At the edge of the rainforest inWynad, Kerala, some children are sleeping on the floor of a large room. In the distance, they can hear wild elephants trumpeting, and it sounds almost too near for comfort. When they wake the next morning, they rush to the top of a huge, high water tank (the Tower), to scan the surrounding dense forest cover for signs of the elephants they heard the previous night. Sure enough, one of them spots, with binoculars, a small herd on the next hill, and there is immense excitement among the children. This will be just one story among the many they will relate to their families and mends when they return to the city in a few weeks.
For about five years now, there has developed an exciting and mutually beneficial relationship between a small school outside Bangalore (Centre For Learning) and a botanical sanctuary near a forest in Kerala. As part of an ongoing experiment on nature and education, groups of students from CFL spend some days at the Sanctuary every year. Each year, we have tried to build on the previous year's learning, trying to hone our priorities, ideas and the resulting activities. While the concern underpinning the five years of interaction has remained essentially unchanged, i.e., to bring about a creative relationship between young people and nature, there has nevertheless been a progression in our programmes over this time. In 1997, at the end of an intense one year programme with the whole school during which all groups came for short periods of time (1 - 3 weeks each depending on the age involved) we all felt that the next phase would be to take a younger group for a period of 4-8 weeks to the Sanctuary. The twelve year oIds, called the 'Palashas', were identified as the right age group for this, as they were old enough to avoid homesickness, and to respond to a range of activities and a lifestyle that would hopefully challenge them in a holistic way. They spent the month of January 1998 at the Sanctuary.
The specific intentions for the Palasha visit were as follows:
- To find out what kind of day was possible if the children were all residential. Since CFL is about to build a campus where students and teachers can live and learn together, this Palasha visit to the Sanctuary was seen as an opportunity to play with structure and leisure, so that features essential to a sensible and healthy lifestyle could be looked at.
- To explore the balance between 'academic' and 'non-academic' activities.
- To create a space where children had a lot of time to look at living things and discover their own relationship to nature.
- To learn to be alone with nature.
- To have sufficient physical activity to keep the body strong.
- To find a balance between a common programme for all, and individual activities.
- Within the' academic' activities to get away £rom the emphasis on subjects and information to more general skills like comprehension, the ability to tackle open-ended problems, and the ability to sustain questions.
- To discover the right relationship to one's community, the work required to be done and to build practical skills to make the individual more self-reliant.
The adults responsible for the programme were two people who work at the Sanctuary and have a deep feel for the place, one a teacher £rom CFL, a visiting teacher £rom Brockwood Park School in England, and Alan, an expert bird watcher from the U.K. They laid out an informal schedule which took into account the month's time we had as well as the structure of the day. The children were presented this on the clear understanding that any alternative proposal would seriously be considered provided their reasons were seen by everyone as valid. They were also asked to express any expectations or specific intentions that each of them had. Some wanted to learn about plants, others about birds, still others wanted to work and allwanted to swim!
Through the month we followed a daily schedule. Each day began with an hour or more of bird watching £rom 7:00 a.m. to 8:00 a.m. The children went off alone or in pairs to different parts of the Sanctuary. At the same time Alan took two children in turn everyday for 2 hours to share with them the more subtle aspects of bird watching - silence, quiet movement, patience, persistence, accurate observation, bird identification through call and song, and 'gizz' - the rapid appraisal of a fleeting form in terms of its various details - size, shape, colour, movement etc.
The children (except the two with Alan) came back by 8:00 a.m. for a session of yoga, or some other physical exercise. While at twelve and thirteen children have abundant physical energy, it is quite another matter for them to do regular exercise. Overall, however, they cooperated in this activity without too much reluctance and perhaps even came to see the relevance of this in their health and well-being.
After breakfast at 9:00 a.m. the children usually spent 15 to 30 minutes on their own chores - clearing their living area, attending to the toilets and washing clothes. Most days we agreed to have two classes of about 1 1/2hrs each, one in the morning and one in the afternoon. The focus was mainly on comprehension skills (e. g. reading challenging but interesting matter like the chapter on Tropical Forests in Living Planet by David Attenborough), language (Kannada reading and writing), Mathematics (problem solving, basic geometry, constructions). Light relief was provided in the form of Tolkien's Hobbit and The Lord of The Rings.
The children chose to have their river time from 12 noon to 1:30 p.m.on most days - swim~ing laps (by the end they were all able to swim t km), diving for bottles, water polo, fishing (to replenish the Sanctuary ponds), sunning, washing clothes etc.
Two or three times a week we organised some work for the children in the garden. This would usually be from 1 1/2 to 2 hours long, in the afternoons, and ranged from preparing, planting and tending a small vegetable patch, to coffee picking, raking dry leaves, woodwork, weeding etc. Some tasks seemed to interest them more than others, and stamina was slow to develop, but on the whole they were co-operative and keen to perform or complete a task.
After a sumptuous tea with fruit and biscuits every evening came 'solo' when each child would go off on his or her own for half an hour or more, until twilight, and sit quietly somewhere in the Sanctuary. 'Solo' was perhaps the most challenging part of our month together. Although there was rarely any expressed dislike of the time, there was a tendency to drift towards another, converge into a group or get distracted by something extraneous, or cut short the time etc. Silence and solitude, even for short periods of time, is one of the most difficult things for most urban children to handle, when their impulse is to be all together. The noise levels tend to be very high normally and we have tried over the years to find ways for children to appreciate quietness. This group in particular had such strong group dynamics and hyperactivity that it was a constant battle to bring the noise level down. However, though they never seemed to really quieten down while at the Sanctuary, it seems that on their return to Bangalore and regular school life, there has been some collectedness and quiet in severa! individuals. Like with many other things, unless the necessity for silence (inward or outward) becomes apparent to the person, it is a difficult quality to bring about. Having said this, looking back over . the month, 'solo' did seem to be a good thing to do; there was a time for quietness in nature, the children slowly came to enjoy it and it created a lovely end to the day.
The final activity, after dinner and very much loved by the children was story telling. Most were too tired to stay awake beyond the first two minutes!
On a few occasions, the students stayed up on the Tower overnight, under the open sky, in groups of 4 or 5. Had the forest been accessible there would have been several camping trips, but we tried to compensate for this with nights on theTower instead.
The Palasha visit was intense in every possible way. The energy and vitality of the children, their development as a group and as individuals, the generosity and commitment of a passionate naturalist such as Alan, the blossoming of the bird project, the goodwill and cooperativeness of the adults involved and all the work that got done over the period of a month made this programme what it was, and there is no doubt that this has generated a lot of thought and concern for the next step in our common venture.
At a simple practical level, the following points came out clearly.
- We found a comfortable yet rigorous balance between outdoor activities and academic work. The amount of class time averaged out to about 24 periods of 45 minutes each per week and this was sufficient for the work that needed to be done for this age group.
- Starting the day with an outdoor activity such as birdwatching, waking up with nature as it were, and doing something with the senses instead of mental work was very rewarding. We feel it created the right kind of energy and set the tone for the day.
- The development of a 'work spirit', both collective as well as individual created a sense of caring and responsibility for the place. Those children that found activities of their own accord, discovering the workshop for instance, made us see the possibility of apprenticeship in education starting very early.
- The remarkable bird project showed us that young children are capable of doing something creative and systematic, making observations, following patterns etc. given the right kind of guidance. The results of this are useful for both. the children and the adults and can be built into a comprehensive nature studies programme (see below).
- Ending the day with quietness, like beginning the day with alertness has its own correct place in the life of a young person. Though none of this can be ritualised or forced into a pattern, the enjoyment and relevance of this seems to appeal to them gradually, especially if they see it as a natural part of the lives of the other members of the community.
'Nature Study' is a direct outcome of the work life of the Sanctuary which is to do with the study and care of plants, animals and the larger environment. Enquiry and obsenation are the foundation for many of the acti\ities in the garden. The daily 'looking' that is built into the routine of the Sanctuary directs how things evolve and happen - without this it would be difficult to proceed, even in a practical way. Learning about and being aware of plants, birds, insects, reptiles and amphibians, as well as the weather, water and soil are essential to how the Sanctuary is managed, in big ways and small.
Nature Study has two main purposes
For the children: To develop their own capacities for observation, in a direct and unfettered manner that involves their senses. From this they learn to ask questions, based completely on their own observations. They also learn to learn by themselves - with no book or expert knowledge involved - and they learn how to communicate this with. others. The sustained contact helps to bring about a sense of intimacy with nature.
For the Sanctuary: Through the children's observations to widen and deepen the pool of knowledge and understanding of how nature works and of various life forms, in terms of the Sanctuary's own work. The children thus become our extended eyes and ears, assistants in a joint exploration and discovery of the natural world.