Most learning is not the result of instruction. It is rather the result of unhampered participation in a meaningful setting. Most people learn best by being ‘with it’…

Ivan Illich

Designing learning experiences in the outdoors feels like a balancing act—a dance of boundaries between structure and spontaneity. How does one choreograph this dance? How much do you structure? Let the sense of wonder prevail, let them ‘be with it’ and facilitate ‘unhampered participation’ for learning but what does it all mean? These are some of the questions that I grappled with while preparing to facilitate a learning session with a group of twelve- to thirteen-yearolds in the summer of 2019. These were urban students from upper middle-class homes and, with a few exceptions, they had spent most of their time indoors in controlled environments—be it school, home or even the commute to and from school. In this article I share the experience and some insights that emerged around these questions.

Sensing the surroundings

The objectives of this session were, firstly, to bring attention to the senses of sight, smell, hearing and touch in experiencing and learning about one’s surroundings and secondly, to understand the importance of observation with attention in shaping our responses to situations around us. There were three things to be done—a rambling forty-five-minute walk through an urban wooded space outside Bengaluru, spending about twenty to thirty minutes in front of a tree of the person’s choice followed by a reflection on the morning’s experience. No instructions were provided for the walk on why, what and how, except that we had to be silent and we could not bring anything back from the walk. At the end of forty-five minutes, children were asked to take about fifteen minutes to reflect on the walk and express it either as a drawing, in writing or in any other form that they wanted. Stationery in the form of paper, pencils and crayons was made available. Neither the children nor I were familiar with this space which allowed us to be open to the unexpected.

As we set forth, the children were not sure of what was happening; they were asked to amble and experience their surroundings. A slew of questions, some hurled in my direction and some whispered to each other—“What does this mean? Should we make notes of what we see, hear? What should we do? Why are we doing this? Where are we going? Is this a biology class? I think something bit me. Gosh there are spider-webs everywhere” and so on. My response, “Let’s just experience this place, this is my first visit too, let’s see what we find and then maybe we can sit down and share what we saw and felt.” We wandered under tree canopies on spongy leaf-covered soil, water squelching under our feet, came upon a clearing and then more trees, bryophytes and mushrooms on fallen logs. The mumblings and questions slowly gave way to silence. We began to hear the calls of a few birds. Somebody spotted a tall termite hill near the fence that enclosed this space, and wanted to know what it was. We admired it, wondering how the termites built this, what was it like inside, why was it so tall. Facts gathered from National Geographic and Discovery Channel documentaries came tumbling out. We then continued silently on our amble till we came to a clearing where we settled down for the next phase of our session.

We reflected for about twenty minutes on our walk, sharing our experiences and observations—the soil under the trees was so spongy and leafy but the ground on the paths is so hard; the air felt moist on the skin under the trees and now away from them it is warmer and feels drier somehow; why does wet earth smell so fresh and different? It was so quiet as we walked, interesting that many of us stopped talking after a while; what were those really noisy creatures? Maybe cicadas? Did they come out because it had rained last night? Wish we could have walked for longer; why don’t we do this in school, stay quiet and just walk through a real forest? We should really have more forests in cities; all schools should have forests or be near forests.

While some expressed themselves in conversation, others sketched the path from memory. One of the children reflected through a poem on how the walk brought stillness in her, while another wrote a haiku—exciting nature, rivaled by the cicadas, and a flycatcher. A young college graduate who supported the facilitation wrote—my divine silence, urges the children to see, how trees speak to me.

Ruminating on a tree

We paused our reflection as each child was asked to pick a tree and spend half an hour just looking at the tree. After the first five minutes, more specific instructions were provided—observe the tree trunk, touch and feel the texture of the bark, observe the type, age, venation of leaves, presence of fruits or flowers, their colour, shape and any other aspect of the tree. At the end of the session they were required to make a rubbing of the tree bark using a white sheet of paper and crayons or a black pencil.

It was interesting to see how the children responded to this activity. There were a few who were restless and in five minutes declared that they were done! Additional instructions were then provided on what to observe, and they were asked to stay with the tree till the time was up. This insistence on staying with the tree and observing with attention led to some serious delving into the tree. Periodic shouts of wonder at spiders camouflaged in the bark of the tree, resins oozing from a cut end of a branch, ants crawling up fissures in the bark as if they were ‘cruising along a highway’ entertained the rest of us. A student admired the resin in which a spider was embedded and he thought that reminded him of amber and fossils. Some students sat very quietly in front of the tree drawing everything they observed, while others documented the tree from different vantage points. Most of the students were worried about what they should write, how much detail they should provide, that their drawing skills were really bad. Some were really bothered by tiny insects and spiders. But after the first ten minutes, when they realized there was no ‘out’ from this session, all of them settled in, and at the end of twenty minutes when they were asked to share their reflections, some of them requested for more time to ‘be with their tree’; such a pleasant surprise, particularly when it came from two of the restless ones!

To share our reflections, everyone was asked to pick a favourite spot to sit on or stand, from where they would participate in the session. Most children picked a tree to sit on, a few sat on the ground while others clambered up a bamboo tree house that was built on one of the trees. There were diverse expressions of their experiences of the session—poems about silence and nature; detailed drawings of trees, leaves, fruit, insects on the barks of trees; writings on how it felt to be in nature, the feel of air on skin and how it differed with each location—under canopies and away from canopies; detailed record of observations (almost like a biology record); realizing that a tree that one person was observing was actually a younger tree of the same species that another was observing nearby. Myriad questions and responses emerged, “How do we know that the two trees are related?” Their flowers and leaves were ‘identical’ but the texture of the bark and the width of the trunk of one was rougher and wider than the other! Several of the children wondered why their classes in school couldn’t be out in the open; why couldn’t they sit on trees and listen to the teacher while watching insects and worms when you learn so much more and better? There was an overall sense that we really need to take the time to look around and listen and spend more time in the open with ‘nature’. A closing comment of the session was, “If there is so much happening in this wooded area, imagine what it must be like in a ‘real forest’”.

More about trees

Continuing with the theme of trees and trying to understand them a little more, we moved inside a classroom to watch two films that were selected to trigger a wider discussion and explore more questions: Why are trees considered so important? Can you really bring water to a dry area by growing trees? Do trees communicate with each other? Is it important to understand this when we plant trees or when we are clearing an area of trees?

The first video was set on a farm in northern Burkina Faso in Africa. It was the story of how a farmer, Yacouba Sawadogo, single handedly revived the groundwater and improved crop yields in his farm. He did this by planting trees in an area which his family abandoned after the terrible droughts of the 1980s. During this period, a twenty per cent decline in annual rainfall slashed food production throughout the Sahel, turned vast stretches of savanna into desert, and caused millions of deaths by hunger. The trees not only harvested rainwater and held more water in the ground but also increased yields of millets while restoring soil fertility.

Yacouba also drew inspiration and support from termites. He opened abandoned termite mounds, under which there was a labyrinth of tunnels that the ants had created, to channel rain water. This allowed for water to be channeled and spread over a larger area supporting more vegetation. This section of the film provided several ‘aha’ moments for the students. The termite hills from the morning walk suddenly came alive and the ‘engineering’ skills of termites surprised and amazed all of us. This led to questions about termites, “Why do they make these tunnels and what happens in these tunnels?” I drew a schematic of the cross-section of a termite hill on the white board which allowed students to understand the structure of a termite hill— how termites and fungi live in symbiosis to degrade cellulose which provides food for both fungi and the termites. We also discussed the significance of this since the termite-fungi relationship is an important part of cellulose degradation in soil. If this process, together with the role played by other microorganisms is affected by human activity, then dead plant matter would accumulate in vast quantities! We had a short discussion on what this means for food webs, how it impacts nutrient cycling in nature and the crucial role played by microorganisms which we seem to ignore most of the time.

We then watched a seven-minute video that explained, using simple graphics, how trees communicate. This was based on research and field work done in the forests of British Columbia. The prominent role played by fungi in the form of mycorrhiza in facilitating communication between trees brought fungi back into our discussion. We learnt that trees of the same species often form alliances with trees of other species, and that forest trees have evolved to live in cooperative, interdependent relationships, maintained by the communication channels created by these fungi—often called a ‘wood-wide web’. Questions and comments tumbled out—fungi are everywhere—inside termite hills, breaking down bread, and now helping trees communicate with each other. And symbiosis again: glucose from trees feeds the fungi which in turn mobilize nutrients for other trees and so on. What about the two similar trees that we saw—wonder how they communicate? Could they be related? What would happen if one of these trees was cut down?

To deepen the understanding of interconnections and relationships, the children were asked to think about what happens when we cut down trees in forests or clear them to expand a road or plant any tree anywhere. A big realization from this session—nature is full of symbiotic relationships; there are tree families which we could be destroying by felling trees! At the end of the day, we reflected on our experiences and learnings. The children shared their experiences in smaller groups very creatively. One group sketched an interconnected web on a chart paper to show the relationships between all the activities and discussions. Their inspiration was the fungal network that helped trees communicate with each other. Another group presented a skit, while a third group composed and recited a poem. The group that presented a skit and composed and sang a song called ‘Symbiosis’ which became the anthem for the rest of our time together.

On the balancing act

Several threads emerged from the engagement with the children that I tried to weave together to make sense of this balancing act. By not structuring and providing instructions on the walk, it seemed like the children and I were able to truly sense our surroundings with curiosity and a sense of discovery. This allowed us to sense the differences in how the earth felt under our feet and the air touched our skin at various points on the walk. A serendipitous sighting of an anthill shaped our learning experience for the rest of the day. Ant hills were not a part of my lesson plan! However, because we delved a bit into the anthill in our conversation and later through a sketch of it in class, Yacouba’s story took on a different meaning. Instead of just learning about how trees hold water and bring back life to soil and land, we also learned the significance of working with nature and taking advantage of the engineering marvels of termites to meet our needs. This made me wonder about the possible learning experience that might have unfolded if I had done a reconnaissance of the wood in preparation for the walk. Would I have picked specific spots and things for the children to see, listen to, touch? Would I have spotted the anthill and engineered the walk in that direction? Maybe I would have brought pictures and descriptions of the anthill and even prepared a few slides!! Our collective wonder at how a seemingly muddy mound that we chanced upon in the morning could bring life in an arid landscape as shown by Yacouba in the film, may not have been possible if I had ‘engineered’ this as part of a lesson plan. It seemed as if the freedom and lightness that I, as a facilitator, experienced through this ‘unstructured’ walk, transferred itself to the children, after the initial apprehensions. We became collective ‘explorers’. As one of the children commented later, ‘It was nice to explore together. You really did not know where we were going this morning? Cool.’ I was not the teacher telling them what to do, what to experience, what to record, thereby limiting their imagination and creativity and ability to learn and know by just ‘being with it’.

Scaffolding the learning process by bringing in a broad structure or rubric for exploration in the Tree Watch session allowed for focused observation. This was important to cultivate the ability to observe with attention which is crucial in building awareness. This emerged in the session when they shared not only what they had observed but also what emotions and sensations the surroundings evoked. It reinforced, for me, the need to understand when, where and how much to structure learning with the senses in the outdoors.

The discomfort and apprehension that the children experienced when asked to embark on the walk without instructions and not knowing what they are going to do, brought forth the deep conditioning and regimenting that our education system has entrenched in them. What was encouraging, however, was to see how they can shed some of that with some patience and persistence on the part of the facilitator. Positioning myself as a facilitator to create an enabling environment in which the children could ‘just be’, realize their potential, bring forth their creativity and sensitivity and learn by immersing themselves in the situation was an important learning: not a teacher or educator but a facilitator.

A final thought—there is no greater time than this in which to immerse children (young adults and for of us) in sensory experiences in nature and in reality, if we are to enable social and ecological justice.