Little People Making Parks in the Cloud Forest

I had some waldkindergarten deja-vu yesterday, when I was working with the fourth graders at the Cloud Forest School. We’d all trekked out to the forest behind school, little people in tow. “Little people” meaning not the fourth graders, but their inch-tall pipe cleaner figures, some elaborately bedecked with painted bead heads and construction paper vests. Each student had a yarn loop, approximately two feet in diameter, and the idea was to create a mini national park.

Of course, it raises some questions:

-   Why did you choose to put the park here? What’s unique? What do you want to protect?
-   To what extent can you or should you modify the land within your boundary?
-   Description of all features in this national park? Flora, fauna?
-   Why would “little people” want to come to this park? Could they visit without creating too much impact on the land?

Interestingly enough, when the fourth graders found a spot for their “park,” one of their first instincts was to clear it of all leaf litter and sticks. Then, once they had an open area, they would either begin building little twig and leaf structures, or adding in flora…from another section of the forest. For instance, Juliana pulled mossy clumps off a decaying log and filled her whole area—a green bath mat of sorts. Dario made dozens of little stick huts—“It’s Insectopia,” he told me. “The huts are for the insects!”

It could have been a waldkindergarten scene, kids playing and building in the forest. This is what strikes me—this basic drive to create cities, civilizations. They would do this every day in Germany, digging elaborate networks of tunnels and bridges. Now here, with kids three to six years older, they also are drawn to creating. However, here, it runs somewhat counter to what we are trying to teach. We taught about national parks being created to help protect special areas of biodiversity, but the students instead tried to make these places. I felt like I was watching a workshop for a “sustainable material building” class rather than a class learning about conservation and national parks.

One thing that is starting to worry me is the way that the teacher and I keep finding ourselves using the catchphrase “good conservationalist.” We ask questions like, “When you built that, were you being a good conservationist?” meaning was your impact on the environment minimal? When I spot one boy starting to rip branches off a tree, I hear myself going, “Is that what a good conservationalist would do?”

I don’t want to let a preachy dynamic enter the scene; I don’t want “conservationist” to seem akin to “goody two-shoes.” I like, instead, the Chico Mendes style of conservation—the Brazilian who was so passionate about saving the rain forest that he inspired all his community members to link arms and stand in front of the bulldozers. Of course, even this is a dramatized depiction; I believe a large part of conservation is just about making lifestyle changes.