Connecting with nature in schools

Connecting with nature in schools

The question that I want to discuss in the context of education is whether trees are as important as classrooms.  Ideally of course schools should have both — classrooms and trees. Yet, trees are not even mentioned in regulations that specify minimum requirements for a school. The governmental rules insist on classrooms, toilets and a playground but there is no mention of trees.

As children sit indoors bent at their desks, or cross-legged on the floor in overcrowded classrooms, no one pays attention to their bodily sensations. A squirming or fidgety child is quickly disciplined and in time everyone is schooled to ignore the messages from the environment that are received through the body and sense organs.

The ears too are expected to tune exclusively to the teacher’s voice ignoring all the other sounds that may be occurring all around. After a few years of this training, one generally begins to believe that the textbook, the teacher’s words and the world of ideas is much more important than the world of bodily sensations and feelings. In the past, once school was over there was a lot of time that children spent playing outdoors.

The pressure of examination-related tuitions and the lure of television and other screens have considerably reduced the outdoor play time of children. In any case, the strong message is that play and the experience of the natural world are not nearly as important in comparison to studying maths or learning about computers. Parents speak proudly about the child who is always busy with his computer and complain impatiently about the child who only wants to climb trees and play outside.
Out in the open

In his essay, “My School”, Tagore wrote, “But our childhood is the period when we have or ought to have more freedom-—freedom from the necessity of specialisation into the narrow bounds of social and professional conventionalism. I well remember the surprise and annoyance of an experienced headmaster, reputed to be a successful disciplinarian, when he saw one of the boys of my school climbing a tree and choosing a fork of the branches for settling down to his studies. I had to say to him in explanation that ‘childhood is the only period of life when a civilised man can exercise his choice between the branches of a tree and his drawing-room chair, and should I deprive this boy of that privilege because I, as a grown-up man, am barred from it?’”

If we are inclined to dismiss Tagore’s love of nature as sentimentality, let us pay heed to research quoted in Richard Louv’s book, Last Child in the Woods. Studies indicate that the best predictor of preschool children’s physical activity is simply being outdoors and that indoor, sedentary childhood is linked to mental health problems.

As urban areas rapidly loose open spaces and become vast sprawls of concrete and tarmac, the physical and mental health of children becomes seriously compromised. More and more researchers are finding evidence that disconnection from nature has enormous implications for human health and child development. Why, then, is our dominant education paradigm focusing exclusively on developing intellectual skills by removing children away from natural surrounding and placing them inside classrooms?

The earlier notions of education do not seem to be dependent on a physical separation of children from the natural world. Yet, modern schools are rated upon the quality of their classrooms and no importance is given to the provision of natural areas in a school. A playground is considered important for a school and rightly so. However a playground is typically a clear area, which may even have a cement or asphalt surface. Playgrounds of the more fancy schools may be equipped with jungle gym and other play equipment. These cannot provide the same experience as trees can. To come in contact with a tree is to come in contact with a living, growing, changing being. A being that is generosity embodied, offering gifts without discriminating.

Over many years of my work in the education field, I have visited several schools, both in the private and government sectors. While many schools have good infrastructure as per government norms, I was struck by the welcoming feel of schools where teachers, school heads or managements had taken the initiative to plant and maintain trees. Tree-less schools looked drab and harsh by contrast. In some schools, students were encouraged to plant trees and look after them and these schools had flourishing gardens. The heat of summer was mitigated by the presence of greenery and trees were readily available as learning resources.

A great deal of content in various subjects such as science, environment science, mathematics and language can be brought to life by using the tree as a learning resource. Children’s attention can be explicitly drawn to the tangible benefits provided by trees and they can readily appreciate the value of trees and tree planting. While acknowledging the importance of the three Rs in education (reading, writing and arithmetic) as an essential right for all children, we should not forget the vital importance of the three Ss –   Seeding, Sharing and Sustaining – for all of which we need trees.

(The author is professor, Azim Premji University,­ Bengaluru)

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