First and foremost, nature education at Marudam is a way of life rather than something being learnt as a subject. We are situated in a rural area in Tiruvannamalai, with many of the children’s parents’ lives directly dependent on nature. Also the school functions under the aegis of ‘The Forest Way’ trust, which is involved in afforestation, conservation and related activities. Many of the teachers are an integral part of both the school and the trust and as such, have a deep commitment to and passion for nature. The children participate in various activities of the trust: tree planting, cleaning the nearby hill or biodiversity surveys, as the season demands. They participate in all activities from a very young age and get more involved as they grow older. This essay will try and attempt to describe the role of nature in a child’s journey in Marudam.

Starting early

We take in children at three and a half years in the kindergarten (KG) and they stay there until they are around five and a half years. Our KG curriculum is primarily influenced by the Steiner methodology. We don’t introduce the alphabet in the written form until they reach six years of age. In the KG, the main focus is relationships: with nature, with each other, with adults. The children go on long nature walks every day where they observe various things like insects, birds, flowers and patterns in the soil. Some children come with an innate affinity for things natural and some come with hidden fears, which may have been passed on from adults in the family. But with gentle engagement with these fears, they slowly drop. As we are in a rural landscape, with agricultural lands and natural thickets, there is much to observe through the various seasons. The children are gently encouraged to not destroy anything and to observe respectfully. Many village children for instance tend to keep snatching at leaves as they walk by, but soon drop this habit. Every now and then a snake decides to find a home in the KG classroom. Then one of the adults in the campus, many of whom are comfortable handling snakes, will encourage the snake to leave or catch it and release it nearby. They also use the opportunity to explain what type of snake it is, whether it is venomous or not and something about its life. We find twenty two species of snakes around the school and most of us are familiar with all of them. The children’s fascination for nature begins early.

On the hill

The whole school goes to the Arunachala hill once a week for half a day. Now that we have grown to around 120 in number, we have split the ‘hill day’ into two and also divided ourselves into a number of groups, with each group having around ten to fifteen children at most and often, fewer than that.

One of the key aspects of the hill walk is that it is undirected free time with nature. There are seven different trails on the hill and the children select the one they want to go on that particular week. Each trail is slightly different: one has a mountain stream for part of the year; another ends in a fascinating ficus tree which everyone can easily climb; a tall sloping rock surface which children love to climb is the highlight for one; yet another involves a long walk across ridges and through a valley. We go for these walks every week through the year. The landscape undergoes lots of changes through the months and everyone observes those changes. We have made a conscious choice not to direct the children towards anything in particular and to let nature act as its own teacher. Of course, accompanying adults are interested in different aspects and that can sometimes have an infectious effect.

We have a silent time in each of these walks. Over the years the children have started asking for longer and longer silent times. In most walks there is usually something interesting that stands out. It could be the sighting of a black eagle gently gliding low over the forest or a bunch of wasps carrying stunned caterpillars to their underground nest chambers. This year, we were going through a severe drought and we could visibly see the distress of the various life forms. It was very difficult to witness it without being affected. Later, when the rains came, the transformation was fascinating and dramatic. Among the many changes we witnessed was the return of butterflies and a few weeks later, caterpillars. Children rejoiced in counting the various species and recording which plants or shrubs they were most attracted to.

The fact that we have been observing the same region over so many years has led to a close understanding of the landscape and the flora and fauna in it. Many on the campus have become nature’s chroniclers, noting when different trees bloom, when certain birds migrate, when they breed and so on. On returning from nature outings, many of the children enjoy recording their observations either as drawings or pieces of writing. The observations are shared and usually consolidated on the board. As a whole group, everyone gets to benefit from everyone else’s observations. Teachers and students also watch nature related documentaries which further consolidate our learning from direct observations.

Recording nature observations

A few years ago, we had the opportunity of meeting Mr Prabhakar, who founded the India Biodiversity Portal (IBP). He invited us to participate in it. It is a people-science forum where anyone from the public is encouraged to post their observations of nature on the portal. Through this process, we learn names of unknown species, post interesting observations and end up contributing towards science and helping to maintain a natural history register of the region. This portal has helped our knowledge of the natural world grow, based on our own observations.

The whole journey with insects began with an accidental observation of a death’s-head hawkmoth. Children were fascinated by its design and wanted to know what it was. We identified it by posting on IBP. When reading about it, we found that the moth loves feeding on honey. A few days after the reading a student spotted the moth sitting next to a bee hive. This affirmed what we read and everyone was delighted. The same joy was there when we witnessed four species of fruit-piercing moths on our fig and guava trees when they were fruiting.

We are now in the process of gathering photographic evidence of all the life stages of each butterfly and moth. This is leading to many fascinating discoveries. Students recently observed that the lime butterfly has got its name from the caterpillar primarily feeding on the wild lime tree’s leaves. We have compiled a list of birds of this region through our observations (the count currently stands at 180 species). We have done the same with moths, butterflies, frogs, snakes, dragonflies and many other life forms. We have a set of field guides in our library to help with identifying various species. Wherever possible we also have copies in individual classrooms. Recent small publications in Tamil of various life forms have been very useful and popular.

Class projects

We frequently use the model of projects to study. We select a theme such as insects or farming or pollination, and the children are encouraged to observe as much as they can outdoors. All the learning is brought together and presented through various means such as charts, models and PowerPoint presentations to the rest of the school. In this way, the sharing becomes horizontal across groups and results in much wider holding of knowledge and observations.

Respect for nature

We try and instil respect for nature at all times. We try and create a culture of respect while entering a region and to not bring our loud over-imposing presence. For instance, on one of our trails called the Owl-rock Trail, a pair of eagle owls had nested and we found the parent pair rearing the young ones on a bare rock. We made this trail out-of-bounds for several weeks so that our presence would not distress the birds. While all children were curious to see the young ones, they understood the reason for the ban and respected it. In the same way, we do not disturb any other kind of nest. This included wasp nests in a classroom too.

Interaction with passionate adults

The children have a lot of interactions with adults whose lives are closely associated with nature. These adults are not just the teachers, but also people who work at the farm, the resident artist who is an ardent birder, as well as people involved in tree planting and fire line cutting.

The Forest Way trust employs people from nearby villages who have been working on the hill for many years. They have an intimate understanding of the hill, including the various caves, streams and groves. They are completely at ease in the forest and are very skilled in their work. Our children learn a lot from interacting with them. They have put in a lifetime’s worth of work in bringing back the forests. It is impossible to interact with them without being touched by their work and interest.

Many of our children come from agrarian and pastoralist backgrounds. They have an intimate knowledge of the land and crops, and a communion with animals. Besides, as they are in continuous contact with so many adults for whom understanding of nature and interaction with it is an essential life skill, the necessary skills are quite easily imbibed by them too. For instance, if one is a farmer, there has to be a good understanding of the monsoon, of changes in climate and seasons, in order to decide when to sow and, also, what and how to sow. If mistakes are made this can result in the loss of months of toil and, of course, there is a serious economic impact. In today’s era of climate-change, it has become much more complex to decipher the conditions and to make the right decisions, and children have come to understand this.

Body work and work culture

In Marudam there is a physical culture, and we spend a lot of time playing, working and doing body work. The children also spend a lot of time working with their hands and with different materials during craft classes.

There is a general lack of fussiness over children getting dirty and working with their hands. This contributes towards their being less disconnected and more able to engage directly with a landscape or the non-human world. The fact that they are usually not overly ‘soft’ means that they can be in nature under a wide range of conditions (heat, rain, night-time) and experience those less than comfortable but hugely rewarding aspects.

Our older group of children has become quite a formidable workforce. On many hill days, the group has been working on the land. This year, after the rains, they worked enthusiastically as a team to create rain water harvesting structures, plant trees on the hill, work on the vegetable garden, etc. Some of our children have even become adept at ploughing with a pair of bullocks. So, work has become another means through which they connect with the overall intention of the place.

School trips

Our school trips are mainly to sister projects like the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary (GBS), at Wayanad, or Solitude in Auroville, where we have friends involved in nature conservation or organic farming. Also, our children and adults alike love going to these places.

We have been making trips to GBS ever since Marudam started, and many of our children have been there five times over the last five years. They are completely at home there and are quite capable of taking care of themselves by cooking or setting up camp. Of course, we have the wonderful guidance of Lorenzo Castellari and Suprabha Seshan when we are there. Repeated visits have helped children develop a relationship with the place, and the learning has been immense. A large part of the time is spent being alone and observing, drawing, recording and reflecting for over several hours each day, and that is what the children want. In addition they also do community work to help the projects at GBS.

This comfort with and love for the place, however, didn’t happen overnight. A new landscape like GBS, with its thick forests, leaches, snakes and elephants, can cause fear in children, particularly on their first visit and when they are young. There is, of course, also excitement. Over repeated visits all these emotions find their rightful place and there is a level of comfort which develops and creates the scope for deep learning.

Looking within and the larger questions of life

It is impossible to engage with nature without engaging with humanity’s place in nature, our impact and what our rightful role should be. These big questions constantly come up for students and are engaged with seriously. Sometimes, they lead to large group discussions. Similarly, to understand what it means to be human, one has to look within, to our own inclinations, assumptions, actions and insecurities. Many of our interactions with nature throw up these questions, often intensely and uncomfortably, and the older group in our school engages with these issues in depth.

Many of us would like to think of ourselves as stewards of nature, but are we playing that role or are we mere exploiters? For instance, this question came up intensely during the recent long drought here, when many forms of life were suffering from lack of resources, but we humans continued to live in almost the same way. Yes, many of us were emotionally and psychologically affected, but the way we lived and used resources was not particularly affected. Situations like this throw up a lot more questions than answers.

We have not arrived

All this is learning in progress as is everything else in Marudam. By no means are we suggesting that all children in Marudam are equally touched or that we don’t have negative experiences. A few years ago, two bird nests were destroyed by children, who, fascinated by the eggs, secretly took them away. We spoke to the whole group and explained the importance of respecting all life forms. Also, the fact that many of our children are from a rural background helps, as they are much more in tune with nature. However, children do show a tendency to be preoccupied, not to observe or be silent, or caught up in their own group dynamics while on a trip. These attitudes are addressed through conversations in circle times and as when they are observed. Children also tend to have different interests, and while the atmosphere is conducive to all these learnings, children will learn what they want to.

Nature is an integral part of our life. We are a part of nature. But in the way our modern lives have been shaped, our engagement with nature has become highly fragmented. We have lost the true understanding of our own dependence on nature. Many of us even now have notions of conquering nature, controlling it and shaping it. These ideas have of course resulted in the mess that we are in today.

Is it possible to turn things around? Is it possible to create small but strong counter-currents which function with a different sensibility? Is it possible to dare to hope for our children?

Ecologically speaking, we are living through a mass extinction period: a human created mass extinction. There is no turning around for those species threatened with extinction or those already extinct. It is not clear how much time we have on this planet without a rapid escalation of the crisis we are already in. Some say twenty years, some say till the end of the century. However long that may be, do we simply continue to live life on the same terms as our peers and recent generations past or do we try and gain a new understanding? Can we look at tribal communities and their relationship with nature to understand a different way of life? Can we facilitate the possibility for our children to look at life differently from the way we did and to try and live in a less exploitative, more life-affirming manner?

These are some of the questions which currently guide us and help us stay on the creative edge of learning from nature.