Exploring the Elements

“Children do not need to be made to learn about the world, or shown how. They want to, and they know how.” ~ John Holt

As I sit writing this post about our last programme I am on the threshold of our next one. We had a very busy December at Elemental Kids, what with two holiday programmes in December, a host of elves at the V&A waterfront and activities at the Kirstenbosch market. The month seemed to fly by and facilitators were kept very busy offering children a sense of magic and fun, and a little bit of accidental learning.

I use the term accidental learning, because it certainly is not our intention to teach in the conventional sense. These are holidays, a break from school, a time to have fun and make friends. And yet each day brings children an opportunity to learn something, about themselves, about their peers and about the world around them. As a teacher it is these moments of incidental learning that really excite me.

For this programme we had decided not to lead with a focused theme around any one element, but rather to see where the children would take us on their journey through the week. as usual we were divided into three groups according to age, and although there were a lot of activities that were done in groups the children were free to move between groups as activities caught their fancy.

One of three main activities was fort building, the older children quickly claimed a shady nook at the end of the field and transformed it into a club house with blankets, cushions, favourite board games and books. It was a haven of glorious lolling under the watchful eye of Bridget – who took some of the games very  seriously.


The Chillout Club House


A serious game of 30 Seconds

Gary’s group worked in teams to create forts around the grounds, some for humans and some for birds.


The Meditation Fort


The Four Friends fort


Bird forts in the bamboo


Crab hunting

Then they took us to the river. Often. It was a very hot week and we spent most afternoons splashing in the Liesbeek River as it trickled through Boschenheuvel Arboretum. The children discovered tadpoles in various stages of development, built dams and hunted crabs for the crab habitats that they created in their empty lunch boxes. And then lovingly returned all wildlife to where they had been found in time for the walk back to the cottages.


Crab habitat

My personal highlight of the week was the stick fighting. As a kindergarten teacher and mother of two girls I find games that entail any hint of violence take me out of my comfort zone. But there was no stopping the energy that seemed determined to release itself through the ancient art of the stick fight – there was one boy who still had his fighting stick from two years ago.

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Honouring the stick

The children held a tribal meeting and made some agreements around stick fighting; they had to ‘honour the stick’ – this meant taking care of your stick and spending time decorating it in the art space. They had to attend stick-fighting school where a few of the older boys trained the newer recruits, and they could only fight in a designated area according to the fight rules.

Training at Stick-fighting School

Training at Stick-fighting School

By the end of the week they had spent hours decorating, training and competing. And by Wednesday they were ready for their first tournament, complete with trophies and medals made out of clay in the art station. The first tournament saw some sore hearts go home that evening and so a second tournament was held on Thursday where  the battle continued and all was set right.

Tournament trophy

Tournament trophy

I was amazed at how dedicated the children were to the art of stick-fighting, how they established their own boundaries – and stuck to them, their creativity in decorating their sticks and the sense of ownership they had, how they included even the youngest children in this activity with sensitivity to the abilities of each child, the complexity of organising a successful sporting event and the sheer joy of being allowed to play for hours at a game of their own design.

The teacher in me would love to sit down and examine all the learning areas covered in building forts, playing in a river and staging stick fights. But the Elemental Kids facilitator takes over and is simply grateful for the learning that the children gave me this week and for the opportunity to lie in a river and listen to their squeals around me.

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The Liesbeek at its best


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