Game-Filled Park Is School for South African Kids

Leon Marshall in Johannesburg
National Geographic News
January 31, 2005

Schooltime at Southern Cross School near South Africa's renowned Kruger National Park makes for a pleasantly odd scene. Teachers and pupils are not cloistered in classrooms. Instead, they wander through the grass and bush, or sit in the shade of trees, joined in earnest discussion.

The school has the same syllabus prescribed for the rest of the country's schools by the educational authorities. But the teaching methods employed are radically different.

Southern Cross uses nature as a teaching tool. The teachers and their pupils go out into the veld in search of phenomena that can be used to study anything from mathematics and the physical and social sciences to language.

Jumbo Williams, the school's headmaster, speaks of the school's mission with almost evangelical zeal, speaking of turning students into disciples and "spreading the word" on the importance of environmental care.

"When they leave school, we want them to be champions of the natural environment," Williams said. "We must make people understand the impact of what we are doing [to the environment]. We need a global citizenship that buys into the idea that we need to look after our planet."

To emphasize the point, he shows the school cap. The front has a depiction of the Southern Cross, a celestial constellation that ancient sailors used to help guide them when they were lost. The back of the cap says, "A School for the Planet."

Nature as a Blackboard

The school sits on 100 acres (40 hectares) in the corner of a game estate near Kruger National Park. Animals live in the wild on game estates, but can be hunted.

The adobe-style, thatched-roof buildings blend with the surrounding bush and look rather like an upscale hunting lodge. A 40-bed boarding house has a sweeping view of the northern Drakensberg, South Africa's longest mountain range. To get to class, students travel a path known as the Warthog Trot, a winding trail through the bush that's also used by giraffes, kudu, wildebeests, and impalas.

Warthogs "mow" the lawn. The school's idea of a pet includes an injured python that the students are rehabilitating so that it can be re-released into the wild. One experiment involves training bats to live in special bat houses rather than in the attics and chimneys of local lodge owners, where the flying mammals wreak havoc. Classroom shelves are crowded with Stone Age artifacts collected in the area.

The classroom for preschool tots is set slightly apart from the rest of the school. The first lesson of the day might be mathematics, but it's anything but typical.

Rather than using abstract lesson plans such as "Count how many apples Mary has in her basket," the children visit the nearby water troughs to count how many different animals came to drink during the night, based on the number of different tracks they find. Older students might be asked to calculate how much water will be consumed over weeks and months, based on the overnight drop in the troughs' water levels.

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