Between Nov 12 and 23, 2018, I was invited to experience the outdoor learning project El Vergel, in Quillota, about 40 kms west of the Pacific Ocean and the town of Concón along the Aconcagua River valley, west-northwest of Santiago de Chile.

El Vergel is the name given to 5 hecatres of land located above the day-use facility El Centro Turístico y de Eventos Jardín del EdénThe Universidad de Valparaíso (UV), along with the Municipality of Quillota have signed an agreement to explore the viability of an organic farm.  They have hired a lead agronomist, along with a team of two helpers, to begin the farming operation, which now has various regular clients who receive weekly baskets of seasonal organic produce (arugula, beets, cabbage, peas, and even gooseberry!), and a UV faculty member, Carolina Henríquez Lang, who provides expertise and research pathways, particularly in the area of nutrition.

Over the past two years, El Vergel has been making links between the work of the organic farm with efforts from the Chilean Ministry of Education to improve overall school health and wellbeing.  El Vergel has built relationships with the nine municipal pre-schools  of Quillota (children aged 3-5) and each pre-school visits El Vergel at least once a year.  As well, it turns out, El Vergel’s agronomist, Pablo Espinoza, is  a master of building relationships and a lover of sharing his knowledge and experience with children (along with being a huge Santiago Wanders fan).  And Pablo has built gardens and compost bins with each of the pre-schools.  He also visits the schools, from time to time, and checks in on how their gardens are progressing.  On top of this, El Vergel has also created an amazing relationship with a community-based school, La Palma, that has begun bringing all of their students to El Vergel twice a year, along with making significant shifts on the local campus to increase outdoor learning and celebrate their pride in their community (the Facebook link above shares many amazing successes of the school).

A significant amount of my time in Chile was spent in El Vergel, and travelling between Quillota, Concón, Viña del Mar, Valparaíso, and Playa Ancha (trips of between 1.5-3 hours). The sea roars all around when along the coast…however the buses (las micros) roar as loudly, if not more so….  I even spied an owl in broad day light!

I was also invited to share at various presentations, with the Faculty at Universidad de Valparaíso (UV) involved in interdisciplinary community-based courses that are required for most UV students.  I presented to the pre-school communities of Quillota and visited various pre-school programs around the city, both rural and urban, where outdoor learning was occurring in relation to El Vergel, with particular emphasis on gardening, food production, and composting.  It was interesting to experience the joys and challenges experienced by these centres, especially community realities connected with social determinants of health.  For these ECE educators, visits to El Vergel and working outdoors at school have aims to develop relationships with activities and places connected with the more-than-human that may flow and sustain into the lives of these young children as they grow.  

On one of the final days of my visit, I was invited to meet with a class of pre-service Early Childhood Educators (ECE) and their professors at the Universidad de Valparaíso.  Unlike the other presentations that had been shared indoors, in a more common presentation style, this was an adventure!  I had met with two of the students at a prior event, and we talked about the “type” of experience that they thought might be possible.  We decided to start in the class, in a typical way… and then we went for a walk around the neighbourhood to a local park that the students knew of up the Reñaca river, which now flows, barely, slowly becoming contained by  a canal      (cement duct) from the hills above.  We left the safe confines of the campus and walked across a small foot bridge, up the bank of the river, through a residential neighbourhood until we found the park!  A real hidden gem!!  Various students commented to me how they had studied at the campus for years and never been to that park.  What a great way to end a wondrous adventure!  As I wrote this piece, I tried, unsuccessfully to find the park using online GPS maps… So, if you know this park, please email!

I will not soon forget the vibrancy of this trip to central Chile, a country I had lived in for five years, ya many years ago.  Returning permitted me to gain a sense of perspective around pace of change and shared experiences. Ah, memories….

I left the trip wondering if living so close to the sea, as many do along the coast in Chile and in British Columbia, along the shared Pacific Ocean… how water and wind influence our knowledge?

Gracias grande a: Oliver, Carolina, Pablo, Marian, Fernanda, and many more colleagues who enhanced the experience.  Next time you are in Chile, wander up the Aconcagua River valley from Valparaíso and you may come to know El Vergel.

Outdoor Learning along the Aconcagua River valley in Chile

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