Can wild places create equal learning spaces?

By Yuvan AvesonJun. 04, 2022in Perspectives

Specially Written for Vikalp Sangam

All photos by the author

Nature-based learning is increasingly being shown to work better than traditional classroom instruction. Moreover, it is proving to be especially valuable for vulnerable/disadvantaged children and youth facing more than normal environmental stressors and life challenges. Can nature-education possibly be a key factor which creates equal spaces in education in India?

Through the last monsoon, during lockdown, I did sessions on wetlands for the younger children of Abacus Montessori school. Rains changed the landscape and were bringing out new life. With primary children (aged 4 – 6) we did a module on ‘Frogs of Chennai’. The city at this time was beaming with frog choruses every night. We saw the lifecycle of the Ornate narrow-mouthed frog – from egg to different stages of the tadpole to adult, in pictures I had taken in a small tank near my house. We learnt to identify common frogs in the city and their calls. I explained the role of frogs and toads in their ecosystem and how they are extremely sensitive to environmental changes as they breathe through their skin. In the end we learnt how to draw a Common Indian Toad step-by-step. The children were to visit a marshland nearby and spot at least five species of frogs and toads. And listen at night to frog calls, notice which species call the most in their neighbourhood, how the sounds change before and after a rain spell.

Several days later Sudha, my friend, and a primary teacher, called me to describe the impact this session had. The kids had certainly gotten curious about these creatures and spent rainy evenings listening and recognizing calls near their homes. One child had brought a toad home in a cardboard box, gave it a name, called it her friend, and perplexed her parents. Sudha also told me specifically about Vishishta, who earlier was not particularly interested in learning to read or write. Frogs however gave her a new purpose for language learning. She had sat her parents down and had them read out material on frogs, and help her read and understand, learn new words and speak the sentences. Her teachers supported her interest in school too. I saw her reading a few months later about a frog’s lifecycle with such rare eloquence for a five-year-old child.

Vishishta’s example is a pertinent one. But I’ve been seeing this phenomenon in different ways in so many children. Mithul is a friend’s son who is wondrously kinesthetic, has inexhaustible energy and a green thumb. He is only six but when he sows tomato, lady’s finger, and marigold in his apartment garden, they grow so well and far better than mine. He’s terrific at spotting spiders in the foliage and camouflaged creatures. His quick perception of form and shape is innate. He enjoys experiencing the world first hand, not second hand. So, he doesn’t love rote learning at school too much. Teachers complain of his reading/writing skills not improving – and of course they won’t in the mis-contextual ways in which they are taught. I gave him, over a period of time, several beautiful picture books and children’s stories evoking nearby nature, among them – Saahi’s Quest, Big Rain, Shero to the Rescue, and similar ones. As he began to discover that language could deepen his connection with the creatures around him and the lake and marshland near his home, his interest, and skills to read steeply increased.

Apprenticeship programme at Urur kuppam, making their home beach a rich living learning space.

For the last 6 months a team of us have been running an apprenticeship programme for children of the fisher-community at Urur and Olcott kuppam – two coastal hamlets at Besant Nagar, Chennai. Children from different social backgrounds and cultures show differences in how they grow and what capacities mature fast and slow. Urur-Olcott children are strikingly socially and emotionally mature at a very young age. They can negotiate and bargain, have sophisticated conversations, manage finances – given the early exposures and challenges they face compared to an urban child in a middle-class family. They can mix and interact with a range of people, while being sensitive to context, tone and nonverbal cues – capacities an average urban child in a private school, I’ve noticed, might develop only much later in adolescence. The purpose of our apprenticeship programme is to make their home-coast, the Elliot’s beach and Adyar estuary, along with other biodiversity areas in Chennai – into rich living multidisciplinary learning spaces beyond any classroom. Fisher communities are historically marginalized in urban society. Difficult socio-economic conditions deeply impact the healthy growth of children through their developmental planes. But through this programme I am learning how nature-based learning can be an extraordinary equalizing force. Doing studies and activities at their home beach – the basis for which is a bilingual field guide we made with 160 common coastal fauna found on the Chennai coast – and having multiple field sessions in places like Vedanthangal bird sanctuary and Kotturpuram Urban Forest fosters a drive to learn language and naturally develop scientific enquiry in a way which is intrinsic in the child, while the bound classroom attempts to bring this about through extrinsic factors like pressure, tests, punishment and so on. In these months, we’ve been seeing not just their academic learning improve, but also their general happiness and curiosity through it.

During a field trip with children to Vedanthangal

What other space – more than real-world nature – lets humans learn through exploration and discovery? ‘Exploratory learning’ is perhaps the deepest ingrained mode of education in humans, given that for 2 million years we were hunter-gatherers – which is for most of our time as a species. Feet must walk, eyes must wander, mind must ask, converse, wonder, hands must reach out, manipulate, pick-up, ears must listen and ponder, nose must detect and follow, spirit must expand – for learning to happen and be innately meaningful.

This is an under-observed and under-acknowledged phenomenon in India. That the accessible natural world is essential for the child’s all-rounded wellbeing and important even for their cognitive growth and better academic performance. Psychologist Gail Melson has studied how interactions with more-than-human species is necessary for people’s socio-emotional development and neuroscientist Andrew Huberman even says that engagement with and care for other species helps develop healthy oxytocin circuits in our brains, the neural-wiring for love and compassion. Several accounts exist from other countries on how disadvantaged or underprivileged children, due to access to and engagement with nature, perform academically on par or better than children from privileged backgrounds. The natural world in children’s lives can act as a powerful equalizing force in strange and unexpected ways. It does so along multiple directions, having a nurturing influence on several dimensions of a child’s being.

An urban wilderness walk for children at the author’s apartment

Recognizing this will mean to recognize daily access to wild spaces as a basic need of child-development. And its absence needs to be treated a health and educational crisis. My friend and among the most well-known of Indian nature educators Vena Kapoor shares this lament – of entry to natural spaces being highly restricted, inaccessible or inconvenient due to existing policies. She was speaking to me recently about how in cities like Bangalore which have numerous public parks, are closed between 10 in the morning and 4 in the afternoon, making them unavailable to school children and teachers/resource-people wanting to use them as learning spaces. She emphasized on how due to this, parks are also unavailable to women who might become free at home only during this time, and hence never get to experience these places at their leisure. There is no dearth of research and accounts of how time in nature exceptionally improves our psychological wellbeing, and when a large section of vulnerable people – especially women, children and the marginalized – cannot access this, it needs to be seen as a mental health crisis as well.

It is sometimes difficult to understand why there isn’t a radical rethinking of mainstream education in the way it has been passed on from colonial history, and now held in place by corporate-political regimes. Such a system is not based on human and ecological values and cannot create wellbeing. It can at best create high test-scorers, obedient employees, and docile desk-workers. We underestimate how much such a system perpetuates and ties in with the ecological crises of today. It has a big hand in contributing to a “ground-zero wake of futurelessness”, to borrow Marilyn Nelson’s poetry.

Let’s look at more research in this slowly emerging field. And let me share some more anecdotes –

The work of psychologist Nancy M Wells revolves around how nature access helps children from low-income backgrounds. Her studies range from showing how school gardens improve the science knowledge and general health of students, to how nearby nature is a resilience factor for vulnerable populations buffering them from stress and adversity. She says that “Children with a high degree of exposure to nature seem to be protected from the impact of life stress. This buffering appears to be greatest for those at most risk…”Studies by Andrea Faber Taylor look at children in public housing neighbourhoods with difficult socio-economic conditions, where their developmental needs maybe unmet or stifled. Developmental needs are specific conditions/stimuli/exposures needed by a child at a specific age group where the young human being is biologically sensitive to them. Taylor uncovers how access to trees and vegetation nearby and time spent among them helps erase several gaps related to income, poverty and race and actually supports children’s developmental needs even in difficult conditions.

That the engagement with the real natural world and more-than-human species as a profound practical need for children is something I began to observe early in my work. During my late teens I did science workshops for rural government schools of Vallipuram, Aanoor and P.V. Kalathur in Chengalpet district of Tamil Nadu, through Pathashaala KFI. I noticed how the school curriculum was in many ways far-fetched from the lived place and realities of these rural children. Drop-out rates were high and so was poverty and issues of caste segregation. My passion through these weekly workshops for classes 5 and 8 was to link their syllabus learning in meaningful ways to the biodiversity around their villages. Our two-year programme included numerous walks and sessions in the surrounding landscapes, observation work, presentations which used photographs of local biodiversity, art-work and activity sheets linking curriculum and place. We observed how children’s natural curiosity about science grew considerably when it was a portal into their lived landscape, inciting wonder, and mystery in the everyday. It was not merely another subject to take a test for at the end of the term. Teachers at the schools came back telling us that the children were performing better in exams, and previously disinterested children in the subject had become keenly interested even outside of our workshops.

Echoing the findings of western educationists like Richard Louv, David Sobel, Ginny Yurich, and others, I have been discovering through my work that nature-based learning wasn’t just important to protect the natural world and create values of stewardship and conservation in young people. Nature was necessary to protect and nurture children in through childhood and adolescence in a way nothing else can, and in a way which is inextricable from our condition as ecological beings. Nature was even more necessary for challenged and marginalized groups because of its power to heal, recast suffering and liberate the suffocated human spirit. All education needs to be nature education – to slightly reword David Orr’s phrase – if it should be inclusive of various learners, across cognitive capacities and social backgrounds, and if it is to be relevant in the present times.

‘Do experiences in nature promote learning?’. That is the title of one of the most vastly researched scientific studies on whether access to nature being a core part of school/college education makes a profound different to the young person’s life. It is written by Ming Kuo, Michael Barnes and Catherine Jordan, and published in the journal Frontiers in Psychology. Their paper draws from nearly a hundred studies and experiments done across the world on the question of nature, wellbeing, and the learning human being. It concludes how nature-based learning beats traditional classroom instruction in eight different ways, which are split into how it impacts the learner and how it impacts the learning context.

Access to nature, the paper collates, helps the learner – concentrate better, be less stressed, have more self-discipline, be more engaged, and be more physically active and fit. And it helps the learning context by – making it calmer, quieter and safer as a social context, making it more co-operative than competitive as a social context, and by helping autonomy and creativity.

‘Nature’ in this study and nature-based-learning means anything from freeplay in a natural space with vegetation, rocks, streams etc to nature-based curricula in schools to wilderness adventures, school gardens and animal assisted learning. As importantly the authors explain – “Not only can nature-based learning work better for disadvantaged students, but it appears to boost interest in uninterested students, improve grades, and reduce disruptive episodes and dropouts among “at risk” students. Nature-based learning may sometimes even erase race- and income-related gaps. Further, anecdotes abound in which students who ordinarily struggle in the classroom emerge as leaders in natural settings. If nature is equigenic, giving low-performing students a chance to succeed and even shine, the need to document this capacity is pressing.”

I would add, drawing from observing myself through a difficult childhood in a highly unstable family and observing hundreds of children I’ve worked with in the last decade as a nature-educator, that maybe the core importance of nearby nature and a multi-species community being a growing-learning space for young people is that it’s a deep spiritual need. Growing up with/within trees, birds, snakes, wasps, and fungi lets our single identities, small selfhoods expand and encompass other beings, life-ways, whole landscapes. Such a ‘widening’ of the human psyche must happen during its most formative period that is childhood. To introduce it later on after the mind has become steeped in the impacts of modern society, is not as transformative. Learning emplaced in nature discovers relationalities, dissolves edges between entities. It is a space where one becomes the other and the other becomes one. Is this not a requisite for world peace? What children experience as shaping influences on their lives deeply determines human society’s future with the rest of the biosphere. And what we are also discovering is that learning enmeshed in the ecological world may be a contributing factor to many dimensions of equality in our species.

References –

Pointers to Teachers

Contact the author

Also read The Field of Learning by the same author

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