Exulting in an unexpected shower in the summer, running off to float paper boats in puddles after the rains, looking for delicious berries at a particular time of the year, watching little insects, picking wild flowers to make bouquets, finding shining smooth pebbles or shells, feeling the soft sand and the rushing water on the beach, climbing a giant tree, running up and down a hillside—the list can go on. The sensorial and wonder-filled experiences of a child seem to get embedded in the growing mind and enrich it immeasurably. One often hears adults talk about their growing years fondly recalling such experiences, and along with such recall, is seen an expression of sensitivity towards and love of nature. In the presence of nature—whether that of a single tree, an insect or a bird that passes by, the vast expanse of sea or the towering mountains—a self-abandonment takes place. This seems to have the capacity to bring forth a mind that is naturally gentle and non-destructive.
It is often noticed that when there is a loss of contact with nature there is a tendency to gravitate towards activities based on ideas, an accumulation of knowledge and gratification through entertainment. In other words, there is a seeking of stimulation that is provided by the activity of the intellect alone. Perhaps, to pause and watch day-to-day natural phenomena, for instance, a sunset or sunrise, or the movement of clouds, could make a tremendous difference and allow for a nurturing quietness to come into being.
Research as well as our own observation of the world shows the evidence of the ill-effects of growing materialism and consumerism. Our planet is groaning under the exploitation of resources that is driven by human wants, and this is further compounded by an economic paradigm that is largely geared towards the gratification of these wants. It is possible to sow the seed of love and care for nature; and therefore it is imperative for us, engaged in educating the young, to create opportunities for them where they may come upon the beauty, wonder and the mystery of the natural world.
When we have such experiences we feel deeply connected to nature and nourished by it. And that with which we are deeply connected, is something that we protect from exploitation and destruction.
What is this education doing actually? Is it really helping man, his children, to become more concerned, more gentle, or generous; is it helping him not to go back to the old pattern, the old ugliness and naughtiness of this world? If he is really concerned, as he must be, then he has to help the student to find out his relationship to the world, not to the world of imagination or romantic sentimentality, but to the actual world in which all things are taking place. And also to the world of nature, to the desert, the jungle or the few trees that surround him, and to the animals of the world. Animals fortunately are not nationalistic; they hunt only to survive. If the educator and the student lose their relationship to nature, to the trees, to the rolling sea, each will certainly lose his relationship with Man.
Children have a natural affinity for outdoor activities. One activity that is easily done is to take children on a walk around a campus. On such a walk it is possible to look, listen and smell and even a campus which we think we ‘know’ springs many a surprise.
It is amazing how young children observe a variety of things around them. At school, to help them along, we ask questions or urge them to ‘sense’ their surroundings. The teacher might say: look through the canopy of different trees, the sunlight streaming through the leaves, the patterns against the blue sky and the play of shadows on the ground. We go to the pond in the campus and look at the landscape around it and draw. Sometimes we sit quietly on the lawn at different times of the year without moving around and watch the insects. Every term or every month we look at the trees that are in blossom or bearing fruits. We notice the various seasonal and cyclical changes in plants and animals that are set to their unique rhythms and patterns.
To point out the interdependence among living things, there are exercises that are designed to identify plants that provide nutrition. We also look for micro-habitats away from human activity where, around a rock or log, many living creatures go about the important work of breaking down dead matter . There are the ‘yuck’ moments for the children when rotting leaves or dead animals give off unpleasant odours or present gruesome sights. There are spontaneous exclamations of horror when a cat is seen with a squirming squirrel or mouse in its jaws. This is an opportunity to talk of the vital role of bio-degradation; and with sensitivity we could talk about food chains and their delicate balance and explain that it is natural for an animal to hunt, and to bite a human or another animal in self-defense. We can also point out that certain bites can be harmful or fatal. Then can follow some suggestions for the identification of areas where we don’t venture into, in order to leave the creatures in their habitat undisturbed and also avoid touching animals or plants that are known to be unsafe.
When children of different ages go together on these walks we notice that there is a richer sharing. Some of the discussions that follow a walk are enriched by the evolving capacity of the older children for making connections and inferences when given a set of facts. At the same time the younger students share their observations and often make it interesting with a touch of their imagination.
Young children learn best when the content that is being explored is drawn from their immediate environment. This is probably because learning at that stage is primarily sensorial. They can easily relate to things that are around them and have an innate curiosity to know more about their immediate surroundings. What if a school does not have a campus full of living things? It is always possible to find a tree or grow a plant in the home or school. A teacher can create homework activities that would encourage parents and children to observe and wonder.
In the campus of a school, many activities are possible:
- Going around the campus classifying man-made things and natural things.
- Following trails on campus noticing the kinds of trails and foot-prints.
- Following different paths made by the water after the rains and noticing different water levels, what the water paths tell us, and whether the water paths have been seen in the same place previously.
- Listening to noises on campus: the sounds heard in different areas.
- Examining the litter on campus and in the classrooms; segregating as reversible, recyclable, degradable and non-degradable and disposing them off accordingly.
These activities create a context for sharper observation and critical thinking, as well. A child may sometimes come running to share a sudden sighting of many butterflies or snails. First the sharing of excitement, and then a question: ‘I wonder why they have come so suddenly?’ could evoke imaginative answers as well as a sharing of knowledge of seasonal changes. Herein lies the challenge for an adult—not to swamp the child with a lot of information but to share just the basic facts and keep the sense of wonder alive. It is exciting and interesting for adults to keep an eye open at all times for opportunities for learning that may present themselves at any given time and place. The thrill of a sudden discovery or a sharing between adults and children at such times means an everlasting moment of joy and connectedness.
Nature is part of our life. We grew out of the seed, the earth, and we are part of all that but we are rapidly losing the sense that we are animals like the others. Can you have a feeling for that tree? Look at it, see the beauty of it, listen to the sound it makes; be sensitive to the little plant, to the little weed, to that creeper that is growing up the wall, to the light on the leaves and the many shadows? One must be aware of all this and have that sense of communion with nature around you. You may live in a town but you do have trees here and there. A flower in the next garden may be ill-kept, crowded with weeds, but look at it, feel that you are part of all that, part of all living things. If you hurt nature you are hurting yourself.