Nature Hero Program

Nature Hero Program – Be inspired

In a nutshell

The Nature Hero program is linked to a proudly South African book called The Big Show published by Play Africa in collaboration with Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo. The story teaches children and families important lessons about the impact humans have on the world and the power of working together as a team to shape the future of our planet.  The program was created for young children aged 8-10 in Johannesburg, with the aim of creating an interest and excitement in environmental conservation and promoting the importance of park environments in the city.

What we do

Play Africa seeks to pioneer inclusive public learning spaces in South Africa, creating engaged citizens and healthy communities. The organization invites all visitors to discover new worlds, to wonder, to ask questions and to imagine a better future through engaging with interactive hands-on exhibits, programs and play activities. 

Play Africa is collaborating with Johannesburg City Parks and Zoo’s Corporate Research and Knowledge Management Department, in conducting research related to exploring hands-on, interactive play and play-based learning programmes for children, families and schools in and related to city parks in Johannesburg.

The collaboration, which emerged from an earlier partnership related to the development of an illustrated children’s book titled The Big Show (October 2015 - June 2016), promotes environmental awareness and the importance of parks in urban environments. The collaboration further aims to create new knowledge and practices related to stakeholders` engagement in educational and family programs within Johannesburg`s parks.

The Nature Hero Program, linked to The Big Show, starts with an inquiry into children’s perceptions of city parks through an activity using Lego (The Lego was donated by the Lego foundation and Care for Education). This Lego activity provides the children with an opportunity to envision and build their ideal park. Discussions centred around park safety and reasons why the children do not use their local parks unearth any preconceived ideas about the park before we move into the park environment.

Over the following 5 days, children engage with different themes within the environmental science field.  These themes include the importance of trees, growing plants, the Earth’s climate and how best to help and protect the Earth. The engagement around these themes is supported by hands on activities that invite children to explore the natural wonders in urban parks.     

How we do it

A local school, a short distance from the park, was involved in the initial pilot of this program. One educator and 20 children from the school were chosen to take part in this program as part of an after school initiative. The timing of the program coincided with the Grade 3 curriculum themes on dangerous places and pollution, this gave the program a better chance of approval within the educational space. 

The project ran over 6 days, with a slow progression into the park space. The park used was frequented by adults, most of whom seemed to reside in the park; because of this many children had expressed their reservations in going into this space. A number of the children mentioned having had bad experiences with the residents of the park, such as being attacked or chased by them. Further, some of the children's parents had been robbed in the park. The initial discussion and activities on the safety of public spaces, including city parks, provided a platform for the children to voice concerns and an opportunity for facilitators to mediate any fears and discuss the benefits of taking part in the program.

For this program a facilitator to child ratio requirement of 1:5 was put in place to ensure safety and sufficient attention towards every child within the public space. Rules and safety precautions were discussed with children prior to heading out into the park and children were encouraged to remain nearby their facilitator while playing games such as Park Detective (an activity which allows for self-directed exploration and play).

Over the course of the 6 day program, an increasing amount of time was spent in the park. Children were allowed to freely explore their natural environment, looking for many natural elements, measuring and studying trees and growing their own plants. Group discussions on how best to help the earth were held under the shade of the big beautiful park trees.  

What we have achieved

Overall we found that the children really enjoyed being in the park space and, with Play Africa facilitators around, were able to relax without fear of being targeted by strangers. They explored the park freely and on the last day could name many things that they enjoyed and learnt from the program.

A great achievement was giving some children the opportunity to visit the park for the first time as they had never been to a park. Other children had mentioned in the discussion that the last time they had been in a park was in preschool, and so this program gave them an opportunity to play in the park once again. Most children were not usually allowed to visit the parks owing to parents safety concerns. This program, however, gave these children the opportunity to explore and experience free play in the park, without fear.

The highlight of the program for children, teachers and facilitators was the theme on the Earth’s climate with special attention to the activity on making rainbows. The children used natural sunlight, mirrors and a large bowl of water to create a rainbow on a blank sheet of paper. This activity caused a lot of excitement and ignited curiosity in the children who were in awe of the simplicity of the process. One of the children felt empowered enough to try it at home. He came back the next day and told us about how he had showed his parents and siblings how to make a rainbow.

Another highlight for children was growing their own plants. Every day children would come back to tell Play Africa staff about new developments in their plants, with some plants having grown two or three leafs within the 6 day period. Many children said they had learnt patience in waiting for their plants to grow, and also that they need to take care of their plants with enough water and sunlight.

At the end of the program the children spoke confidently about keeping their park spaces clean, and all the children lifted their hands when asked if they would visit the park again, after their positive experiences with Play Africa. Many of the children were sad to know that it was the end of the program and the last day spent in the park with Play Africa. Overall, we found that all the kids had taken away a valuable and even, life changing experience.
Monitoring and evaluation forms were provided for the educator taking part in the program, these forms allowed the educator to give Play Africa valuable feedback that would inform the refinement of the Nature Hero program.

What we have learned

Key learnings included:

  • The park provides a space for creative exploration of nature, and free self-directed play in a society focused on consumption and entertainment. Children require exposure to the environments created for them, so that they can become increasingly comfortable with following their instinctual drive to explore and ask questions.
  • The complacency of adults in maintaining spaces created for children causes degradation in the quality, inclusivity and safety of city parks and other public spaces. We need to have more people pushing back and becoming advocates for children’s right to safe and clean spaces to play.
  • Children, when empowered, have the voices and power to take ownership of the spaces made for them. They have the ability to become ambassadors in their own right. This program provided a glimpse into what a society with children empowered with knowledge of their environments, could look like.
  • When parents keep children away from spaces made for them, because of fear of the potential dangers of certain public spaces, children’s growth and development can be impeded. We aim to encourage parents to step out of their comfort zones and together with their children take back ownership of city parks.
  • Children have the potential to reach new heights and become the next generation of conservationists, ecologists, zoologists and environmental scientists in South Africa. 
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