Nature and Nurture

Andalusia’s experiments with alternative education

Children of the Tyerra y Sal project climb the Pinar trees that grow behind Barrosa beach. There has been a resurgence of alternative and nature schools in Spain’s Andalusia with about ninety two projects. Mirko Cecchi
30 November, 2021

Three years ago, Tierra y Sal, a “sand school,” was born in the pine forest near La Barrosa, one of the longest and most famous beaches in Spain. In their unique pedagogy, as the day begins, the teacher Inma Urbano accompanies boys and girls between the ages of three and six, who meet every day in what they call “the cave of the birds.” Here, they wash their hands and spend the day climbing trees, among other things. If the weather is good, they decide democratically whether or not to go down to the beach. If the majority decide yes, they apply cream, wear swimsuits, and put on booties to avoid slipping on the rocks. When the parents arrive, the little ones return home with their backpacks full of treasures: shells, branches, fallen flowers and animal bones found under the sand.

The COVID-19 pandemic has exposed the limitations of traditional education in Spain, with its overcrowded classes, closed spaces, and teachers who are prisoners of protocols, unable to support children in emotionally complicated situations. This has led to the resurgence of alternative and nature schools, which have been around for years but are now increasingly attracting students and parents from various communities. Spain’s Andalusia is among the regions where this change is quite visible.

Despite ranking third in the country for school dropouts, Andalusia has been at the forefront of the educational revolution in the last decade, winning awards for a number of alternative projects: forest schools, Montessori institutes or learning communities born from the initiative of families. Ludus, an online alternative-education directory created by the web programmer and author Almudena García, states there are 92 projects in Andalusia, 127 in Catalonia and 112 in Madrid.

“For me, our natural environment is my healing place,” Urbano said. Urbano has a postgraduate degree in Waldorf education—a pedagogical model developed by the Austrian philosopher Rudolf Steiner in 1919. “In Waldorf pedagogy, the concept of home is worked a lot and for us, our house is the pine forest, it is the rocks, the waves, a house that also is not only mine but everyone’s and that is nomadic because it changes depending on where we go during the day.” The founder of Tierra y Sal, Cristina Caballero, echoed that children need nature—to live in a complete ecosystem and feed on it. “It does not matter if it is a forest or a beach, of course there is a difference in the plants and animals that you can find, but the essence of this education is not to lose the connection with life,” she said. “If they are interested in reading, for example, they start to see letters everywhere, even on two intersecting branches.”

Claudia Bellante is an independent Italian journalist who reports on social issues in Latin America. She collaborates with several magazines across the world, including Internazionale in Italy, Rhythms Monthly in Taiwan, and Marie Claire and El País in Spain.