The School at Madras is located in a very quiet, verdant part of the city in the grounds of the Theosophical Society. It rests in the midst of a grove of ancient trees and flowering shrubs. So, nature walks and outdoor classes have become a natural part of the education we impart here.
We have noticed over the years that with a proliferation of flats and apartments in and around Madras, there has been an alarming decrease in the number of trees in the environment. Many native trees are likely to become extinct within a few decades. It is of the utmost urgency to awaken children to this problem so that they learn to conserve whatever species are alive today.
With this in view a sustained and comprehensive project is taken up in Class 7 which encourages children to observe the flora on the campus and undertake projects that help them relate to trees and understand their significance in our lives. Such a project has been carried on over the past few years with subsequent batches of Class 7. Each child adopts a tree for the whole of an academic year and learns about it through observation, discussion, recording of experiences and group activities.
Objectives of the project:
To familiarise pupils with the flora in their immediate environment
To enable them to care for the trees in their environment, to appreciate the interdependence of life and to understand the importance of conservation of plant life
To treat trees as living things, to understand the process of their growth, to be sensitive to seasonal changes and their impact on the life of trees
To make the study of the general physiology and morphology of plants more meaningful.
I. A detailed study of the pupil's tree is undertaken with the help of an expert. The following aspects are looked at :
- The location of the tree and its relationship to other trees on the campus
- Finding out the area of the space covered by the shadow of the tree
- Study of the tree bark and branches
- Study of the leaf, bud, flower, fruit and seed
- Study of other forms of life around the tree
- Study of seasonal changes observed over the whole year
- Effect of environmental changes on the tree
II. The pupils are given a set of appropriate questions to guide their observation and activity. Some questions are listed below.
- What kind of tree have you chosen?
- Is the tree you have chosen a common tree in your area?
- How many such trees are there on your campus?
- Where is your tree growing?
- Does your tree stand alone, near a building or near any other trees?
- Does your tree flower?
- Make a sketch of its shape
- What did you know about your tree before you began to study it?
- From where did you get this information?
- Are there any plants growing in the shadow of your tree?
- Are these plants different from the plants growing in the open?
- Do the branches of your tree grow upward, downward or horizontally?
- Stand back from your tree to observe this. Do the branches grow out evenly from the trunk?
- Is the longest branch also the thickest?
- What colour is your tree's bark?
- Is the bark on the trunk the same as the bark on the large branches?
- Are there hollows in your tree where rain could collect?
- Feel the bark. Is it smooth or rough?
- What colours are the leaves?
- Are the leaves of similar size or shape?
- On what date did the leaves begin to fall?
- Do leaves fall on a still day/rainy day?
III. Reading reference books and literature about the subject is also encouraged.
Reporting the findings:
Each pupil keeps a journal, a record of his or her own findings. About the end of the academic year and, at times, in between, there are opportunities for sharing pupils' findings with the rest of the school in many creative ways. In our experience, each batch of pupils evolved its own way of communicating the findings.
Given below are samples of the type of presentations:
A story of a wedding between two parakeets formed the backdrop for sharing of their findings ~bout the ecosystem of a tree. Besides, the making of the puppets and learning to manipulate them proved to be a valuable experience.
Children made their own slides. Their drawings were condensed (by xeroxing) on to transparencies which were then cut and put into slide holders. These made excellent slides. Using these slides to illustrate their observations, students spoke about their findings to the rest of the school.
A book of campus trees:
One year, the children produced a book containing the 'bio-data' of the trees that they adopted. Such a book serves as a source of information about the immediate surroundings, something not usually available in a school library.
This was a way of involving the whole school. The questions involved knowledge of trees, their names, their location on the campus, their properties and uses, as also the myths and proverbs associated with the tree.
One year, the information collected was put together in the form of a chart which would at a glance reveal which trees fruit, flower, bud, shed leaves etc. at any given time of the year. This revealed to the students a sense of natural rhythm and the cycles of life.
This project and its presentation form an inseparable whole. In recording and presenting innovatively children not only enjoy the process but also find new ways of consolidating and looking at what they learnt.
One of the big rewards of such a project is the number of spinoffs and unexpected benefits that emerge. A small sample of significant spinoffs that emerged in an unplanned manner is given below.
Over the years, children had been observing a particular soapnut tree on the campus. One year the yield suddenly dropped. Children attributed this to the construction of a new building very near the tree. This provided an opportunity to actually think about the effect of human activities on life around them.
Another observation was made when some children reared the eggs seen on the underside of the soapnut tree leaves. To their surprise, they discovered that these eggs hatched into the very same insects that were responsible for pollinating the soapnut flowers into fruits. During a nature walk in the gardens of the neighbouring Theosophical Society children found out the difference in the seasonal changes between their campus tree and the trees in the Theosophical Society; for example, they observed that some of the banyan trees in the Theosophical Society had no fruits at the time that the campus banyan tree had, and deduced that all biological life has a rhythm of its own. Some of the observations that I made during the study were the following:
In the course of the study of campus trees we moved from an extensive and general background knowledge of trees to a specific, intensive and detailed study of each tree adopted.
The study provided scope for wonder, observation and a perception of the relatedness of all life. It gave a context for drawings of a different kind; children drew what they saw, as they saw without being bound by technicalities.
The study was on a one-to-one basis. The teacher worked individually with each child and his or her tree. This gave the teacher a lot of insight into the learning process of each child.
One could perhaps describe such a project as being a study not only of life, but for life in an abiding way.