The Earthchild Project: Nurturing Balanced, Connected Kids

Implemented at a number of schools in Cape Town, this inspiring educational initiative is fostering a new generation of well-rounded, well-developed children and teachers

While many South African citizens are all too familiar with the most pressing problems that rack our current education system – disparities in quality, language barriers, lack of essential resources (the 2012 Limpopo textbooks saga ring bells?), poor infrastructure and teacher absenteeism are but a few in a long list – Janna Kretzmar, founder of non-profit organisation The Earthchild Project, harbours a lesser-known gripe.

“I believe that the exclusive focus now on theoretical knowledge and behind-the-desk learning is too narrow and lacks an important experiential element,” she explains, calm but with conviction. “It’s important that we support and educate our children holistically in a way that also considers the physical, emotional and spiritual.”

It was partly in response to this core concern, and partly in reaction to her separate growing fear that we, as a population, have become fundamentally disconnected – from ourselves, from each other and from the environment – that in 2007 Janna started to plant the seeds for her budding NGO.

Now in place at two focus primary schools in Khayelitsha and Lavender Hill with certain aspects also implemented at six surrounding schools, the Cape Town-based endeavour has developed into a well-established, well-supported (they have a number of donors and partnering organisations) social and educational initiative.

With a focus on interconnectedness, the project’s main aim is to bring about meaningful change by taking a broader look at child development and education. In essence, by integrating full-time Earthchild facilitators into the existing structure of institutions, and having these role models spearhead a range of activities that focus on the self, health and the environment, the venture works to empower students with practical skills to become balanced, self-aware, responsible individuals.

Anything from yoga classes and worm farming to hiking trips and environmentally educational excursions are on the bill; though, none of these activities infringe on the mainstream curriculum, but rather take place after school in the form of extramural clubs and via interactive, in-school ‘living classroom’ sessions.

Setting up, learning about and maintaining organic gardens on the school property is also one of the key aspects of the programme. And the benefits are almost infinite.

 Not only do the vegetable patches bring life and energy into an otherwise dreary urban environment – “you’re in the middle of Khayelitsha and all you hear is birds,” says Janna – but they offer a powerful way for kids to connect directly with nature and their food source (a link that she believes supermarket shopping has severed), develop a deep appreciation for plant life, learn about healthy living practices and acquire a number of essential life skills.

“There’s so much that can be taught through the metaphor of gardening,” explains the passionate founder. “The students learn about leadership, about how to communicate, to work as a team and to take on responsibility.”

Of course, on a more obvious level, come harvest time the children also quite literally reap what they sow, whether it be from the school veggie garden or smaller container nurseries that many of them have now established at home. And in a community where food is sometimes scarce and poor nutrition is a significant issue, the value of a sustainable supply of healthy, organic produce is immeasurable. 

What’s more, a healthy tuck shop established by Earthchild on one of the school premises helps to more pervasively integrate balanced eating practices into the students’ daily routine. Run by a resourceful club of Grade 5 girls, the shop provides a worthy service in a world overrun by sugar-rich, preservative-packed products, and also empowers its young coordinators – who control everything from marketing to finances – with invaluable business experience and entrepreneurial skills.

But physical health and bodily care are only one component of the project’s intricately connected curriculum. In an effort to foster all aspects of the children – including their psychological and emotional welfare – in a very experiential way, regular yoga classes are offered both during school time and on an extramural basis.

“I don’t believe it’s very effective to just talk to kids about managing their emotions and establishing peace of mind,” Janna explains. “Yoga is a great practical tool that they can use to deal with stress, improve overall well-being, and enhance a sense of connection to self.”

And while encouraging a group of 11-year-olds to sit in a circle and meditate may appear somewhat alternative to some, the teachers have begun to notice obvious positive changes in their yoga-practicing pupils: the kids are calmer, more motivated and self-confident, concentrate better in class and are less likely to act out – all of which are benefits previously reported in the literature on the subject.

But it’s not just the students who walk away well-developed beneficiaries of the project’s many undertakings.

Because a holistic approach is considered paramount, Earthchild recognises that for a school to function effectively as a whole, and for their interventions to have more pervasive effects, the teachers need to be healthy and happy too.

This observation, coupled with an awareness that overworked instructors often buckle under the pressure of their job, inspired the implementation of regular organised ‘teachers’ retreats’.

On these precious days of rejuvenation, the staff are removed entirely from the stressful school context and taken to a serene setting in Hout Bay where they enjoy massages, practice yoga and meditation, participate in healthy living workshops and team-building exercises, and are essentially introduced to a different, more effective way of being. The emphasis is on empowerment and self-development, and the aim is to foster balanced individuals and better teachers.

And better teachers are exactly what emerge. Walking away with a host of coping skills, even after one day, the instructors are far better equipped to make a positive impact on their students’ development and education.

Considering their success, the teachers’ retreats are one aspect of the project that Janna plans to grow in the near future. And although the focus now is on establishing firm, sustainable foundations within the two core communities (Khayelitsha and Lavender Hill), she also hopes to introduce parts of the Earthchild philosophy into a variety of other schools around Cape Town, in both disadvantaged and wealthier, privileged areas (10 local private schools over and above the core eight have already integrated certain features of the project into their curriculum).

“What we do is relevant to all children, not just those from poorer communities,” Janna says of the project’s potential for growth in other regions. “There’s something fundamentally universal about many parts of the programme; the benefits cross all boundaries.” 

How can you support the Earthchild Project?

Make a donation. Earthchild welcomes donations of any amount, from both individuals and larger corporates. To find out how to fund the initiative, whether it be a once-off payment or a regular commitment, contact Janna at janna@earthchildproject.org or visit the designated section on the project’s website: www.earthchildproject.org/donate/

Make a responsible purchase. One of the project’s largest and most long-standing donors is Earthchild Clothing (www.earthchild.co.za), a Cape Town-based company that specialises in producing organic, eco-friendly garments. Thus by purchasing any of the items in their many stores, you can indirectly help to support and sustain the venture. What’s more, Earthchild Clothing shops are now stocking 30-piece packs of daily affirmation cards – small cardboard posters printed with positive statements, like ‘I’m grateful for the good in my life’, that the school programme uses to teach kids about the power of optimistic thinking. These cards are now for sale to the public, and all proceeds go to maintaining the initiative’s endeavours.

Become a volunteer. If you can’t volunteer your money, there are a variety of different ways, both short-term and long-term, in which you can volunteer your time: by simply visiting the schools, interacting with the children, assisting at an extramural club, running your own after-school activities and helping out behind the scenes. As a company, arranging for staff to volunteer on a once-off basis can also make for a good team-building exercise. To find out more about such opportunities, contact the Earthchild Volunteer Coordinator, Linci Abrahams, at linci@earthchildproject.org.

Introduce features of the project into your own classrooms. Setting up certain aspects of the living classroom programme (worm farms, container gardens, yoga classes, affirmation cards) in your or your child’s own school is another way to support the initiative. Earthchild charges a small fee to establish and run such interventions, so in this way you can financially assist the project while furthering holistic development in your educational environment.

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Watch Thabo Mbeki’s view on education.

Discover yoga and help raise funds so that underprivileged schools can have it too on Yoga Day.

Eager to find out about other inspiring initiatives and organisations that welcome support from the public? Have a gander at out listing of worthy places to volunteer your time and services in Cape Town

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