Peace through action

2009-12-17 00:00

THE rural community of Dalton Bridge in the sweeping Berg foothills and its close neighbours of Ezindikini and Mhubheni may lie way off the beaten track, but they are by no means forgotten.

Every Thursday for the past six months, psychomotor teachers Michele Kocheleff and Rossella Meusel have been making the 75-minute trip from Pietermaritzburg along quiet country roads to a newly revamped resource centre overlooking the Bushman’s River in the small heart of Dalton­ Bridge.

Their task has been twofold: to offer psychomotor classes in the morning to four groups of 13 preschoolers drawn from the three communities, and in the afternoon, train a group of nine future psychomotor teachers — family facilitators drawn from the area and already working with the Little Elephant Training Centre for Early Education (LetCee) which, in the absence of formal Early Childhood Development (ECD) facilities, has been taking early learning once a week into the children’s homes.

By all accounts, the impact of the intervention on the entire community has been startling. Children between the ages of three and five are taking the psychomotor principles of nonviolent communication, spontaneity and personal growth back into their homes, to share with parents and family­ members.

“Parents have been blown away by the changes in the children’s behaviour,” according to Joe Dawson, manager of the nearby Dalton Private Reserve, a model of luxurious but sustainable development [see box] owned by Australian millionaire Ian Gowrie-Smith.

A passionate environmentalist with the task of running the 3 000-hectare eco- estate­, Dawson is responsible for implementing the aspirations of the Dalton Education Trust (Det), a nonprofit organisation founded by the Dalton Trust which manages the Dalton Private Reserve.

Established with seed funding raised at Gowrie-Smith’s 60th birthday party held at the lodge and attended by 120 family members and friends, the trust has started with a focus on preschool learning.

The communities surrounding the lodge are underdeveloped and relatively impoverished. Most work available is unskilled agricultural work and largely seasonal. Early childhood development, known to be a crucial foundation for future learning, is a relatively unknown concept.

“We decided to start at the bottom with ECD because it can translate into meaningful development, and then work our way up,” said Dawson. “Unfortunately, owing to the harshness of life here, children are growing up with poor ideas of self-respect, and low self-worth,” he said. “We want children coming out of the school system to have an advantage and to realise their potential­.

“One hour of psychomotor a week has awakened their minds and transformed their ability to learn and develop,” said Dawson.

In time, the trust aims to expand its sphere of influence and try to improve education standards in the area’s two primary schools and one overcrowded high school.

Attracted by the principles of psychomotor education [see box], Dawson approached the Democratic Republic of Congo-born, Belgium-trained Kocheleff with the idea of introducing a programme at Dalton Bridge and was immediately impressed by her energy, passion and expertise. Kocheleff quickly agreed to the challenge, and an unused building owned by public works was identified as a place for the learning to begin.

Psychomotor equipment for the revamped resource centre — beautifully crafted benches, climbing frames, shelving and other solid wooden equipment — was custom-made in the reserve’s private carpentry using wood from alien tree species (mainly poplar and red gum) cleared as part of the reserve’s massive alien clearance project. Dalton Trust also provides transport and food for the facilitators and children every Thursday.

For Dawson, the focus on early education is part of a broader vision of sustainable development. The education trust had considered focusing on providing bursaries or scholarships to a handful of deserving children to attend better schools outside the community, but decided that it would be better to invest in the community. “Hopefully, it will go the full circle,” said Dawson. “Children who have been educated by the trust will return to their community, invest their expertise and be drivers for further sustainable development. Ultimately, the trust will also be owned and run by the community,” he said.

Next year, the project is set to benefit from the services of a volunteer from the United States who will dedicate her time to the trust for six months and drive fundraising projects, freeing Dawson up to focus on the reserve.

“It’s very rewarding,” said Dawson. “The change in the children has been visible. They moved from cautiously testing the waters when they first arrived, to pushing the barriers, and now, as you see, to respect and discipline,” said Dawson.

“Now, if the children are struck at home, they stand up for themselves and say ‘no’,” said co-ordinating facilitator Nokuthula Mchunu, who is also studying ECD through Unisa. Mchunu has witnessed a marked decline in aggression levels in the children as a result of the nondirective philosophy of psychomotor. “And the parents are also learning. Now, they are saying that they want psychomotor every day.”

The course has helped the nine facilitators understand the development patterns of the young child, teach in a more effective way and explore alternatives to violence as a tool for discipline and difficult behaviour. But it has also been important for the facilitators’ personal development, as Meusel pointed out.

“Many of our facilitators are single mothers,” she said. “They have been given the opportunity through this course to learn about their own feelings and understand where they are psychologically. It’s been a very successful, holistic experience.”

PSYCHOMOTOR is an educational programme and philosophy that links the motor activities of young children at play to their academic and psychological development — to instil values of nonviolence and communication.

From the age of 18 months, it can help to promote the transition of movement to abstract notion, complementing concepts of the preschool programme.

Introduced to South African pre-primary schools in 1996 jointly by Michele Kocheleff and Rossella Meusel, psychomotor education is compulsory in many pre-primary schools throughout Europe.

Kocheleff and Meusel follow the Aucouturier practice or relationship model of psychomotor, which uses the body as a mediator and emphasises the importance of emotional intelligence and development.

Benefits include improved self-esteem and self-confidence, greater ability to communicate, take risks, make decisions, control emotions and practise nonviolent behaviour.

In addition to perceptual and intellectual skills, the programme also teaches respect and value for self and others.

WHAT was conceived six years ago as a modest African fishing retreat for Australian millionaire Ian Gowrie-Smith is now a substantial 3 000-hectare conservation project and luxury ecotourist destination in the Berg foothills.

Managed by Joe Dawson, the Dalton Private Reserve is the product of the amalgamation of five farms near Mooi River. It has been officially proclaimed a natural reserve and its resources are co-managed by Ezemvelo KZN Wildlife.

The reserve is now home to 1 000 head of game, including white rhino, disease-free buffalo, hartebeest, eland and oribi, all of which were once endemic to the area and are breeding successfully.

The reserve’s main lodge, recently made available to paying guests, is the reserve’s striking centrepiece. Conceived by Durban architect and furniture designer Richard Stretton (of Koop) and known as Dalton House, the lodge offers a refreshing take on the usual design of African game lodges. Its clean lines and large windows allow for maximum appreciation of the vast expanse of green hills on which the lodge is perched. The wood-rich interior is stylish and contemporary, but warm at the same time and furnished with many of Stretton’s distinctive designs. It is still used by Gowrie-Smith when he visits South Africa.

Like its outbuildings, the house was built on the ruins of former farm buildings, so as to reduce the project’s environmental footprint.

Over the years, Dawson has overseen the clearing of the estate of alien vegetation, such as wattle, poplar and red gum, the wood from the latter two species being used in the actual construction of the lodge.

That wood is now also being used to produce a range of hand-crafted furniture called the Dalton range, also designed by Koop. In keeping with the emphasis on sustainability, the curing of the wood takes place in the nearby solar kiln and all the woodworking staff are drawn from the local community and provided with training.

Other accommodation at the reserve is available in the form of the intimate lake cottage which sleeps two and the Zulu Waters lodge which can take groups of up to 12.

• For more information about the Dalton Private Reserve and the Dalton Education Trust, phone 036 352 0100 or visit www.daltonprivatereserve.com

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