Kids connect to nature

2017-10-31 06:01

At a camp next to the sea, where you can hear the waves crashing and a meerkat may steal your unattended lunch, children have been taking “a spiritual journey” to reconnect with nature for the last 15 years.

The Soetwater Environmental Education Centre (SEEC) was established in 2002 by teacher Lappies Labuschagne after he realised the very real need for environmental education for children. Around 4000 learners and students visit the centre every year to get a new appreciation for nature on what Labuschagne calls “a spiritual journey to reconnect with nature”.

The SEEC caters to church, school and environmental groups as well as organisations such as scouts, says Labuschagne, and offers day visits and three-day camps. Around 80% of these visitors are from Cape Town, but the SEEC also receives guests from overseas and around the country.

Labuschagne has “taught [his] whole life”, first in Johannesburg and later at Kommetjie Primary School. It was while at Kommetjie Primary that he decided to combine his love for teaching with his love for nature and create the SEEC.

The centre is situated in the Soetwater resort. He renovated a derelict building with the help of donations. “We spent all our holidays in the bush. I could see how little people understand about nature and I decided to use my teaching skills to change this.”

Labuschagne grew up surrounded by nature just outside Johannesburg.

“I’m passionate about nature, snakes, birds… My whole family is like that. I think it comes from my dad. Growing up we were always nursing sick animals,” he recalls.

These even included snakes, crocodiles and jackals.

Labuschagne insists that every animal, big or small, is precious. “Our main focus is to teach children about biodiversity. Everything in nature is important; everything in nature has its place. We look at goggas, animals in rock pools, fynbos, snakes and birds,” he says.

“All life is important, no matter what. [Every animal has] got a right to live just like you do. It’s got a place in nature. It’s about teaching respect. If you can respect nature, you can respect each other.”

Each child is given a workbook to use while at the SEEC, which they can take home and show to their parents, in the hope that this will “spark interest” among community members, Labuschagne explains.

The programmes run by the centre include activities such as obstacle courses, birdwatching, night hikes and raft racing. But each one is designed to teach learners something, Labuschagne explains. “Our motto is ‘education through fun and adventure’. Children learn better by playing,” he says.

Labuschagne aims to bring at least 200 children from neighbouring disadvantaged communities, such as Ocean View and Masiphumelele, to the centre every year free of charge.

However, funding to do this is becoming more and more difficult to get, he says.

In addition, despite the centre’s popularity with many top private schools in the city, there remains very little support from local schools, he says.

“We live in such a special place,” he says. “I’m very proud of what we’ve achieved here.”

And for Labuschagne, the reward will always be seeing the joy on children’s faces as they experience the sea for the first time.

“[The highlight is] watching underprivileged children enjoy themselves. It’s a spiritual journey to reconnect with nature, where we come from. It’s nice to see children from poor areas explore the beauty of nature,” he says.

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