Enjoying Eco-Projects

We can persist with an activity much more easily if we enjoy it. More often than not, we do not voluntarily take up an activity if we anticipate no pleasure or benefit from it; and we may hesitate to experiment with many things in life, unaware of their potential for learning and enjoyment.

I would now like to make a case for anyone in a community – be it a housing colony, a school, a college or any group of people to initiate eco-projects and make it a meaningful exercise. Particularly, young children and adolescents in schools are likely to value eco-conscious living (without even naming it as such) if it is associated with something they can enjoy.  All children, or for that matter, all adults, cannot be engaged for long with discussions on the economic paradigm or the problems of food, hunger, deforestation or climate change. But a real-life eco project, once begun by say, a school community where everyone participates physically, mentally and emotionally, has the potential of releasing tremendous energy and aliveness and moblising the participation of everyone.

‘Real-Life’ Projects

Our experience with hands-on, ‘real-life’ projects at our school, the Prakriya Green Wisdom School has been heart-warming. (We use the phrase ‘real-life project’ to distinguish them from academic projects which are largely book or internet research based). About 25 of us – teachers of the middle and high school and others – began the process of anchoring these projects seven years ago, with strong anxieties and doubts about whether these projects will help or hinder children’s  ‘hard-core’ learning for exams.  But we took the plunge and worked on eco projects year after year, ranging from building a pond eco system to organizing a ‘Save a Lake’ Concert, from building an eco toilet to working on the organic garden. And today, after so many years, gone are the doubts about real-life projects. Many teachers now talk about these projects as the high point of the year’s activities and how they release new potentials and confidence in children.

These are some of the processes during real life project work which in our observation made them thoroughly enjoyable, making a big difference to both children and teachers.

New relationships are built: Teachers and students experience each other differently, young and old chat together more, life and work is more natural, people help each other frequently and there is laughter and a feeling of togetherness all around. One hears a buzz of excited talk about the project in corridors – snatches of conversation enough to make the most traditional teacher believe in eco projects.

Most children participate actively: The nature of hands-on work is that most children can do their bit without hesitation.  Active participation in itself is enjoyable where there is no fear of failure or feeling ‘not good enough’. Some teachers were afraid that some of the work, like digging the ground for instance, would make children too tired to focus in the next ‘regular’ class. However, children seemed to be more willing and attentive after the physical activity.

Having free ‘in-between’ times to chat and relax:Today everyone seems caught up with tight schedules and tough deadlines. In schools, while knowledge can be gathered by reading and writing, to foster wisdom we need conversations in a non-stressful atmosphere.

Discovering new strengths: Children and teachers (and parents if any join in) discover new talents and abilities in themselves and others. Sometimes shy children became more socially active and children who disliked writing wrote interesting poems – which was a big surprise to their teachers and parents. The hands, heart and head approach can show us how blinkered the standardized, conventional classroom methods are.

Learning to share and give:Since work often happened in vertical groups of children from the different classes, it was delightful to see the ways in which they would connect with each other. Older ones seemed to suddenly become more responsible, helping and finding time to talk to the younger ones; there was a playfulness along with seriousness; questioning along with clearing each other’s doubts and innumerable examples of sharing and giving which in itself becomes enjoyable. Everyone learns that much more can be achieved through co-operation rather than competition.

Integrating music, dance and art: The nature of hands on work is such that they lend themselves more readily to such activities which everyone enjoys.

Sense of co-ownership: Most often, students don’t quite know why they are studying something, beyond the need to do well in exams. The relationship with parents and teachers is then one of subordinates carrying out instructions of the boss. There are inherent limitations in how much we can enjoy a task when we have no convictions about its need or importance. The eco projects which are directly connected to daily needs of water, energy, waste disposal, food etc., are things that children immediately relate to and understand. Even those children who may be spoilt brats to start with, often, if not always become reflective and co-operative. Some may not care for gathering leaves or carrying manure, but seem to have fun working together anyway.

The challenges

Caught up as we are in a tunnel visioned, high pressure schooling system, even alternative schools find it difficult to find time for meaningful eco projects. Any change in the ‘regular’ rigid system poses several challenges – such as finding time, addressing fears, anxieties and attitudes of parents and teachers (children are usually enthusiastic about any new project which makes the adults more suspicious!). Every school will have to deal with them in their own ways – once there is conviction, pathways will definitely open up. Some of the ways in which we dealt with these at Prakriya are given below.

The fears and anxieties:Take them head on – let people voice all their doubts and feelings publicly at an open meeting. Then accept that we are human enough to worry about any change. It helps to brainstorm and articulate a set of first principles in education that we need to live by. If these first principles include anything like fostering creativity, curiosity and adventure, the case for hands on projects is clear cut. It helped that the principal, trustees and senior teachers at Prakriya were convinced enough to make eco projects part of school policy. We also made it clear that we will jointly deal with parents’ anxieties – as many parents are likely to feel that such hands on work will be a waste of time.

The challenge of time: In every modern human organization today we have overloaded ourselves with work and over-defined short term goals, making sure there is very little time to think, question the status-quo, focus on long term goals or even enjoy ourselves.

In the middle and high school classes, increasingly a frenzy about exams sets in, even if the board exams are a couple of years away. The high school teachers get into a pattern of more classes, tests and homework. An exam at the end of each of the three terms becomes the norm.

We decided to have term end exams for the first and third term only.  The real life projects we dreamt about were introduced during the second term. We had more than one meeting where the teachers, especially of classes 8, 9 and 10 voiced their doubts and felt that children will lose out in many ways if they had the ‘distraction’ of  projects in the second term. We finally settled on working on projects for 1 hour every day during the second term and a full day on most Saturdays – it gave us almost 100 hours of work over 3 months – and in our experience, regular academic learning did not suffer.

The Challenge of Goal setting: Real-life eco projects can be of three kinds – on-going, one time and a mixture of the two. The one-time projects we worked on generated a lot more enthusiasm – like building a pond eco-system or a tree house (we called this an eco project because it helped us get closer to trees, birds, insects etc) or even an eco toilet. One year we also worked on sustainable development and held an exhibition at the end – this was a blend of hands-on and academic projects.

However, while the one-time ‘products’ may be very exciting, the challenge is to focus on on-going projects – because Nature is on-going!   An organic garden, if the school can earmark some land or terrace area for it can be a great on-going eco-project. Along with supply of vegetables to the school kitchen (if there is one) the school can have a kitchen grey water recycling system – which can help recycle more than 80% of kitchen / dining room water.  It can demonstrate how we can complete Nature’s cycles and hence live sustainably.

Finally the ultimate goal of eco projects is quite simple – to build ‘earth consciousness’ through positive action. Since we can work on eco projects much more easily in a community, we also discover how fulfilling it can be to work together for something more real and valuable than the ‘good life’ projected in the media and the malls.

Seetha Ananthasivan


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