Learning from Nature: Inner and Outer Ecology
- How do we build a culture in a school that nurtures reverence for Mother Earth?
- How do we apply principles of Nature to the way we work with ourselves and our communities?
- How can we create a curriculum and processes of learning that can be integrated with the board exams that become essential to function as a school?
These are the questions with which Prakriya Green Wisdom School began its journey over 15 years ago. Bhoomi Network emerged in a sense as the Research and Outreach wing of the school. We have gradually come to be known for our commitment to strive for ecological wisdom and living out our beliefs, keeping in mind the Nature within us as well as Nature around us that we are part of. It is heartening that so many parents and others now value our work. But in the early years, we would quite often hear statements from some parents and new teachers – why make such a fuss of the environment? This green stuff is just their pet dream, why impose it on our children?
Perhaps it is natural that such views are common, given the way our minds are programmed by the kind of development and money-centric thinking that has enveloped us, and alienated us from Nature. Thankfully, we are getting wake-up calls from Mother Earth in the form of climate change and polluted waters, air, land and our own health. The vision of Prakriya, to foster ecological wisdom, encounters much less skepticism today. Prakriya is a Sanskrit word meaning prakruti + kriya, or acting according to Nature’s principles; Prakriya also means ‘process’. Hence Prakriya’s very name spells out its chosen direction.
Today, if I were to be asked, what are our strengths, I would say first, our willingness to learn from Nature, and then, People, People, People. Teachers who are creative and constantly evolving; children who teach us how we need to respond to them, and amaze us with their down to earth perspectives; Parents who have dared to have faith in us and were sure they wanted to move away from factory style schooling; and all our staff and so many others who have connected with us through Bhoomi Network, Prakriya’s sister organization.
The foundational belief has been that Nature is the best teacher. Reminding ourselves every now and then about the miracle of Nature, of Mother Earth and the whole Universe can, I think, make us happier and more capable of solving our various ‘problems’ than anything else. Reminding ourselves that we ourselves are part and parcel of Nature seems even more difficult, yet truth will prevail, so we might as well remind ourselves of this reality as well…
We found 8 acres of land with Eucalyptus plantations on it close to a small lake, which did have water in it then. After clearing the eucalyptus, the first thing we did was to plant over a 108 species of trees. The nursery area in the front is the most beautiful space in Prakriya – with the energy of the youngest ones of the community making the whole school vibrant. The buildings are like small homes, classes named after the trees which have been planted in this space – Ashoka, Champa Chameli, Arjuna, Krishna surrounding the sand pit in the middle. On one end of the space is the Panchavati – with a semi circle of the sacred trees, The pipal, banyan, bilwa, amla and atthi (fig), amongst various other trees and rocks.
A large playground is in the middle with the primary, middle and high school buildings, the kitchen and of course trees all around it. Buildings are simple and down to earth but have plenty of interesting lobbies and corners. That no building should be taller than the tallest tree nearby was a design principle.
Another eco-building principle was to source all building material from within a 500 km distance. All buildings therefore use stones and tiles available in plenty near Bangalore and clay tiles and blocks from Mangalore. Large openings and windows let in enough light, and for the first 6 years of the school we managed on solar power alone. The Primary classes are octagonal in shape allowing for rearrangement of the furniture – small low tables that the children can carry themselves.
Harmonising with Nature in design can happen only when design elements emerge out of basics of the landscape, the water availability, the soil and the plants that can grow on it. We were lucky to get good water from a borewell on the back end of the land – this was unavoidable since there was no other source of water. The entire land sloped gradually downwards towards this borewell and hence near it we could make a huge 15000 cu.ft pit to harvest rainwater. It helped to raise the level of borewell water from 200 to 110 feet from the ground.
The mud that was dug out was used to make an open air theatre nearby, where there was a beautiful Honge tree. The space around the tree naturally became a stage with its drooping branches as canopy.
We also had to have our mini forest, however small – and we planted all kinds of wild species from wild jamun and amla to bauhinias and kadu badam in one corner of the campus. This space we call our Devar Kadu, to honour the sacred groves of India, and the wise traditions that fostered them. A small Orchard and an Organic garden managed by Bhoomi Network, our research wing, provides vegetables and fruits to the school Kitchen.
Rain water is harvested from all the terraces, and the black water from the kitchen is recycled and sent to the organic garden. We made sure there were no flush tanks in most toilets. Pouring in small buckets of water reduces the water consumption in toilets tremendously.
There were no butterflies on this land when we came in 16 years ago. We now have several species of butterflies and over 30 species of birds, not to mention the snakes, frogs, bats, squirrels and insects galore. Fire flies have emerged, giving a stamp of pristineness to this eco-system and innumerable earthworms in our organic garden that we are extremely grateful for!
Why give so much importance to the trees and plants around? Because that is what the children take in unconsciously along with the ability to live with the complexity of Nature as against the straight lines and flat surfaces of the buildings (what is learnt unconsciously is more important that what is learnt consciously). Or simply put, unless children learn to live amidst greenery and love Nature, how can we expect them to care for Mother Earth?
The core philosophy is to build culture in the school which support people in valuing and learning from Nature. Specifically we can learn from the principles of ecosystems, the way they support diversity, the way all elements are interconnected, where constant cooperation and flow of energy and resources is the on-going reality of life; self regulation, death and recycling have a deep acceptance. All these have lessons for us and we keep trying to learn more.
I will not be able to do justice to all our processes of living as a community, mimicking the wisdom of eco-systems wherever we can. But briefly these are some of our first principles and processes that help us co-hold our philosophy of living and learning in an active and evolutionary way.
- We spend a lot of time in ‘Circle Time’, children, teachers as well as other staff in various groups. Discussions, problem solving, celebration and often classes are held in circles – where every member is important, everyone has a voice. This process we believe is an essential part of building community, where there is constant sharing, as in an eco- system. Interaction without authoritarian control will also enrich relationships all round. But neither do we deny the reality of non-oppressive authority, essential to work in a system with about 600 children and more than 100 adults.
- Diversity is cherished – both in flora and fauna and in human qualities and behaviour. Uniformity is not a requirement as in most schools; All children are not forced to ‘reach’ the same benchmarks, instead they are encouraged to foster their strengths as much as possible. Children do not wear uniforms but only house T-shirts twice a week.
- Co-operation is very important as it is in nature – between teachers, children and other members of the school; many activities are designed to encourage everyone to value co-operation. Competition may play out but it is not fuelled or celebrated. There are no cups and medals for sports or anything else – the focus is Shram, Shraddha, Shakthi and Santhrupthi.
- Collaboration is another important value particularly within the school. We also try to link up with nearby schools, and invite educators, musicians, artists and others to come into our world, for us to experience them as people and also learn from them.
- All teachers and administrative staff attend highly participative self-exploration sessions in 4 to 6 day retreats. These sessions in a way help us put eco-psychology in action – in classes, in school management, and in our personal lives too. These processes help us make the phrase “everything is connected” a living and lived-out reality. They are also great for “self-regulation” at various levels – an important principle of Nature that helps us work with most of our problems!
- The curriculum includes an integrated and emergent approach with mixed age group classes and learning through the five elements for the younger ones; active learning, critical thinking and project based working are part of the middle and high school curriculum, in addition to text-book based work which is essential for the ICSE. Organic gardening, the kitchen, craft work, field trips, especially to wilderness areas are important for the “learning and living” processes as well.
Learning from Nature is an endless process. But unless we consciously build a culture in our schools which values Nature, we may end up succumbing to the prevailing culture in our societies, which sadly is anti-Nature.