By Selah Randolph
Aziz Rahmouni gives an overview of the HAF mission and programs to students. Photo by HAF.
At the High Atlas Foundation’s Bouhlou nursery, a crowd of children from a nearby school gathers around Aziz Rahmouni. He smiles and motions for them to come closer, pointing to one of the small tree saplings around the group. “What is this?” he asks the group, eyebrows raised. “What does this mean to you?” The children laugh and respond with a general consensus of: “It’s a tree!”
“I’ve worked with kids for a long time,” said Aziz in our recent conversation. He has kind eyes and a bright smile, and enthusiastically pulls his chair closer to his desk to answer my questions about the Environmental Education Program. Years ago, with a team of Peace Corps volunteers, Aziz created a program that brought children from the city of Taza into Tazzeka national park for a day of experiential education. These “Sunday visits” gradually expanded to include visits to local schools, where Mr. Rahmouni presents on biodiversity and environmentalism in the classroom. Now, Aziz is using his skillset to introduce children to the work of the HAF tree nursery program.
Students gather around Aziz and learn about the tree-planting process at the nursery. Photo by HAF.
During our conversation, Aziz emphasizes a few key goals of the program. Inviting kids into relationships with the world around them is the first goal, which Aziz encourages with a slew of games, jokes, and activities. The “human knot” game is a favorite: the group tangles their arms and each child is instructed to take a friend’s hand from the other side of the group. The goal is to untangle the knot without breaking the connection. A rowdy discussion usually takes place, and participants are forced to sort themselves out using cooperation and communication. “This is what it’s like to solve our environmental problems,” Aziz explains after the activity, “It takes all of us, working together!”
He tells me about other games he plays with the kids, all of them designed to reinforce the children’s understanding of the unique network of natural relationships that make up our ecosystem. Ultimately, the children leave with a profound restructuring of the way they view their environment.
I asked Aziz how the kids usually respond to these workshops. He laughed. “In general, they are happy. They are smiling. When they visit, they expect a game or something, not a lesson about the environment. They always tell me, ‘Okay, what you said, it’s important. I never knew a tree was this important before.’ They go and tell their friends about what they learned.”
A student excitedly raises his hand to answer a question at the Bouhlou nursery. Photo by HAF.
Richard Louv, author of Last Child in the Woods, discusses the importance of enthusiasm as a factor in a child’s likelihood of developing a deep connection with and responsibility for the natural world. In his book, Louv outlines the connection between early exposure to a positive experience of the outdoors and environmental activism in later years. “If children do not attach to the land,” Louv writes, “they will not reap the psychological and spiritual benefits they can glean from nature, nor will they feel a long-term commitment to the environment, to the place. This lack of attachment will exacerbate the very conditions that created the sense of disengagement in the first place – fueling a tragic spiral, in which our children and the natural world are increasingly detached.”
In an age of difficult environmental issues, complex ethics of responsibility, ever-changing social norms, and rapidly developing technology, the task of educating our children with a consciousness and care for the world around them has perhaps never been more critical or more challenging. Through his work in the Environmental Education Program, Aziz Rahmouni is steadily bringing up the next generation of environmental activists one group of students at a time.