In addition to health benefits, spending time in nature plays an important factor in a child’s development of thinking and learning skills but also in raising awareness on the importance and protection of nature. Nonetheless, children’s outdoor activities have been minimized. Even when they live in close proximity to a protected area, they rarely visit it.

At the same time, school work plans rarely include teaching outdoors. It mostly comes down to the enthusiasm of teachers and professors who, due to the amount of bureaucratic work, often have little time to devote themselves to further professional training, developing their own competencies and thinking of more creative approaches to teaching.

The WWF Nature Academy, therefore, represents a unique kind of teaching in nature because it gathers pupils and teachers from schools close to the protected areas for the first time and, in cooperation with park managers, encourages them to come up with creative ideas to preserve the natural environment surrounding them.

In the past two years, the WWF Nature Academy included five protected areas, and over two and a half thousand children from primary and secondary schools and about a hundred teachers from 10 schools from all over Serbia participated in its activities

In the past two years, the WWF Nature Academy included five protected areas, and over two and a half thousand children from primary and secondary schools and about a hundred teachers from 10 schools from all over Serbia participated in its activities.

“The Nature Academy helped me get the answers to my many questions about nature because I always wanted to know more about protected plants and animals. I met my peers but also people older than me who share the same interests as me. Now I’m imparting the knowledge I’ve gotten at the Academy to my brother, helping him with various nature-related assignments, and enjoying one of my hobbies, namely taking pictures of protected plants,” says Vanja Terzić, a student of the “Sveti Sava” High School from Sombor, about her experience with the Academy.

The students did not keep what they learned at the Academy to themselves. They were happy to share it with their peers, especially enjoying their role as educators. The development of peer education is one of the priorities of the Academy. In that regard, the students of the Secondary Technical School in Apatin really stand out because they imparted their knowledge about the Gornje Podunavlje Special Nature Reserve to 150 younger students.

“We consider changing children’s behavior and awareness regarding nature, forming the Eco Section, and fixing up the schoolyard to be great achievements, and we certainly think that the project helped improve the cooperation with the protected area manager,” says Ivica Jurišin, a teacher of the Secondary Technical School in Apatin.

“By participating in the biology section and the WWF Academy, I learned that many protected plants and animals can be found on this mountain and how important these are for our region and for the whole of Serbia”, Jovana from Bajina Bašta in Tara Nacional Park says

Matija Žuža and Jovana Katanić, students of the Josif Pančić Grammar School in Bajina Bašta, are also glad that they will be able to convey something from the Nature Academy to younger generations. They decided to set up the “Tara Mini Garden”, a kind of outdoor classroom with plant species characteristic of the mountain Tara, in the schoolyard. People from other schools can come visit and give biology lessons here, and the best part is that the students are in charge of maintaining the garden, which helps develop their working habits.

“I didn’t know which species you can find on Tara, even though I often went skiing there with my parents as a child. By participating in the biology section and the WWF Academy, I learned that many protected plants and animals can be found on this mountain and how important these are for our region and for the whole of Serbia. For example, here you can find the Serbian spruce that can no longer be found anywhere in the Balkans,” says Jovana Katanić.

“I realized why this area is protected, and that it is so for a reason. We must be mindful of our behavior in and towards nature. I often see trash when I go for walks and I think people are not ecologically conscious enough. I started to reproach my parents and others for throwing garbage on the street or some other place where they shouldn’t,” interjects Matija Žuža.

“The training in Petnica has greatly strengthened my teaching competencies“, sazs teacher Sanja Medić from Irig

However, before they begin conceptualizing and implementing ideas on how to promote their protected area, students and teachers must learn more about that and about other concepts related to nature protection. This is why the Academy starts with a week-long training at the Petnica Science Center, the leading center for the education of gifted students in Serbia, but also in Europe, where most of the activities are carried out in nature, and students get basic knowledge about the natural, cultural and historical wealth of their protected areas. Once they return to school, they form teams with other teachers and students who want to join this project, the first of its kind in Serbia.

“The training in Petnica has greatly strengthened my teaching competencies. It stimulated me because it offers innovative teaching methods and it strengthens the teaching practice. Thanks to this, I will be able to improve biology lessons with the help of new work methods, by adapting them based on age and interests, thus making knowledge more accessible,” says teacher Sanja Medić from the “Dositej Obradović” Primary School from Irig.

When choosing a school, priority is given to those schools that work with children with disabilities, as is the case with the “Milan Petrović” School for Primary and Secondary Education in Novi Sad. The pupils of this school learned about Fruška Gora, a national park in their vicinity, in various classes, and they participated in a joint art workshop with the “Petefi Šandor” Primary School from Novi Sad.

“We think that our greatest achievement is reflected in a positively built attitude towards nature and the protective and corrective student activities acquired through peer education and personal examples. It is important to show that children with disabilities can equally participate in nature protection,” state Mirko Stančetić and Tanja Popović, mentors from the “Milan Petrović” school.

Building a strong link and good collaboration between schools and protected area managers is one of the main goals of the WWF Nature Academy, as this will encourage students to keep visiting these areas, not only as part of their school arrangements but also with their parents or by themselves. As part of the framework of the “Protected Areas for Nature and People” project, employees of protected areas in charge of tourism, promotion and education received training. They also worked closely with WWF on designing educational activities they will be able to offer their visitors, young and old.

Children with disabilities can equally participate in nature protection

“Cooperation with local schools represents a strategic commitment for us because young people easily accept and adopt new knowledge and ideas and enthusiastically diffuse them throughout their social environment. In the future, this will lead to a stronger bond between the Tara National Park and the local population and their understanding of the problem of nature protection,” says Ranko Milanović, Head of tourism and education at the Tara National Park.

Although the Academy is focused on working with all the stakeholders that can contribute to the improvement of nature protection, among them teachers, managers and the local community, they are mainly focused on working with children as future leaders who, through the acquisition of new skills, become future active citizens instead of passive observers, thus becoming the best ambassadors of nature. Each school and its project has contributed to promoting the protected area and its manager, as well as the idea of nature as the best classroom.