First and foremost, nature education in Marudam is a way of life rather than something being learnt as a subject. The school functions under the aegis of “The Forest Way” trust, which is involved in afforestation, conservation and related activities. Many of the teachers are an integral part of both the school and the trust and as such have a deep commitment and passion for nature. The children participate in various activities of the trust, be it tree planting or cleaning the hill or biodiversity surveys as the season demands. They participate in all activities from a very young age and get more involved as they grow. This essay will try and attempt to describe the role of nature in a child’s journey in Marudam.
We take in children at 3.5 years in the Kindergarten and they stay in KG till around 5.5 years. Our KG curriculum is primarily influenced by the Steiner methodology. We don’t introduce the alphabet in the written form till they reach 6 years of age. In the KG, the main focus is relationships: with nature, with each other, with adults and so on. The children go on long nature walks every day where they observe various things like insects, birds, flowers, patterns in the soil etc. Some children come with an innate affinity for things natural and some come with hidden fears, which may have been passed on from adults in the family. But with gentle engagement with these fears, they slowly drop. Being in a rural landscape, with agricultural lands and natural thickets, there is much to observe through the various seasons. The children are gently encouraged to not destroy anything and observe respectfully. Many village children for instance tend to keep snatching at leaves as they walk by, but soon drop this habit. Every now and then a snake decides to find a home in the KG. Then, one of the adults in the campus, many of whom are comfortable handling snakes, will catch it and release it elsewhere. They also use the opportunity to explain what type of snake it is, whether it is venomous or not and something about its life. We get 22 types of snakes here and most of us are familiar with all of them. The children’s fascination for nature begins early.
On the hill
The whole school goes to the hill once a week for a half a day. Now that we have grown to around 120 in number, we have split the hill day into two and also divided ourselves into a number of groups. Each group has around 10-15 children at the most and is often smaller.
One of the key aspects of the hill walk is that it is undirected, free time with nature. There are seven different trails on the hill and the children select the one they want to go on, that particular week. Each trail is slightly different: one has a mountain stream for part of the year; one ends in a fascinating ficus tree which everyone can easily climb; another one has a tall sloping rock surface which children love to climb; yet another one involves a long walk across ridges and through a valley. We go for these walks every week through the whole year. The landscape undergoes lots of changes through the year and everyone observes those changes.
We made a conscious choice not to direct the children towards anything in particular and let nature act as its own teacher. Of course, we adults are interested in different aspects and that can sometimes have an infectious effect.
We have a silent time in each of these walks. Over the years the children have started asking for longer and longer silent times.
In most walks there will be something interesting that stands out. It could be the sighting of a Black eagle gently gliding low over the forest or a bunch of wasps carrying stunned caterpillars to their underground nest chambers. This year we were going through a severe drought and we could visibly see the distress of the various life forms. It was very difficult to witness it without being affected. Later, when the rains came the transformation was fascinating and dramatic. Among the many changes that were there to witness was the return of butterflies and a few weeks later, caterpillars. They were all over the place and children rejoiced in counting the various species and recording which plants/shrubs they were most attracted to.
The fact that we have been observing the same region over so many years has led to a close understanding of the landscape and the flora and fauna in it and many in the campus have become nature’s chroniclers, noting when different trees bloom, when certain birds migrate, when they breed and so on.
On returning from nature outings, many of the children enjoy recording their observations either as drawings, or pieces of writing. The observations are shared and usually consolidated on the board. As a whole group, everyone gets to benefit from everyone else’s observations.
Teachers and students also watch nature related documentaries which further consolidate our learning from direct observations.
Recording nature observations
A few years ago, we had the opportunity of meeting Mr.Prabhakar, who founded the India Biodiversity Portal and he invited us to participate in it. It is a people-science forum where anyone from the public is encouraged to post their observations of nature on the portal. Through this process we learn names of unknown species, post interesting observations and end up contributing towards science and help maintain a natural history register of the region. Through this portal our knowledge of the natural world has grown manifold, of course based on our own observations.
The whole journey with insects began with an accidental observation of a death-face hawk moth. Children were fascinated by its design and wanted to know what it was. We got it identified by posting on IBP. When reading about it, we found that the moth loves feeding on honey. A few days after the reading a student spotted the moth sitting next to a bee hive. This affirmed what we read and everyone was delighted. The same joy was there when we witnessed 4 species of fruit piercing moths on our fig trees and guava trees when they were fruiting.
We are now in the process of gathering photographic evidence of all the life stages of each butterfly and moth. This is leading to many fascinating discoveries. We recently observed that the lime butterfly has got its name from the caterpillar primarily feeding on the wild lime tree’s leaves.
Through observing birds we have compiled a list of birds of this region and currently it stands at 180 species. We have done the same with moths, butterflies, frogs, snakes, dragon flies and many other life forms.
We use the model of projects to study quite a bit. We select a theme such as insects, or farming or pollination and the children are encouraged to observe as much as they can out-doors and all the learning is brought together and presented through various means such as charts, models, power points etc to the rest of the school. In this way the sharing becomes vertical across groups and results in much wider holding of knowledge and observations.
Respect for nature
We try and instil respect for nature at all times. We try and create a culture of respect while entering a region and to not bring our loud over imposing presence. For instance, on one of our trails, called the owl-rock trail, a pair of Eagle owls had nested and we found the parent pair rearing the young ones on a bare rock. We made this trail out of bounds for several weeks so that our presence will not distress the birds. While all children were curious to see the young ones they understood the reason for the ban and respected that. In the same way we do not disturb any other nest. This includes wasp nests in class room too.
Interaction with passionate adults
As mentioned earlier the children have a lot of interactions with adults whose lives are closely associated with nature. The adults are not just teachers but people who are work in the farm, the resident artists who is an ardent birder, people involved in tree planting, fire line cutting etc.
The forest way trust employs people from nearby villages who have been working on the hill for many years. They have an intimate understanding of the hill including the various caves, streams and groves. They are completely at ease in the forest and have are very skilled in all their work. Our children learn a lot from interacting with them.
These people have put in their life time worth of work in bringing back the forests. It is impossible to interact with these people without being touched by their work and interest.
Many of our children come from agrarian and pastoralist back grounds. As such there is intimate knowledge of the land, crops and communion with animals. Besides, as they are in continuous contact with so many adults for whom understanding of nature and interaction with it is an essential life skill, the necessary skills are quite easily imbibed by the children. For instance, if one is a farmer, there has to be a good understanding of monsoon and climate to decide when to sow and what and how to sow. If mistakes are made this can result in loss of months of toil and of course with serious economic impact. In today’s climate change era it has become much more complex to decipher the conditions and to make the right decisions and children understand this.
Body work and work culture
In Marudam there is a physical culture and we spend a lot of time playing, working and doing body work. The children also spend a lot of time working with their hands and with different materials during craft classes.
There is a general lack of fussiness over kids getting dirty and working with their hands. This contributes towards kids being less disconnected and more able to engage directly with a landscape or the non-human world. The fact that they are mostly not overly ‘soft’ means that they can be in nature under a wide range of conditions (heat, rain, night-time etc) and experience those less than comfortable but hugely rewarding aspects.
Our older group of children have become quite a formidable work force. On many hill days, the group has begun to work on the land. This year, after the rains, they worked enthusiastically, as a team, to create rain water harvesting structures, plant trees on the hill, work on the vegetable garden etc. Some of our children have also become adept at ploughing with a pair of bullocks.
So, work has become another means through which they connect with the overall intention of the place.
Our school trips are mainly to sister projects like the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary, Wayanad, or Solitude in Auroville where our friends are involved in nature conservation or organic farming etc. One reason is that we do not find it affordable to go to any other place. Also, our children and adults alike love going to these places.
We have been making trips to the sanctuary ever since Marudam started and many of our children have been there 5 times over the last 5 years. They are completely at home there and are quite capable of taking care of themselves by cooking, setting up camp etc. Of course, we have the wonderful guidance of Lorenzo and Suprabha Seshan when we are there. Repeatedly going there has helped children develop a relationship with the place and the learning there has been immense. A large part of the time there is spent being alone and observing, drawing recording, reflecting etc… in fact several hours each day and that is what the children want. In addition they also do community work to help the project there.
This comfort and love for the place didn’t happen over-night. A new landscape like the GBS with its thick forests, leaches, snakes, possibility of elephants etc causes fear in children particularly when they come first and when they are young. There is of course also excitement. Over repeat visits all these emotions find their rightful place and there is a level of comfort which develops and creates the scope for deep learning.
Looking within and the larger questions of life
It is impossible to engage with nature without engaging with humanity’s place in nature, our impact and what our rightful role could be and should be. These mega questions constantly come up for students and are engaged with seriously. Sometimes these lead to large group discussions. Similarly, to understand what it means to be human, one has to look within to our own inclinations, assumptions, actions, insecurities etc. Much of our interaction with nature throws up these questions, often intensely and uncomfortably and the older group in our school comfortably engages in depth with these issues.
Many of us would like to think of ourselves as stewards of nature but are we playing that role or are we mere exploiters? For instance, this question came up intensely, during the recent long drought here, when many forms of life were suffering from lack of resources but we humans continued to live just the same. Yes, many of us were emotionally and psychologically affected, but the way we live, use resources, wasn’t particularly affected. Situations like this throw up a lot more questions, than answers.
Nature is an integral part of our life. We are part of nature. But in the way our modern lives have been shaped, engagement with nature has become highly fragmented. We have lost the true understanding of our own dependence on nature. Some of us even have notions of conquering nature, controlling it, shaping it etc. All this has of course resulted in the mess that we are in today.
Is it possible to turn these things around? is it possible to create small counter currents which function with a different sensibility? Is it possible to dare to hope for our children?
Ecologically speaking, we are living through a mass extinction period. A human created mass extinction. There is no turning around for the species gone and going extinct. It is not clear how much time we have on this planet. Some say 20 years, some say till the end of the century.
However long that may be, do we just continue to live life on the same terms as our peers and recent generations or do we try and gain a new understanding? Or look at tribal communities and their relationship to nature to understand a different way of life?
Can we facilitate the possibility for our children to look at life differently from us and try and live less exploitative, more life affirming lives?
These are some of our current questions which guide us and help us stay on the edge of learning from nature.