Updated: 7 days ago
How old were you when you learned what was possible – and what wasn’t?
Growing up, I spent many summers in a rural village. Middle of nowhere, about 20 houses. I had a friend there – a girl my age. We were inseparable.
We were about 11 when I asked her what she wanted to do after school. In my big city circles it wasn’t too early start thinking about universities. She paused and thought. “Well,” she said. “My mom washes elevators. I really hope that wouldn’t be my life.”
What does any of this have to do with environmental education in Costa Rica?
The thing is, the way Corcovado Foundation runs its “Environmental Education” program, it becomes about expanding the limits of what is possible.
“It was not only conservation that they taught us. But they helped us to grow and to have skills, to know that we had abilities for many things… to have better expectations of our lives.” Mauren Morales, 2003 program participant.
Costa Rica made many improvements in its educational system over the years: Secondary school attendance rose from 60% in 2000 to 98% in 2018. Unfortunately, the COVID pandemic wiped out many of these gains. The latest UNESCO estimates are that only 58% of Costa Ricans overall complete high school: A rate that rises to 80-93% among the rich and falls down to 33-34% among the poorest.
Lack of education translates into further lack of opportunity. These kids face further life struggles, such as losing motivation, systemic barriers, and never escaping poverty. In circumstances like these, access to additional supports and resources becomes even more important.
Social science has more than 20 years of research on helping youth build resilience. We know what matters. A sense of connection – to other people, to something important, to one’s own identity. Believing that you can get where you are going – that you can, somehow, figure it out and take action (aka the “sense of agency”).
Those strengths do not just magically appear. Children learn them in many ways over time. Through supportive family and friends. Through having someone believe in you. Through having access to school and extracurriculars where they gradually build skills: How to achieve a goal, how to learn from manageable mistakes, and how to keep going.
It is much harder to get such experience in deprived rural areas. Schools already have too few resources. Even the most well-meaning and loving families are hurt by chronic stress and poverty. Exhausted parents often have an understandably harder time being responsive and supportive. That’s where additional programs can have a tremendous impact.
CF’s environmental education program includes classroom instruction about the environment and the role that humans play in it. The topics cover climate change, ecosystem restoration, and regenerative agriculture. But it goes far beyond this, by facilitating extracurricular activities that build skills and confidence. Together, children organize beach clean ups and recycling collections, discover arts and stage their own plays, learn about useful plants and plant organic gardens in their schools, play games and have fun.
By their very design, these activities also increase social support. Over the years, environmental educators end up serving as informal mentors when needed. The children have a chance to build deeper friendships with each other. Taking part in group organizing and coordinating effort allows these youth to develop and practice crucial social, teamwork, and leadership skills. Typically, these are the only extracurriculars available in their remote rural communities – and thus the only opportunities to do all this in a managed, structured way.
According to a local high school teacher, they can tell when a kid was a part of the Corcovado Foundation’s youth group. Those who had participated, were reportedly more aware and concerned about nature, protecting wildlife, recycling, etc. Yet as evidence of deeper impact, they were also reportedly more interested in learning overall; as well as more respectful with their environment, their peers, and themselves.
Throughout 2022, 60 kids from five participating Osa communities have been meeting weekly for youth groups. Over the years, approximately 500 kids from seven communities participated in all kinds of activities from brief tours to national parks or for whale and dolphin watching tours. Tourists come from all over the world for these experiences. Yet the kids who live literally next door to those natural wonders rarely have the same chance. Once a year, Corcovado Foundation organizes a 3 to 5 day out-of-town experience, in which children travel to communities further away to expand their horizons.They meet leaders who have achieved the goals by dreaming big and working hard.
“It lit a spark in me, you see? …The trips that we made… These are some of the most beautiful experiences I have.” Josué Quirós, 2003 program participant.
Pragmatic outcomes also involve better future employment. Ecotourism is a growing industry. Yet like in all industries, its economic benefits are not evenly distributed. Skilled roles – such as nature guides or business administration, – provide better opportunities. Curiousity and passion toward protecting nature, plus knowledge of practical ways to do so, are important stepping stones toward such careers.
“Now almost all of us have returned and dedicating ourselves to tourism… We are making changes… I think almost all restaurants here are switching to using paper straws.” Raquel Quirós, 2003 program participant.
Since its inception in 2003, the program reached a total of 4500 children through through monthly environmental education classes. All who attend such classes are invited to join the environmental youth groups. Those who choose to participate in the afternoon groups are the most curious, most sensitive, and very often incipient leaders.
These young people are learning the most important lessons of all:
That they can find their own voice.
That together, they can make a difference.
Many of these kids are now adults. You can hear directly from them on how the Environmental Education program changed their lives: