Nature is part of our life. Our school campus has its natural beauty, still intact. There is silence and quietness that permeates and penetrates each one of us. To be in communion with that, to look at, love and admire everything around us—a flying bird, a beautiful pink flower on a touch-me-not plant, a broken branch—to be part of it, to be aware and feel that we belong to all that out there, is what we have attempted in our learning programmes.
Environmental Studies or EVS as it is usually called, is one of the subjects introduced in the mixed-age (7–9 years of age) vertical group of the Junior Section in The Valley School. EVS is a vast pool of experiences, concepts, experiments and information that describe and connect with the world around us. It is one of the most interesting subjects for primary school students as it pertains to their immediate environment and encourages them to wander around the beautiful school campus. However, the important challenge for teachers is to infuse a spirit of enquiry into the learning process; not merely asking for a definition or a conclusion, but by earnestly observing what is around, with curiosity and humility. In this process, the environment becomes the medium for engaging young minds in the excitement of firsthand observation of nature and natural phenomena, and for understanding patterns and processes in the natural and social world. A further challenge for the teachers lies in designing the programme for a dynamic group of children of varying ages, with diverse needs and capacities.
Main objectives of the programme
The main objectives of the EVS programme are:
To nurture wonder and curiosity in young minds.
To bring in the quality of attention, silence and solitude in children.
To explore, understand and make connections with their immediate environments—school campus, neighbourhood and home—and from there to the wider world.
To observe with attention the water, soil and different life forms in their natural habitats and document what they see.
To inculcate in children the ability to question and reflect on their observations about natural materials and phenomena, and to make meaningful inferences using the scientific processes of experimentation, recording and analysis.
To provide opportunities for learning through hands-on activities, art and craft work and personal experiences.
To introduce the sciences and social sciences as an integrated whole.
Themes and modules over a three-year cycle
The fact that a child spends three years in our mixed-age classrooms in the junior school led us to develop a three-year cycle for the EVS programme, which includes twelve different modules under four different themes. The four themes and their modules (in brackets) are given below.
Theme 1: Biodiversity in the Valley (Birds; Trees; Insects and Spiders)
Theme 2: Natural Elements (Air; Soil; Water)
Theme 3: Physical Phenomena (Sound; Light; Force)
Theme 4: Eminent Personalities (Helen Keller; Dr CV Raman; Mahatma Gandhi)
Thus, we have ‘Birds’, ‘Air’, ‘Sound’, ‘Helen Keller’ in the first year; ‘Trees’, ‘Soil’, ‘Light’, ‘Dr CV Raman’ in the second year, and ‘Insects and Spiders’, ‘Water’, ‘Force’, ‘Mahatma Gandhi’ in the final year of the three-year cycle .
The modules covered over a year are chosen carefully to establish close links between them as far as possible. For instance, when we begin with ‘Birds’ as the module related to biodiversity, it culminates in the adaptations of birds that enable them to fly, and this gradually progresses to ‘Air’, which is the medium of flight for these efficient natural flyers. The next module is ‘Sound’ which invariably needs air as a medium to travel in. The year ends with ‘Helen Keller’, a personality one can associate well with sound and hearing. Similar interlinks are made evident in the cluster including ‘Soil’, ‘Trees’, ‘Light’ and ‘Dr CV Raman’. This interconnectedness between modules leads to a natural flow of content and establishes a good integration of concepts.
The year usually begins with a topic on biodiversity because it is closely connected to the immediate environment and is mostly done outdoors . These topics nurture the qualities of attention, silence and solitude. Field study, direct observation, documentation and interaction with resource people are the main approaches to learning in these modules. Themes 2 and 3 lend themselves to learning through exploration, experimentation and analysis. Children develop an understanding of the basic physical concepts through direct experience with everyday objects, participating in carefully designed activities that promote questioning, collecting, displaying and discussing data. The year ends with the study of a renowned personality. In the cases of Helen Keller and Dr CV Raman, there is a clear link between the personalities and the other modules within the group. While covering this theme, children get a glimpse into the lives of these people and understand the significant contributions made by them to society.
The curriculum is itself inspired by the environment and is dynamic, as it allows learning to take place inside and outside the classroom. The fact that the content is not based on a specific textbook, allows the teacher and the student, both learners in their own ways, to make connections and appreciate the flow of ideas. The learning process, which often begins with observation, supports the fact that when you pay attention, you see things extraordinarily clearly. Every child can express her understanding depending on ability and skill, either in the form of pictures, illustrations, words, sentences or paragraphs. Hence, there is no comparison or competition, enabling each child to learn at a pace and at a skill level appropriate for her. It encourages the individual child to take direct responsibility for her learning. Each class also witnesses a learning process which is a complex web of interactions between teachers and students and between peers. Paired and small group activities enrich the peer interactions and learning, as children with different skills and abilities come together to work.
Teacher: A learner with the student
This predominantly activity-based programme emphasizes the role of the adult as a guide, a facilitator, and an active participant in the whole learning process. It is absolutely necessary for the teachers to ensure dynamic planning and preparation and provide adequate resource material to support learning of the different children in her group. The challenge for the teacher is not to ‘teach a class’ but to enable every child to learn through participation, discovery and personal experiences. Since the focus is on embracing the pristine moments of experiencing a reality or a phenomenon, the magic lies in how a student can understand or represent through their own words, rather than through definitions, the unravelling of the mystery that is nature. The teacher too is an active learner along with the children.
Some unforgettable moments
There have been several moments of joy, wonder and excitement in young minds, which we, as teachers, have cherished in our interactions with our class groups. The most memorable one for me was when the entire junior school gathered to see the emergence of a beautiful Common Crow butterfly in one of the classrooms. The children had collected the caterpillar during their walk and had observed with great curiosity its transformation into a cocoon and then into a beautiful butterfly. Yet another heart-warming sight was the experience of seeing children hugging a tree in groups of two or three to measure the girth (circumference) of its trunk. The spark of amazement in the eyes of children, while we discussed the challenges, contributions and achievements of Helen Keller was yet another unforgettable moment.
Enrichment and integration
The programme is enriched through the contribution of senior students, other teachers and experts from outside who are invited as resource people to accompany children for walks, to give assembly presentations, or simply talk to them about their experiences. The Junior School excursions are planned to revolve around topics in the EVS classes every year. The art and craft activities within each module are integrated with the art classes. Making of models, herbariums with flowers and leaves, tree calendars and group cooking are other related activities. Poems, short stories and skits related to the modules are learnt and discussed in the Hindi, Kannada and English classes, thus integrating the topics with language study.
Through the EVS programme, we attempt to nurture sensitivity in children to the fact that every element in our environment has significance and value in itself. This has meant that we learn to look at the environment in a holistic manner, not just for human survival and human benefits but also for the interdependence and well-being of all other life forms. It is more earth-centric than human-centric. It is an approach anchored in a love of life, of every other creature on this planet, an approach where the interconnectedness of life on earth is reinforced—an approach that is the need of the hour.