Nature education in schools: Where do we stand?

Nimesh Ved

At a recent gathering on nature education, participating school teachers raised pertinent questions, some of which I discuss briefly below. A majority of teachers were part of schools that have ‘nature’ higher on the list of values they ascribe to than ‘competition’ and boast of campuses which other (read regular) schools can at best dream of.

Outdoors. Most of us agree that the ‘outdoors’ present a far more conducive setting for nature education than the ‘indoors’. However, the ‘outdoors’ also warrant a different and seemingly more difficult set of skills. Walking around and recognizing, touching, smelling, tasting leaves and learning of their usage from people whose lives they are an intricate part of – all the while keeping the students hooked – is different from listing their names in a classroom. Are we not confident enough of our abilities to facilitate learning outside the class and to take the proverbial ‘road less travelled’?

Far from nature. One of the participating teachers described how the school had enthusiastically planned a visit to a rainforest. However, when the students reached the location they were not exactly happy to be amidst the sounds, colours, trees and water. This despite months of planning. The rainforests of books and websites were different from the rainforest they had arrived at; a place they were afraid to venture into. Have we come so far from nature that we are scared of it?

Age-groups. The team from another school had multiple teachers share their learning. One of them spoke of classes 5 and 6 while the other of classes 7 and 8; each of these talked of invigorating sets of actions. But their colleague who talked of classes 9 and above stated that despite all the effort in younger classes these students were least interested in nature. He added that they developed ‘other’ priorities and even getting them outdoors was a challenge. Are we unable to understand select age-groups and connect with them?

Tree-climbing. One of the participants shared how he found the experience of climbing a tree to be more effective to connect a student with trees than her learning names of 10 tree species. There was little to argue with here. The student puts in unstructured time with the tree, gets close, holds it, uses multiple senses, develops her own understanding of the tree and as a corollary there stands a higher chance of her forging a bond with one (or more) tree(s). Simple indeed. But then, like much that is simple, is it too difficult to put into practice?

Long walks. One of the schools shared their experience with nature walks. The students go for one long walk a week – out in the open, amidst nature – bereft of plan or guidance. It builds a platform for students to cultivate a personal and deep relation with the planet they walk on, observe some of its connections, and is a small step towards making them feel ‘a part’ of the earth as opposed to ‘apart’ from the earth. My initial reaction was that this is possible only when the school is located in certain environs but then each problem also brings with it a solution or a set of solutions. However, are we willing to make time for this?

Priority. One question that elicited a reaction from most participants was from a teacher who said we encourage students to observe elements of nature and also convey the merits of doing so. However, she asked, if a wasp, a moth or a bird came inside the classroom, how many of us were willing to stop teaching and encourage the students to observe the species (rare, migratory, beautiful or else)?

In the evening as I walked along a stream abutting the campus I recalled a discussion during my visit – few years ago – to one of these schools. We had then wondered how, if the nature education program we were talking about did not work in schools located within natural and serene environments, it would be difficult if not impossible for it to succeed elsewhere.

Teachers at these schools had the space and option to explore and arrive at these questions. Questions that underscored the challenges in nature education today. The gathering, however, left me wondering how nature education was placed in a majority of our schools today – from the cramped schools running out of small buildings (or select rooms in a building) to the elite schools with air-conditioned classes – where nature is way down the priority order.

The author loves long walks, silences and both of them together. He blogs at http://nimesh-ved.blogspot.com/ and can be reached at nimesh.explore@gmail.com.