By Jason Aloisio, Teacher at Is-Simar Nature Reserve.
Today’s children and families often have limited opportunities to connect with the natural environment. Amongst other things, this is reflected in children’s distorted knowledge about nature in general: acorns grow on pine trees, pine cones are nibbled by squirrels (we don’t have squirrels in Malta), bees gather honey from flowers, and birds are covered in fur. You cannot really blame them – most of them probably rarely play inthe countryside, have never been toa nature reserve, and never climbed up a tree. Most of our children stillshow interest in the natural world – by reading books dealing with wildlife, watching documentaries on television, or searching on the internet. But only a fraction of them get the chance to experience it directly and this is what really counts.
Some 2,000 students visit Is-Simar annually. Each class spends about three hours at the reserve. Up to 30 students can be accommodated at any one time, although personally I prefer smaller groups – the nature trail is quite narrow and nature cannot really be enjoyed when in a ‘crowd’. For this reason, I always advise larger groups to book both reserves on the same days – with one group stopping at is-Simar and the other half proceeding to Għadira Nature Reserve, a mere 15 minutes drive from is-Simar. This helps to reduce transport costs (we do not charge entrance fees) while students benefit more from the visit. Since demand for the class visits at BirdLife’s reserves is high, early booking is always recommended.
As a teacher, I aim to give students not just information but a multi-sensory experience. Through different activities, I encourage them to explore their surroundings not only through observation, but also by listening, touching and smelling. Upon entering the reserve, the first comments I often hear is that there’s nothing in this place, as students expect to find the surroundings brimming with all types of large birds. This initial perception starts to change as soon as the students are given some time to start exploring a short track of the nature trail with a magnifying lens. Watching the children getting excited with every insect they find, or discovering the hidden patterns in a tiny flower gives me (and the children) great satisfaction.
Whilst walking along the nature trail, they start to make more sense out of the place, as anonymous trees and flowers begin acquiring names, and the background noise seperate into individual sounds, which very often we ignore completely in the hustle and bustle of daily life. With the help of a simple listening game, the children start picking up the rhythm of the wind, the rustle of a skink in the grass, the buzzing of bees and the bursting song of the Cetti’s Warbler or the distant call of the Moorhen. When the paths are dry, I sometimes invite the group to lie still on the ground, facing upwards to observe the branches above them swaying with the breeze. The initial nervous giggling soon gives way to intense observation and relaxation – it is not uncommon for one or more in the group to start dozing off!
This reawakening to the sense of beauty in nature works both ways – whilst helping the children walk along this path of discovery, I find myself inspired through their response and enthusiasm.
Another scholastic year has now passed, full of magical moments which I’m sure that the children and teachers who experienced them will cherish for a long time. Sometimes friends and relatives wonder how I never tire of ‘teaching’ the same subject after all these years with BirdLife. The truth is that nature is so dynamic that every day brings with it something different. You can never get tired of nature – in fact I am already looking forward for another year of sharing nature with children.