Fairfax County Park Authority naturalists share their love and knowledge of nature with thousands of local children each year. In the summer of 2017, one of them took that love overseas. Here’s her story:
Over this past summer, I contacted a non-profit organization based in Tangier, Morocco. The group helps at-risk youngsters and women with children to learn skills such as cooking, weaving, and pottery making. Their members provide short-term preschool for children of families with little income.
I wanted to share the love I have for nature with the children of the organization by developing nature-based programs I could present to them. Having conducted such programs as an assistant naturalist at Hidden Oaks Nature Center, I was more than ready to share this love of nature with children in Morocco. After exchanging emails with the organization’s leader and confirming the volunteer work I would be doing, I packed. Luggage, a couple of teaching materials, and my hopes set off to North Africa.
Shortly after arriving, the organization scheduled a time for me to meet my new students, and so came the day where I joined 21 beautiful children between the ages of four and six sitting at a table. Their teacher introduced me in Darija, or Moroccan Arabic. In turn, they greeted me with a “Sbah al khayr,” which translates to “Good morning!” What a joy to meet such resiliently radiant children! The language barrier only slightly befuddled things, and we quickly picked up speed with hand gestures, facial expressions and body language.
The teacher and I agreed I would either teach the lesson in Spanish, my native language, or English, and she would translate it into Darija. I planned my first lesson on basic plant studies. We would learn how seeds grow, create arts and crafts, and conduct small experiments.
The day of our first lesson, I was a bit nervous but excited at the same time. I arranged props at the front of the classroom, decorated with books on plants, toted in an apple and an orange, and hung a few posters showing how a seed grows. During the presentation, the children were intrigued and attentive, curious to learn how a plant transforms from seed to sapling to plant. At one point, I took out the orange and apple, slit them with a knife, and removed the seeds. The children were eager to see those seeds. Next was a craft, and the children were invited to take parts of a growing plant I had sliced from construction paper and glue them under the correct labels on a project titled, “How Plants Grow.”
From that day forward our bond grew strong. The very next day they hugged me and called me ‘Teacher Cesia’ in Darija as I entered the classroom, which was sweet to hear. We continued our nature lessons and projects. Most of these children had never been part of activities such as experimenting with food coloring to observe how plants take up water, or watching how a seed wrapped in wet paper towels can grow in a clear bag that’s kept under sunlight. I wanted them to be as hands-on as possible. For example, when the seeds began to germinate, I encouraged them to hold or touch the growing stem and leaf to reinforce how a plant grows.
For a month and a-half, we learned about animal habitats, mammals, made animal finger puppets, painted, worked on art projects, and played bingo. All in all, the experience was more than wonderful. Thinking back, the most memorable lesson I learned from volunteering is that when you share your heart and passion for things you care about with others, not only do they benefit from learning and discovering new things, but you learn and discover new things about yourself too.
I wish nothing but the best for these children and hope their love and curiosity lead them to a bright future!
Author Cesia Lobo is an Assistant Naturalist at Hidden Oaks Nature Center in Annandale, Va.