As a youth living in a small coastal village in Peru, Daniela Benavides found it quite striking to go to the beach and not see a single child. This image would be what motivated the evolutionary biologist and a group of her family and friends to found Programa conCIENCIA, an initiative focusing on environmental education for children in coastal communities.
“In Peru, the lack of environmental education creates a threat to the environment because there is no bottom-up regulation. Peru is a big country and up until a few years ago, there was little government-sanctioned environmental control. What we are trying to do is to work directly with coastal communities – people who have the closest link to the ocean but often know the least about it. conCIENCIA in Spanish translates roughly to ‘science with conscience’. I think this summarizes our vision ideally.
“We teach science through experimentation, experience, observation and discovery. We are a travelling organization, focusing on a specific region for a defined period of time and then moving to other coastal areas. We like to look at scientific concepts from different angles. The problem we are tackling is that unfortunately, many of these people have no framework for biology and system dynamics. As a result, they are unable to adequately interpret the environment and how to interact with it sustainably, leading to overfishing and neglect, among other things.
“Our mission is to provide nature-based learning to coastal communities through play, curiosity, creativity and the senses. We believe in education through experience. The current education system in Peru dates back to the industrial revolution. It places so much emphasis on pure academic performance. As part of our initiative, we try to cater our programs not necessarily to those who regularly excel in the classroom, but to the children who are often distracted or unengaged in the classroom. We find that these kids are often the most creative and successful individuals in our program. In the conventional public school system, these students do not receive enough positive reinforcement; they might be brilliant, but their positive intellect cannot be nurtured in the classroom. If we lose this creativity by enforcing the conventional system upon them, we lose the potential benefit to our entire society. Creativity is also important because we cannot predict what the world will look like in 10 years, so the best we can do is stimulate creativity in order to help us come up with innovative solutions to our big problems. In Peru, most kids are still taught as if the challenges of the industrial revolution remained, which mainly involved increasing the scale of industrialization. However, our biggest challenge today is to de-industrialize without losing quality of life. Therefore, we believe we need novel ways of educating our youth through nature-based experiential learning.
“Most of us working in the program are very in touch with our childhood. Our premise for developing lessons is this: if it triggers a sense of ‘wilderness’ for us, it must be fun for the children. We believe that our initiative is making the world a wilder place because children are having the opportunity to exercise all of their senses. We try to be in nature, get dirty and use our senses. For example, we love to do blind walks and meditation, which stimulate the senses. Being with nature is also therapeutic. By helping develop self-esteem and leadership skills in youth, we uncover hidden talents and allow children to build a genuine lifelong appreciation for nature.
“Recently, the Peruvian Government began the Ministry of the Environment. At the beginning, it was one man and one phone. Since then, the government has passed a law that every school in Peru needs to implement environmental education. However, despite the passing of the law, there continue to be no guidelines or framework for implementing these programs on a national scale. This creates an exciting opportunity to extend our reach to a much more impactful scale.
“In 10 years, I see this project being community-driven. Right now, this is an organization, but we would like this to be a social movement. Firstly, we would like to see public school systems in Peru adopt some of our methodology. We are currently in talks with the ministry of the environment and with educators, in order to set up new pilot programs. Right now we are working with two public schools, in 2 separate pilot programs. We are trying to get some impact indicators, and use these to approach the ministry of education for further consideration. I am sure we will continue to see exceptional results for our work. Eventually, our vision is to make this movement international, especially in neighboring regions of South America where the absence of environmental education is just as pronounced.”
I would say the major success of our NGO ConCiencia has been to inspire dozens of professionals (and be inspired by them) to contribute to our mission of reconnecting children to nature in their own way. Musicians, artists, entrepreneurs, healers, athletes, scientists and beyond have joined us throughout the years and have forever after become a part of our family. ConCiencia has been successful in channeling their intention and energy and supporting them to create original activities with children and nature. The richness of talents and the possibilities of co-creation and the family vibe is what make s ConCiencia work.
The main challenge when working for social change is to break down all preconceptions we may have and approach all challenges with open perception and mind. Identifying root problems is key. This requires a costly process of devoting many our to field research, talking to people, walking around in their shoes, empathizing with them, and supporting solutions from within. This is a lesson we learned and now stick by. We don’t have any answers but we are here to learn.
Top 5 Things To Accomplish in 1-2 Years
1. Generate research to support government actions to integrate more nature-based activities in school.
2. Widen the dialogue on nature connection in children.
3. Broaden collaborator base.
4. Publish a toolkit for schools promoting innovation, design-thinking and nature-based approaches to education.
5. Encouraging our followers to a) spend more time outside, b) value experiences over commodities, c) increase salience over conservation, education and social justice issues.
How can others help you accomplish these goals?
– Support by funding for scientific research and social work.
– Liking Facebook page.
– Publish our articles (scientific and journalistic).
– Guidance and mentoring.
– Technical support on our scientific research.
– Contact with researchers (professors and PHd students) to come conduct research in our work areas.
– Contact with David Sobel or Ken Robinson and other prominent educators.
– Help fund attendance to the NAAEE (North American Association for environmental education) conference.
– Training in communications.
– Helping us gain prominence through press.
How can people get involved?
– If you have a specific talent you would like to contribute, we take collaborators from a variety of fields.
– In-kind volunteering – video making, website design and programming, graphic (design for brochures, toolkits, merchandising and other products), social – –media management.
– Donations – scientific and art material and equipment.
– Spread the word through Facebook.
Have you had any major accomplishments or accolades that we don’t already have listed?
We have been invited to present our project at the World Forum Foundation conference in May in Puerto Rico and at the World Parks Congress in November in Sydney.
Any words of advice or wisdom? Anything else you want to tell the world?
The best way to discover innovative approaches to complex problems is to try. Don’t be afraid. Failure is a natural part of trying new things, but you have to be willing to take the risk. Every problem you face is an opportunity to grow.
Programa conCIENCIA is an initiative focusing on environmental education for children in coastal communities.
"conCIENCIA in Spanish translates roughly to ‘science with conscience’. "
Our mission is to provide nature-based learning to coastal communities through play, curiosity, creativity and the senses. We believe in education through experience.