Well, do you? How much rope are you prepared to give them? What’s the risk to your institution, your reputation and your students? And what about the parents? So why am I even asking this? Let me start by introducing myself. My name is Dave, I have always had a fascination for the natural world and its creatures. In my life, that has translated into many outdoor adventures, a decade-long career in the safari industry, guiding, managing lodges, training guides and trackers and even being given the dubious title of naturalist. It has taken me all over Southern Africa and as far as the vast grasslands of Tanzania’s Serengeti.


Currently I find myself living in the tiny town of Tarkastad – don’t even ask, just Google it – working part time at Orange Grove Schools and married to – and this really is a scary thought – the headmistress! Actually, Cathy is not that scary but does have an incessant passion to teach everybody. Of particular concern to her, is the male gender’s lack of table etiquette in our household! 


A few years ago, Kitty, visionary extraordinaire, pioneer of Orange Grove Schools and administrator-in-chief, suggested to me that I take a weekly class on all things natural. The idea was to make use of the fabulous fact that our school is situated on a 1000ha farm with tracts of pristine bush that can be stumbled upon right outside the classroom doors. Being a visionary, she is full of good ideas, many of which we smile and nod at. Many of which have shaped the school and many young lives. 


We smiled and nodded. And we tried it, and it worked. How can it not when it involves kids getting out of their classrooms for an hour and getting muddy looking for frogs, sweeping up butterflies or asking ‘what if’ questions about the far-flung reaches of our solar system? Back to Nature, or B2N for short, has no curriculum, is tailor made to the weather and season and is allowed, on occasion, to get completely hijacked by curious students. We do tests and projects, which get marked and go on reports and we do an annual field trip that changes every year. We’ve been to the Cango caves, held snakes, chuckled at seals and penguins at feeding time, and even cage-dived with crocodiles. 

While that’s all very well, it’s absolutely not the point. The point is Kitty trusted me to do something that has little to do with getting a school-leaving certificate, paying school fees or getting kids through their PACEs. 


Actually, she took a huge risk. I don’t fit perfectly into the school environment and have been known to upset parents by expecting too much from their little darlings on outdoor camps. Still, she believed in me and gave me freedom to teach whatever I wanted. Then, she gave me a whole classroom which is now full of insect display cases, bones, shells, creatures in bottles, a fish tank, a science laboratory, a growing natural history library and an upright piano. The piano is starting to get in the way. Then she said: “this is going really well, the kids love it, the parents are excited about their children learning about nature, let’s make a curriculum out of this”. We soon realised that formalising B2N would kill it. Imagine having to study momentum when it’s just rained, and the frogs are calling from muddy puddles or the termite alates are exploding from their mounds? Of course, there’s the danger of me getting lax, with minimal expected outcomes, drifting into unhelpful topics and just generally spiralling downward without any checks and balances.


 There’s also the possibility of being able to kindle a wonder for nature and address personal questions and interests that even the most brilliant curriculum could never hope to do. Am I saying that this method of teaching is better than all the PACEs and modules and well thought out guidelines on how a school should operate? Nope, not at all. But let’s face it: school can be a real downer for some. And yet, hidden in your staff is a treasure-trove of passion for various esoteric skills and interests. If you can find an outlet for that passion and enthusiasm in your teachers that flows down into your students, you might just be giving them a reason to jump out of bed in the morning because it’s that class today.


 And you might just be setting your young lives on a path to discovering a destiny they never thought existed. Back to Nature is like that: it spills over into the rest of life and students bring me all kinds of interesting creepy crawlies, beheaded snakes, birds’ nests, etc. Yes, I do feel sorry for the wildlife that bears the brunt of their curiosity and we do discuss appropriate collecting methods, but in the long run, a can of Doom will do far more damage. Fostering in them a long-term appreciation and lack of unreasonable fear for the planet’s critters will save far more than it hurts. We need more Kittys in this life and in our schools: people who are prepared to take risks that won’t always pan out well. But then again, they might. 


We need to ask God for wisdom to connect the dots in our schools and in our own personal families. When the puzzle pieces fit, it breaks the drudgery of wading through this thing called school and makes learning the best thing ever! But it comes with a risk – trusting someone with their passion and our kids, without being able to control what information they are feeding our precious little ones – it is something we don’t all have the guts to do. Or maybe we’ve tried that and it didn’t work. So we conclude it doesn’t work and default to the basics, default to survival mode. Now that really is a pity. The challenge: get to know your teachers better and unearth what’s hidden in there – it may be a passion for art, literature, mechanics, fishing, origami, cooking, or even – heaven forbid – philately. Then ask them: what can we do to help you share your passion with others? Make it easy for them, don’t just give them the money, go and buy the ingredients for the cake they want to bake with their students. Get them a ream of paper for origami. Or get your handyman to build shelves for their stamp collections. Once the ball is rolling, sit back and enjoy watching your teachers and students come alive.