Nature education in Marudam


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.

Starting early

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.

Class projects

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.

School trips

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.

In conclusion

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.

Exploring Integrative Education: the Story of Marudam

In 2008, a small group of us decided to start a school with a different vision. We were fortunate to be donated an eight acre piece of land in the outskirts of Tiruvannamalai. We developed this land over three years, adding classrooms, a kindergarten space, library, laboratory, a craft space and a music room. Since 2011 we have been working from our own campus and today, we have seventy students from kindergarten to class nine, ten full-time teachers and ten volunteers. This article is the story of our journey into a truly integrative education, sharing what we have learned and the challenges we face.

From the beginning Marudam had students of varying backgrounds: some from the nearby village, some city children and some children from abroad. We have also been open to taking in children with learning difficulties, to support them explore, discover and develop other talents. We wished to be a small school, with children from diverse back grounds, and to place emphasis on hands-on work and skills. 

Ideologically this was a great decision, but how has it worked out pedagogically? Five years have passed now and it is good to reflect on the space that we have created and are in the process of creating. The children generally have a sense of well-being which we think is owing to the variety of engaging spaces in the school such as art, craft, theatre, nature walks and gymnastics. The groups are small enough that no one is excluded from any activity they are interested in, and every child can be confident that she is accepted, safe, and valued. All children are therefore able to acquire and enjoy many skills in an atmosphere of equality among individuals. Our small numbers allow many vertical group activities. As a result we can say with a lot of certainty today that our children are happy to come to school and they relate to one another fairly seamlessly without any barriers. 

Working with differences

From the outset, it was important for us to acknowledge that our children were coming from very different backgrounds, and we found this reflected in the enhancement or absence of certain abilities. While there are exceptions, generally there are some differences that are quite apparent.

For instance, children of foreign origin generally have a very strong sense of entitlement, are empowered to act on their own, have strong body awareness and are very articulate. They have a sense of their own space and share their possessions on their own terms. They are comfortable with adults and have no fear of speaking their minds. During lunch time, they like eating salads and are sensitive to spice.

The village children are, by and large, very open and flexible in their needs. They usually have good knowledge of the natural environment, have a tremendous ease with physical activity, lots of energy and very little concept of their own space. They don’t possess much and don’t have much sense of personal belongings. They are happy to share what they have and also use what others have. Village children like eating rice, are not used to vegetables and have generally detested salads; we have struggled to get them to eat a balanced diet!

The middle-class city children are far more conventional in terms of expectations and their approach to learning. They generally have a higher motivation towards academics, have travelled more and have a wider sphere of knowledge. They, too, are often particular about their belongings and tend to talk about possessions such as cars and televisions. Middle class children are used to eating a lot of junk food and are very particular about taste, and with them too it is often a struggle to get them to eat all that is served. Another striking aspect for both the village and the middle-class city children was the huge influence of movies on their interests, aspirations and interactions.

In the midst of such cultural diversity, we wanted our children to respect each others’ differences, work and play together harmoniously, develop problem solving skills from an early age, and grow up as sensitive and caring young people. It has been quite challenging trying to hold a class together but we find the classes alive and interesting, with so many different kinds of children with different expectations, reactions and thinking processes.

For example, while discussing ground water, village children have intimate knowledge about wells, how they are dug, about different soils, springs and bedrock. Other children have knowledge through study of books about aquifers, water tables and so on. The village children move from concrete to abstract learning while the others get the grounding of concrete knowledge.

In a mathematics class, village children relate to the topics when concrete examples are used such as purchasing vegetables or provisions for the house. Starting from here they are able to understand mathematical concepts.

Village children are very good at using tools or climbing rocks or trees and have an ease with things natural which the other children appreciate and learn from. One child comes from a goat-herding family and while on the hill, she is quite like a mountain goat herself. The way she climbs steep rocks with such sure-footedness commands respect from everyone. She also has a very sharp eye and makes very interesting observations of nature and is often the first to spot a bird or animal in the wild.

Kalpana and Murugan are classmates. Kalpana has very good reading and writing skills and she is a voracious reader. Murugan has very good observation skills and knows birds. Kalpana helps Murugan to read and is extremely patient, and Murugan helps Kalpana with bird watching and mapping. Though from very different backgrounds, there is equality in their relationship.

With our small classes and children from such varied backgrounds, there is no average student to whom the class can be addressed. Each student is addressed individually and each student follows her own learning curve. While we have common topics and resource material, each student will be following these at their own pace. Classes have to be carefully planned for and materials have to be in place. Often we have several volunteers in a class catering to different groups of children or even to individual students.

Bilingual classes

All our classes are bilingual; every single instruction in class has to be shared in English and Tamil. But it isn’t just the teacher speaking in two languages. Every sharing by every child is translated from Tamil to English or vice versa.  For example, after our Friday walks the children come back and share their observations. Two columns are made on the blackboard, one in Tamil and one in English. All children’s observations are written on the board using whichever language they choose to share in.

In geography, we decided to study the natural world one biome at a time. We started by studying rainforests, for which we got an excellent book with many pictures. The book contained information on the forest-dwelling tribes of the rainforests and the conflicts they faced. All reading material was translated into Tamil.  Once a week, we watched nature documentaries connected to the topic being covered, and we would stop every few minutes to translate and explain the commentary in Tamil. We also regularly visit the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary for a first-hand experience of life in a rainforest.

Some Western children speak Tamil, and this encourages other children to learn Tamil too. One boy of British origin prefers people who speak English, but is happy to play kabbadi with everyone and do project work with a few others. So he ends up having different partners for different activities and nobody judges that or pushes it in any direction.

Project-based learning

Given such diversity, we felt that learning through the project method would be the most inclusive. We chose broad themes and followed them through, comprehensively, for several months. Once the topic was chosen, we allowed children to pursue different leads and explore them by making relevant material available to them and by taking them on visits when it was possible.

One of our initial projects was on food: ‘From Farm to Plate’. We did many activities such as growing vegetables, making salads, cooking, visiting neighborhood farms to interact with farmers and to see what was being grown, visiting the town market and interacting with the vendors there. It was a rich learning experience and the children have not forgotten the many things they learnt in the process.

Another project we did was on eris: the ancient traditional water bodies. Having always heard that they are interconnected, we decided to see it for ourselves. So together we walked through the canals connecting one eri to another. This knowledge became real to all of us. Being out together was also a great experience for all the kids.  Some children were excited about the concept of the eri system, while others developed a map in their heads for a new landscape. Many remembered fine details of trees or specific landscapes which others might have not even noticed.

Our kindergarten

We chose to follow the Rudolph Steiner method in our kindergarten. In this approach, children do not start writing till the age of six or seven. The emphasis is on play, socializing, working on developing fine motor skills, playing with clay and doing household chores like folding, cleaning and cutting. The first activity of the day for this group is a long walk through the neighbourhood, which of course the children enjoy immensely.  From this activity we have observed big improvements in their observational skills, physical strength and socializing skills. Even at such a tender age, the village kids are more knowledgeable and more agile and often tend to lead the walk.

Leela, our kindergarten teacher emphasizes that integration occurs naturally in the kindergarten; it is simply what happens every day. For example, ‘free play’ is expressed as role play and the creation of imaginary worlds, which is an especially fine substratum for integration to happen naturally. While ample scope is given to group activities and play, any expression of discrimination (yes, it exists even at this young age) is greatly frowned upon in the kindergarten space. There are a few times in the day where the children are asked to hold hands. It is a simple thing, but one of the acts where there is no freedom of choice: it is unacceptable for a child to refuse to hold another’s hand.

Strong bonds are formed early and children learn to interact with each other healthily from this very young age.

Integration through the school

We have found theatre to be a powerful tool in bringing children together. We have two hours of theatre class a week in which every child participates. They play theatre games, making up little skits and engage in mime, for example. Or they may sit together in a circle, each coming up with an idea, and later fitting it all together to put up a play.

Theatre is one of the most ‘integrative’ pedagogical methodologies one can engage with as it has the potential to be 100% inclusive. Each child can act out a character they are comfortable with and in this way, feel a part of the group. In the classroom a child carries all sorts of insecurities, and these can be dropped while acting. Being watched by others also gives a feeling of acceptance and self-worth.

Our theatre teacher Alice gives some examples of such integrative moments: ‘One boy who loves to act, but has problems with lines, chose a very physical role, and could leap about, being in his element. Another girl who is reluctant to go on stage took on a regal role and found pleasure in acting a part with limited movement and limited dialogue, yet she held the part with incredible majesty and also seemed in her element.’

Another activity that creates conditions among the children for complete acceptance of each other is physical education, which is a part of the daily routine at Marudam. Our physical education teacher Jessica shares a story about Maha, a home-schooled and bright child with no experience playing games with other children. Maha preferred to sit immersed in a book while the others played outside. One day while the children were practicing a sequence of postures such as standing on one leg like a tree or slithering on the belly like a snake, the idea came that Maha could lead the class. The sequence was long but to the astonishment of the others she could do all the movements as well as the speaking! The group performed this and Maha’s own confidence in her body grew as well as her acceptance in the group.

Play gives the village children, who are often more body-oriented, opportunities to be acknowledged and seen. Vineeth, a ten year old bundle of rushing energy, was asked to be on the top of a pyramid of three levels. As he climbed slowly onto the shoulders of his peers to the top, great applause awaited him as he stretched his arms out in the final pose.

Conflicts do arise, and we have had to deal with many difficult situations. For example Kala, a village girl, refused to partner with Jaap, a Dutch boy during study time. She complained that he didn’t share any of his things. Jaap took in this feedback and changed. He wanted some private space but was eventually willing to share his belongings.

Ila, Avani and Amrutha are children of western origin, and for some reason tended to form a ‘clique’. Sasi and Kamakshi are Indian children of their age, and there wasn’t much engagement between the two groups. We discussed this in circle time, and Avani and Sasi were willing to make an effort to integrate. Crochet was the first opportunity that came up, and they have grown close since.

Integrated teacher body

Our teaching community is almost a replica of our student community. We have five teachers from the surrounding villages, five from foreign countries and eight teachers from cities in India. In addition we have many volunteer teachers who come for specific activities such as farming, yoga, gymnastics, clay, art, wrestling and silambam (an ancient Tamilnadu martial art form). Children are therefore exposed to people who speak a variety of languages, and are from different cultures.

Our village teachers are particularly good at creating experiential learning situations due to their intimate knowledge of the land and the culture. They bring a level of comfort to interactions with nature. For instance, Pachaiyappan, is completely at ease with handling all kinds of creatures.    

         The school itself is a community of the people who work on our afforestation project and organic farm, whose children are at Marudam. We have parents who are farmers participating with children while they are on the farm, parents who help with cooking with children working along with them and two parents who are art teachers and an aunt who is a craft teacher.

Furthermore, because Tiruvannamalai is a destination for many different kinds of interesting visitors, we enjoy unexpected encounters with people from all over the world. This opens us up to diversity and helps us see people from different backgrounds as friends.

Questions about the future 

As a school based in a rural area, we have many questions about the future. We certainly don’t want our children to end up feeding the industrial machinery. We of course won’t stand in the way of a student who wants to pursue a career in engineering or any other professional course, but would like them to follow their heart and find happiness in a field of their choice. We have many first-generation learners who struggle with the alphabet still at the age of twelve or thirteen. These children are brilliant in other areas such as art, craft, or farming. Should they have to go through the grind of exams, or should we empower them to just pursue what they are good at?

Many of our children are from poor backgrounds and they aspire for a higher standard of living. Their parents would like them to go to college and find high-paying jobs. Their education at Marudam may end up moving them towards the city, and we wonder what we can do to counter this situation–or must we accept the inevitability of it? We are still very young as a school, and none of our children have actually reached this threshold.  We will wait to see what the future holds for us.

In our staff meetings, held once a week, all the teachers and many of the volunteers participate. We conduct child studies, where we chose a child a week or two in advance and then share our observations about the child in the meeting. Sometimes we discuss a group as a whole. It is fascinating to note the kind of diversity that exists in learning styles, different kinds of intelligences, aptitudes, energy levels, which of course vary with different activities.

To be honest, sometimes it is a nightmare to deal with a range of differences, but it is also a blessing. It helps the teachers and the children accept differences and respect them, for that is the reality.