."

At another school, near Tocana, a thick cloud of smoke from a fire set to clear nearby farmland presents an ideal backdrop for a middle-school investigation of soil erosion. Filling pitchers of water from a pump, Félix Ticona's students set up an experiment. On a nearby hillside, they measure two equal patches of ground, then clear the vegetation from one of them. Under each square, they dig a trench. They then cut the branch of a banana tree into a half tube and place it in the trench to collect the runoff.

"Watch closely and write down all your observations," Ticona tells the group as two students pour equal amounts of water over the plots, then measure the runoff flowing from each. Back inside the classroom, they summarize the experiment. Writing on large sheets of butcher paper, the children describe every aspect of the project, drawing pictures of the tools they've used, the patches of ground, and the varying physical characteristics.

"The water flowed more slowly on the side with the vegetation," one boy says during his group's presentation. "And there was less runoff."

"The water from the other side was dirty," another adds.

"Why do you think that is?" Ticona asks.

"The plants were like a brake," responds the boy. "They slowed the water flowing down, so more of it soaked in."

"So what happens when you remove all the vegetation from the hillside, like when farmers burn their fields to clear them?"

"Dirty water! Erosion! Mudslides!" say the students.

Whether such understanding will alter the way the families of the children farm the land remains to be seen. Yet ecologists and educators believe even basic scientific investigation could make a difference down the road. "Just getting them to think about things like erosion is a good start," Roldan says.

Wilson notes that Charles Darwin believed in inspiring budding botanists by inviting them to find and identify all the plants and animals they could in a marked area. "For children, this very quickly turns into a game--a biological Easter egg hunt," he says. "They get to explore the environment and put names on what they've discovered, which will give them an appreciation for diversity and for seemingly unpromising pieces of land--like their own schoolyards."

The kindergartners in the pueblo of Cruz Loma reinforce that conclusion as they explore the hillside above their schoolhouse. Crowding around an anthill, they watch in wonder as teacher Marleny Toledo lays out a pile of sugar, which the ants then swarm and carry off into the ground. A boy reaches out his hand to stick a finger down the hole where they've disappeared.

"Careful!" says Toledo. "You wouldn't want someone doing that to your house."

"Oh! That's his house?" exclaims the boy, who then practically tiptoes to avoid crushing the ants.

Later, in another class, Roldan shows off a tuft of grass she has pulled from the schoolyard and leads a discussion about how it grows. As she heads out the door after the lesson, a little girl runs after her, cradling the clod of grass in her hands and pleading, "Could you please put it back now?"

Alex Markels, a former reporter for The Wall Street Journal, writes frequently about Latin America for such magazines as Outside and Men's Journal.






© 2001  NASI

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What you can do

For more information about how you can support the Schoolyard Ecology Education Initiative, contact the Latin America and Caribbean Program of the Audubon Society, 444 Brickell Avenue, Suite 850, Miami, FL 33131; 305-371-6399; agrajal@audubon.org; or www.audubon.org/local/latin.