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Explore Education | Nature-based Schooling

nature-based education

I am so excited by this latest instalment in my Explore Education series. I have had the honour of interviewing Maryam Bibi Aboobaker, whose children attend the only school in South Africa that follows a nature-based schooling education system.

Personal Perspective Questions:

Tell me a little about your family and the personality of your children.

My husband and I have been married and tolerating each others quirks for 16 years now. We are a family of 6 and are fortunate to have been blessed with two boys and then two girls. Our children are Isa (11), Hamzah (9), Zayyana (4) and Liya (6m). We reside in a quaint little tourist town in Limpopo called Hoedspruit. We love the country life and wouldn’t change it regardless of the lack of ‘conveniences’ city life boasts. It’s incredible how different how children are.

  • Isa ( named after Jesus, peace be upon him)  is an old soul, calm, collected, mature for his age. He is a history fan, who prefers arts and culture over sports any day. He has a clever sense of humour and we tease that he is our ‘poet’.
  • Hamzah (meaning Lion, and named after a warrior)  is our superhero fanatic and creative boy. With his intense imagination, he loves to craft and enjoys all outdoor activities and adventures that send his blood rushing. He takes physical challenges head-on and can always be found building or creating something out of lego or waste. Once he made a knife from a piece of bark which he sharpened using my foot file!)
  • Zayyana ( meaning beautiful adornment) is 4 and is still building her personality. She enjoys superheroes from spending time with Hamzah, but is finding herself more enthralled by mermaids daily… she will happily play cowboys and crooks with the boys and their friends and just as easily switch to a tea party with her dolls.
  • Liya (meaning belongs to God, named after the prophet Jacob’s wife)  is currently trying to find her place in the chaos that is our family. She is learning to make herself heard over all the voices and it is yet to be seen what temperament she will develop.

What does Education mean to you and your children?

Education, in the traditional sense of the word, has been ingrained within me from an early age. I recall my mother asking me from early childhood what I would like to be when I grow up. So the seeds of education, leading to a profession in education, were deeply rooted. Growing up it was automatically assumed that you would finish school and go off to university, and attain a degree leading to a profession. This has changed for my children as the world we live in evolves so quickly.

Schooling is important, although my opinion of education has changed from the one-dimensional idea of school/university education. It now encompasses life learning, general knowledge skills, and I prefer a diverse form of education for them. The children still attend a fairly traditional school but we provide other opportunities for learning for them as well.  

What journey in Education have you chosen and why?

My 3 children attend the only nature-based schooling school in South Africa, Southern Cross Schools. This was not a planned decision, we just happened to be fortunate enough to live in the town where the school was started. After working at the school for a few months, I knew I wanted my children to be a part of this schooling family. That is how we see it, as a large family.

What is a Nature-Based School?

The school is set within an estate that provides for the natural environment to be included and used for learning purposes. There are Impala, Nyala, Kudu and other antelope roaming the grounds along with warthogs and zebra. There has even been a leopard on the property that needed to be relocated. It was used as an opportunity for learning. After the animal was safely darted and sedated, the children gathered to learn all about the creature that shared their school for a little while.

There are often wild dogs that cross the grounds in the early mornings. Although this sounds unsafe, part of nature-based schooling teaches the children how to live within nature and respect the wildness of the animals.

The fact that these animals do make an appearance every so often provides a different dimension to their ‘education’ and they are provided with opportunities they would otherwise never have. They have a subject called Bush Lore, which allows them to traverse the school grounds learning about every creature from the ant lion to identifying zebra droppings and everything in between.

What school year do you follow i.e. January to December, or September to August?

We follow a Jan to Dec school year but often have Midterm breaks during the term for the students to rest.

How old were your children when they started school and was this right for your children? If not, how old do you believe kids should be when they start school?

I think deciding when to start school differs from child to child. Each of my children had different needs and varying levels of emotional readiness at the same age. I think it is important, even within a family, to assess the child individually in terms of when to start school.

  • Isa began his schooling journey at age 3 at a local Montessori school. I love the foundation Montessori provides for young children. The reason he began at this age was mostly to learn socialisation skills. Isa thrived in this environment and I found that he was the right age to have started.
  • Hamzah started at age 2 and half simply because he desperately wanted to be with his older brother. He also started at Southern Cross and later moved Montessori with his brother. However, after a few months, I realised that this was not the ideal environment for him. Hamzah needed to be physically active and preferred playground time rather than ‘learning cycle’ time. He found it difficult to adjust to the system and I later moved him back to Southern Cross which had a larger playground and provided more opportunities for physical/outdoor learning. He enjoyed school from the very first day.
  • Zayyana started school at Southern Cross at age 3. In hindsight, I realise she was not ready, but due to the fact that I had started teaching at the school again, we decided it would be best for her to be there too. She also needed to build social relationships with children her own age, as she spent most of her time with adults. At the beginning of this year, when she turned 4, there was a major emotional shift, along with the birth of her baby sister. She seemed more ready for school and looked forward to seeing her friends and teacher, as opposed to her aged 3. She definitely needed more time and should have started school later in the year, closer to age 4.

What methods of schooling have you come across – give me your thoughts pros and or cons?

Traditional schooling, in a classroom environment, based on caps syllabus.
  • Pros: It is what we are accustomed to. There are no surprises. It follows the South African educational system leading up to higher education.
  • Cons: The curriculum can be unrelatable in some cases and does not take into account different types of learning e.g. sensorial etc). The opportunities for practical learning or outings are limited due to the high number of children per class.
Montessori schooling, based on the Montessori method.
  • Pros: Option to choose what they learn about. There is no set syllabus. Learning is open-ended and not restricted to grade or age. It is interest-based and helps children discover what they enjoy or dislike.
  • Cons: Because children can choose activities or areas in the syllabus they would like to explore, some may shy away from the less enjoyable activities. For example, Isa did not enjoy the math activities and therefore would choose not to use them for his cycles.
Homeschooling using Clonard and Cambridge.
  • Pros: Flexibility in terms of time, curriculum, opportunities for outings or learning through practical experiences. Time and the syllabus can be manipulated to suit a family’s needs. It encourages the child to take responsibility for his own learning.
  • Cons: Discipline for both the child and parent/tutor. Distractions or unforeseen circumstances that directly affect learning.

Do you believe that every child needs a participation medal?

When it comes to younger learners, the aim is to build good self-esteem. I do believe that a participation medal is needed to recognise effort and perseverance. It also encourages the child to try harder.

After age 9, or Grade 3, I don’t feel participation medals are needed. At this stage, children have the ability to see the strengths that they possess and should be reaching emotional maturity in terms of admitting areas that require more work/effort. At this age, I don’t believe a loss would be internalised to the level of affecting the child’s self-esteem.

Let’s talk about your family’s current schooling experience:

The Practical part:

Transport –  How do they get to school every day if they attend school outside the home?

I transport all 3 children to school at 7-15 am daily and also collect them at different times during the week.

What is the size of the school and the size of their class?

Our nature-based school is fairly small and personal. Isa’s Grade 5, and Hamzah’s Grade 3  classes consists of approximately 25 pupils (the maximum). In preschool Zayyana’s class ( Bush Babies Grade 000) has a maximum of 15 children each year.  Total number of children is approximately 160.

What facilities does the school offer?

Over and above the natural environment the school has a swimming pool, sports field, netball and tennis courts, an astroturf sports field and a playground with swings etc. The preschool is separate and also have their own playground and equipment ( swings, jungle gym, tunnels, bike track, sandpit, trampolines etc). The baby class (Earth Tots) have a separate play area with smaller equipment for children under 3. There is also a Computer Centre on the premises where computer skills are taught from Grade R.

Swimming lessons are included for the preschool learners, from 4 to 6 years old. All grades have a Drama lesson once a week where they learn and practice for the end of year school performance, as well as Eisteddfod. Every single learner participates in these productions, from 6m to 14 years. They also have a Bush Lore lesson each week where they learn about our environment and develop and love and appreciation for all creatures. The preschool children go on bush walks weekly with the Bush Lore teacher.

What is the start and end time of your typical school day?

  • Grade 1 to 7 start at 7.15 am.
  • Grade 0000-0/ Preschool starts at 8.00 am. At an additional cost, breakfast is served at 7.30 am.
  • Preschool 13.00.
  • Grade 1 to 3: Mon, Wed & Friday  13.15. Tues & Thursday 14.00.
  • Grade 4 to 7: Monday 13.45, Tues, Wed & Thurs 15.00. Friday 13.15.
  • Aftercare is available at an additional cost.

Academic Programme:

What curriculum does your child follow?

For the most part, we follow the CAPS syllabus but social science and natural science are combined to create Integrated Studies. We also use the Singapore Maths syllabus, not caps.

Does your child do homework after normal school hours? If so, what type of homework do they get and how many hours a week do they spend doing this homework?

The school has a no/low homework policy, which means mostly reading for homework, as children do get time during school to complete ‘homework’ tasks. The only homework for prep school that is insisted upon is reading daily.

Does the academic programme your child follows use technology? If so, to what extent?

It does in certain areas. Projects are prepared and allowed to be presented using laptops tablets etc, and reading on a kindle is also permitted. Computer Coding is taught at a basic level.

Sporting and cultural activities (in and outside of school)

Do you believe that sport and cultural activities are an important factor in your child’s life?

Sport takes place Tuesdays and Thursdays and is compulsory for all students. The sport on offer varies from swimming, soccer, cricket, netball and hockey. Sport is extremely important to me due to the levels of screen time that children are now exposed to. The school has a fair play policy which means every child will have an opportunity to play a match during the term, regardless of skill. For league matches, only team members participate.

Does your child participate in sport or cultural activities with their school? Please elaborate.

Cultural activities take place weekly involving drumming, singing, chess, bush crafts etc. My children participate in Chess and Drumming. The school also participates in all forms of Eisteddfods, Music, Dance, English, Afrikaans and Art. Children are encouraged to participate individually or as groups.

Is there an additional cost involved in this?

There is no additional cost for drumming, chess or drama lessons.

The Eisteddfod costs are minimal as participation is voluntary after the foundation phase.

Does your child participate in sport or cultural activities outside of their nature-based schooling structure? Please elaborate.

They did participate in Karate and Archery. However, due to religious school (which takes place in the afternoons), these had to be dropped as their schedule was too full. I do want them to have ‘free play ‘ time as well.

School culture – What is your child’s school culture with regards to:


Southern Cross has a strict code of conduct as well as a bully policy.

100% respect 100% of the time is an unofficial motto of the school. Discipline works on a merit and demerit system. Think sheets are given for the first line of discipline allowing for the student to reflect on his/her actions and consider an alternative/better/kinder approach. The page has different sections with question-related to the event, the why, the effect on the self as well as other, and a section on moving forward.


The school premises is monitored by a security company and access is restricted during teaching hours. Parents are required to notify the school if other adults are collecting children, in writing. The children are regularly reminded to respect nature and taught how to respond should they be in the vicinity of animals.

Recently my 4-year-old followed the nature-based schooling protocol (proving its effectiveness) when she found a snake in the playground which was then safely removed. (It was from an egg eater snake therefore not dangerous)


Hoedspruit is a small town but does offer diversity in its population. The school also has a Board of Transformation in an attempt to diversify the teacher and learner population. The population is currently predominantly white, with approximately six children of Indian descent. My children, being South African born and persons of colour are still in the minority. It is, however, a direct reflection of the population of the immediate Hoedspruit community.  Southern Cross school welcomes opportunities from the community for children to be educated about other cultures and traditions. I have personally visited the school to talk to the children about Ramadan and Eid.

What is one thing that you wish could be done better within the structure you have chosen for your child’s educational journey?

The one thing I would have liked to have done better or hope to do better would probably be to include more global learning, in terms of travelling, or offering more opportunities through the school for them to learn about people and culture across the world. I find the syllabus very localised, which may be appropriate for the younger learners, but education through experience is an aspect I feel I have neglected.

My Thoughts

I quite like the nature-based schooling approach to education. The fact that, by default, conservation becomes a part of their everyday learning. This will go a long way to not only making our children accountable for conservation in the future but it makes us as parents accountable too. It would be great to have more curriculums to take note of the conservation issues facing, not only South Africa but the entire world too. By focusing our children’s every day learning on protecting their environment, conserving nature and our natural resources, it can only have a positive effect going forward. Thank you, Bibi for giving us this much-valued insight into nature-based schooling.

You can follow Bibi on her blog and social media by clicking on the links below.

This post was edited by Blue Media Edit.

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