I’ve always dreamt of raising my child surrounded by nature, yet practical obligations have so far prevented us from escaping Athens into the countryside. So when I heard about ‘Young Vines‘, a program at the Kokotos Vineyard in which children engage in educational free play in a natural forested environment, my family and I didn’t think twice before hopping in the car for the 45-minute drive north to the area of Stamata.
It was an overcast morning, yet as wind-buffeted toddlers and parents streamed from their cars towards the ‘schoolhouse’ – a wooden hut standing by two little ponds surrounded by numerous ‘play stations’, I remembered the Young Vines’ motto, a quote by British explorer Ranulph Fiennes: “There is no such thing as bad weather, only inappropriate clothing.”
Wrapped up in his woolly hat, scarf, coat and wellies, my son at first winced at the cold, yet soon forgot all about it as he immersed himself in painting dangling pine cones artfully hung from the branches of a tree. Soon after, he moved on to kneading a ball of dough into a “pie” which he decorated with walnuts, seashells and stones. Then it was on to shoveling wet, black mud piled into an old car tire.
These games, together with exploratory strolls around the scenic grounds, saw our three-hour stay at the vineyard fly by. Our visit concluded with an enthusiastic trek through the farm area. Here the children visited the friendly resident dogs, chickens and an ‘insect hotel’ (a multi-level pile of bricks, sticks, stones that provides refuge for a variety of helpful critters), before taking delighted turns riding the farm’s two Shetland ponies.
FARMYARD FUN BACKED BY EDUCATIONAL THEORY
The Young Vines program was created by Natalia Kokotos, whose parents own the vineyard. She moved to a cottage on the estate with her husband and two children almost two years ago. “I grew up here, but having lived all of my adult life in cities, including London, New Delhi and Athens, I strongly felt that having hands-on outdoor experience was invaluable to children,” she says. “As my two kids were growing up I began to seek out such experiences for them and we spent more and more time at the farm, until we finally gave up our flat in the city and moved here full time.”
Encouraged by friends to start an outdoor playgroup for kids in this idyllic location, she began Young Vines around a year ago and has since seen it’s popularity steadily grow. Parents are requested to accompany their children and are invited to pitch in during the activities. Children can attend once, twice or three times per week.
Kokotos has noticed that parents today tend to have a different view compared to that of older generations – one that celebrates free play, inventive and playful learning, intuitive interaction, as well as spirited outdoor fun. Visiting children also cheerfully assist with farm chores such as feeding, bathing and grooming animals, and planting and picking vegetables in the farm’s permaculture garden. Older children also help with grape harvesting (and get to stomp on grapes!) in September and olive gathering in November.
Vana Ali, the charismatic young teacher who runs the classes that take place every Monday, Wednesday and Friday between 10:00-13:00, explains that the Young Vines program follows the Waldorf pedagogic method, based on the teachings of Rudolph Steiner. It is a philosophy that emphasizes free play as a key tool for children to develop their own interests, mental capabilities and emotional understanding of the world.
Being immersed in nature of course adds myriad benefits. “Learning to care for the farm animals gives the children a sense of responsibility and helps develop compassion and empathy,” says Kokotos. “Helping in the vineyard or the vegetable garden and being part of real life activities of the farm helps build their self-esteem. Meanwhile gross and fine motor skills become highly developed while negotiating the uneven terrain and handling the endless patchwork of sensory materials found naturally.”
Visitors from abroad or families who would like to organize a weekend outing including various tours and tailor-made activities to the vineyard are welcome to do so by appointment (the group has to consist of at least 10 children aged 3-8 years, and parents need to escort them). Young Vines also hosts an open day every first Sunday of the month like the one we visited, welcoming parents and children interested in seeing the grounds and trying out activities. Visitors to the Kokotos Estate need to make their own way there as the area is not easily reachable via public transport.
Ktima Kokotou, Stamata.
Tel. (+30) 210 8145113.
Email: [email protected]
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