Teaching kids about the environment and the natural outdoors can be challenging in Dubai, where the words ‘sand’, ‘construction’ and ‘abomination’ spring more quickly to mind than ‘lush’, ‘green’ and ‘verdant’. Not for us are nature trails and long, lingering woodland walks. In fact, the closest many of us get to nature in Dubai is a day on the beach (surrounded by construction sand) or a stroll through one of the city’s man-made parks.
But a partnership between a school and a development group is going some way towards changing that. Desert-bound Repton School and its neighbour Al Barari (the firm behind the lush and exclusive Al Barari estate on Emirates Road) have teamed up in a novel way to get students involved in the environment, while at the same time bringing a splash of greenery to the school campus.
Last May children from Year 4 took a tour of the vast nursery at Al Barari, which prides itself on its stunning landscaping and the ecologically sustainable principles behind it. They learned all about local plants and how they grow before all sowing a tamarind seed in their own pot, marked with their name. The pots were left in the capable green-fingered hands of the staff at the nursery, who certainly know what they’re doing – these guys grow all of the plants for the entire development from seed or cuttings, cultivating more than 1,800 species.
Seven months later, we catch up with the gardening students as they prepare to plant the saplings – now grown to around 60cm high – in the school’s vast centre circle. ‘I find it so exciting!’ says eight-year-old Nadia Roeske. ‘It’s astonishing to see how much the plants have grown since last May, and I can’t believe we’ll have fully-grown trees in our names!’
Faris El Kholy, aged nine, adds that the tamarind trees will be fully grown, ‘with fruits and everything’ within a couple of years. ‘It’s like a new life,’ he says. ‘It feels good because we’re helping the environment, we’re helping people survive – we’re doing this for the whole world!’
What sounds like youthful over-exuberance is based in fact. Thanks to the tree-planting exercise, the children have learned that the oxygen-emitting properties of plants are vital to our survival. As Damiano Marsili, also nine, explains: ‘Plants give us oxygen and without oxygen we couldn’t breathe. They provide food to us and to animals so without plants and trees, none of us would be able to eat.’
Hugely popular with the pupils, the ‘Plant a Tree’ initiative was designed to complement the curriculum and offer a fresh approach to classroom-based learning. The experience has certainly made its mark. ‘Teachers can talk as long as they like and, for a lot of students, it will go straight over their heads,’ says Repton’s Headmaster, Jonathan Hughes D’Aeth. ‘But this has certainly been an interesting science lesson. By actually planting the seeds at Al Barari, they’ve been able to experience what happens when you give things the right nutrients, water and sunlight.’
While we grown-ups often think of the desert as a barren landscape, the kids are beginning to realise its full potential. ‘I think there could be more plants in Dubai because when I go to Fujairah there are lots more,’ says eight-year-old Lucy Kerr. Faris agrees: ‘Dubai is a good place to plant because of all the sunlight – but you must remember to water your plants to give them energy and make them healthy.’
This environmental knowledge is music to the ears of Kamelia Zaal, Al Barari’s Landscape Director. ‘We want to get kids involved and educate them about the importance of trees and plants to the environment,’ she says. ‘We’ve been astounded by the children’s efforts and are immensely proud of these budding horticulturalists. They are creating a brand new wildlife community right on their doorstep.
The sense of achievement is huge, and we hope to instill a new level of understanding and enthusiasm for the care of the UAE’s environment.’ For Kamelia, the process is all about educating and informing for the future. ‘These children are taking away so much more than a tree – they’re taking away an understanding that a tree is for life, your environment is for life.’
Interested in learning more about Al Barari’s nursery or tree-planting programme? Visit www.albarari.com or call 04 374 4760.