Sai Devi has always been a maverick, free and wild.
She recalled in a blog post that as a schoolgirl, she would be “the one running to see snakes and sitting down to admire a butterfly”. As such, even after having studied finance as an adult, she began bird walks and raising awareness towards conservation, building upon what her mom, a biology teacher, had taught her.
However, with time she realised that this approach doesn’t work best with kids. Instead, Devi founded Thicket Tales, which focuses on filling the gap in India’s notoriously rigid and stressful education system with experiential learning programmes. Nature just happens to be the means by which children connect the dots, understand their surroundings, and make learning joyous.
One of the main mottos of Thicket Tales is that ‘nature doesn’t need people, people need nature.’ Devi aims to bring that connection without making it obvious by conducting fun games outdoors, either within the school campus itself or at a park or lake nearby. As the kids play, they learn and connect to nature; when a child learns the concept of pi by measuring the girth of a tree, the texture of the tree would also be etched in their minds. At the end of the sessions, when they review what they have learnt, she often finds that kids have gone beyond what she had initially aimed for.
She does review literature herself and seeks the help of experts from the field to design her courses. This, she says is one of the challenging parts of her job: while Google can provide you with plenty of information, it is the field visits and conversations with naturalists and educators that ensure the right kind of information reach the children. Although Devi does not have a degree in education or conservation, her work speaks for itself. She is now one of 11 entrepreneurs-in-residence at The Circle incubator, a two-year, fully paid program for those passionate about reimagining innovative learning experiences for India’s children, and is working toward opening a learning center in Bangalore.
Who knew there were more than rock pigeons and crows to be found within the city? Some kids do, thanks to some organisations and the efforts of even more individuals. Amidst the concrete jungles of the city, the busy schedules of most Bengalureans, and the disconnect with nature, these are the pioneers who strive to nurture a child's relationship with nature.
“Children, especially in cities, have an anthropomorphic view of the world — that everything around us is to serve us; At NCF, we have an earth-centric view with humans being a part of the bigger whole,” says Misha Bansal, a Delhi-based Senior Project Assistant of Education and Public Engagement at the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF). Established in 1996 as a public charitable trust, NCF contributes to the knowledge and conservation of India’s unique wildlife heritage using innovative research and imaginative solutions.
“Children, especially in cities, have an anthropomorphic view of the world — that everything around us is to serve us; At NCF, we have an earth-centric view with humans being a part of the bigger whole.”
Early Bird is one such programme that aims to achieve that mission. Taking inspiration from a similar program from the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, Early Bird employs a multi-pronged approach: quality, open access, and multilingual learning tools for beginner birders of all age groups are created; a Young Birders’ Network is then set up to bring these young birdwatchers together in one space to exchange and learn through workshops and activities such as nature journaling; to complete the loop, educators are trained to nurture the younglings’ connection to nature. Bansal reasoned that birds serve as great initial points of connection because they colourful, diverse, and interesting creatures that are are easy to spot everywhere; even if they are not visible, young learners could identify them by their calls. To her, it is a way of spreading happiness.
Another program is Nature Classrooms. After obtaining the required permissions from the government and with the guidance of experts from the field, NCF works with primary school teachers (mostly environmental education teachers) to co-create relevant, age-appropriate content alongside their school textbooks to introduce nature in a fun way to the children. For example, when the children are learning about human sense organs, teachers are also asked to mention how sensations work in plants and animals. Since COVID, NCF is in the process of developing beginner-level online courses to reach more educators while adding more flexibility to the resources offered.
One common concern with regard to conventional nature-based experiential learning is its relevance for school kids. Why would a child in Bangalore care for icebergs melting almost 12,000 km away? asks Devi. Living in a place like Kashmir, how could nature not be part of education? One of the speakers in NCF’s online session on art and nature education pondered.
In response to the geographical and ecological diversity of India, NCF produces different pocket guides depending on the regional species that one can see in their area. Using posters and flashcards made for most of India to teach about a species not easily found in the Northeast is futile: the idea of one-size-fits-all simply doesn’t work in education. This also extends to the diversity of languages NCF produces its resources in. Nature Classrooms has a bingo card in Kannada, the official language of Karnataka state (Bangalore is Karnataka’s capital and largest city.) Early Bird prints its resources in seven other languages in addition to the two official Indian national languages of English and Hindi. Even better: through the help of volunteers, a video discussing whether bats spread COVID-19 (no, there is minimal evidence for that) is made available in 11 languages, helping the team reach as far as Nepal.
Saniya Chaplod, a project manager at NCF working in the Eastern Himalayas, mentions how children in this part of the country are already familiar with nature and local species. Thus, a different approach needs to be taken when teaching these children compared to children in cities like Bangalore where kids are less cognizant of the natural world.
Upon returning from New York and observing the functioning of the bird-watching community abroad, banking product manager Ulhas Anand and two others decided to start EcoEdu. Run by professionals from varied backgrounds with a common interest in wildlife and the environment EcoEdu creates high-quality wildlife and environmental education with a practical and holistic approach accessible within Bangalore.
EcoEdu conducts walks, talks, and camps to engage the public and children with nature. Schools often approach them to cover or complement topics related to ecology and biodiversity that is part of the syllabus. The organisation charges its activities depending on whether the school can afford it. They have conducted free sessions for various government schools whereas they charge a fee for some institutions. The fee collected goes back into funding their activities and promoting nature education.
In order to give a leg up to teachers wanting to be involved in nature education, EcoEdu doesn’t charge anything for teachers attending their sessions. They have also gifted books published by EcoEdu as appreciation tokens to educators. (Similarly, NCF’s Handbooks for Bird Educators and Nature Guides are freely available online.) After all, as Anand suggests, Teaching a teacher is teaching a hundred people.
Studies indicate that immersion and play have a positive impact on nature connection in children. This is the reason Devi makes her sessions with children gamified. Treasure hunts where you learn something after every clue and a fun teacher who runs around and plays with you is Devi’s way of connecting to children and connecting children to nature. EcoEdu designs its camps with minimal talks while including plenty of nature walks, games, and activities. For example, the children engage in blindfolded games to engage all the other senses.
Apart from story-telling and learning through rhymes, NCF has involved movement art to engage children. Vena Kapoor, a Senior Programme Manager of Education and Public Engagement and the head of Nature Classrooms, points out that the elements of movement arts such as synchrony, time, space, and harmony can also be seen in nature. Tallulah D’Silva, an architect and environmental educator based in Goa who was an advisor to the development of NCF’s flashcards, mentioned how she engages children with performances and dance as art is a friendly way to engage with children. She agrees that sensory perceptions are an important aspect of learning.
In her book, Children's Environmental Identity Development, Carie Green, an Associate Professor at South Dakota State University who has studied rural and non-rural Alaskan children interact with nature, stressed the need for kids to feel safe during their ventures in nature to develop a positive sense of identity and connection with nature. While Bansal did not recall any untoward incidents during their sessions with children, and the only minor issue Anand ran into was a broken shoe sole which was resolved with duct tape, Chaplod says they take feedback from children and ensure the problems don’t repeat in the future. For instance, upon children complaining of leech bites at the camp, they arranged for anti-leech socks in the following sessions. Armed guards from the forest department accompany them during forest visits in case the group has a troublesome encounter with elephants (Deadly human-elephant conflict is on the rise due to habitat fragmentation, and the subject of many ongoing studies in Karnataka.)
An organisation working towards connecting children to nature has a significant impact, but what an individual does in their capacity is important too. Guru Prasad, an IT professional by career and a wildlife photographer by passion, started online sessions for children during India’s COVID-19 lockdown. With kids getting addicted to electronic gadgets being on the rise, Prasad wanted children to enjoy nature the same way he did during his childhood. Now that the country is opening back up, Guruprasad is moving to in-person activities, often making use of Early Bird’s resources. During his weekend interactions, he displays photographs of birds, tells the children various stories related to wildlife, and conducts games, quizzes, and activities such as skits to keep the sessions interactive. Every month, they go on a bird-watching outing, with treks sprinkled in occasionally. Guruprasad studies relevant content, makes his notes, uses photographs that he has clicked, and engages with the children through Google Classroom, conducting the occasional test to gauge the children’s progress. He does charge a nominal fee to purchase the required educational resources and as a means to ensure the children are regular in attending classes.
And it’s working: Inspired by Prasad, 13-year-old Krish Anand runs his own YouTube channel about birds. He films and edits the videos by himself and is fond of photographing and documenting animals, mainly birds. “It makes me happy when I get nice content,” he says. His interactions with nature entertain him and give him a sense of calmness. Anand’s passion has made him the youngest in the country to clear the Ornithology course conducted by the National Programme on Technology Enhanced Learning, which is usually taken by graduate students.
“People these days live a programmed life but one realizes the value of life only when they are with nature.”
Anand’s father Anand C K Shashidhar is a member of the Wildlife Association of South India (WASI). He believes it is important for children to learn about nature as a part of their curriculum. “People these days live a programmed life but one realizes the value of life only when they are with nature.” Indeed, some studies have shown that children's levels of connection to nature are higher when parents themselves believe it is important for their children to experience nature outdoors. Two other important factors from the study are parents’ education level and income, hence the importance of efforts to make resources free and accessible. (The elephant in the room: The organizations interviewed did not mention publicly how they support parents and children from the Dalit and Adivasi castes, who have trouble accessing nature and ultimately gaining a foothold into science despite efforts to reverse years of systemic discrimination.)
Nevertheless, these nature educators are doing what they can to remind children that, nature is everywhere and all we have to do is look around.
“I’m not here to make your children conservationists,” Devi proclaims: not everyone needs to be a conservationist to save nature, but a child continuously exposed and connected to nature will contribute to protecting it in whichever way they can. Yes, they could be climate activists right away, but a judge who appreciates nature will also know when to say no to the cutting or uprooting of trees and hold the rich and powerful accountable. Yet, that learning comes latently. The child just needs to have fun and enjoy themselves during their formative years. And Devi, like everyone else, will be knee-deep in the woods, cheering along.
“I don’t go as a teacher, I go as their friend and become a child with them.”