Nature-based learning: Walk, talk and observe to know more about the city’s ecology

Sessions on nature-based learning serve as a means to better understand our surroundings. Pic: Palluyir Trust

Yuvan Aves is an educator, activist and naturalist, who runs a program called Earth Farm Society. The society along with his organisation, Palluyir Trust, conducts a number of immersive learning experiences for children and young adults. This includes walks and workshops along various geographical locations in the city. This type of teaching and learning has been termed ‘nature-based learning (NBL)’, which Yuvan explains, is a self-guided, real-world learning experience.

In an interview with Citizen Matters, he explains these terms using examples of various workshops he has been a part of, over time. He also sheds light on the equalizing potential of nature-based learning, the nature of traditional environmental education (EVE), as well as the potential of NBL to stimulate action and involvement among people.

What is nature-based learning and how did you come to know about it?

Nature-based learning can be understood as ‘letting the landscape be the teacher’. When you walk through a marshland, for example, you learn about it by looking at the birds spoken about, the water, you get to speak to the people living there. It is real-world engagement, where the student is not a passive recipient of knowledge, but an engager.

My first experience of conducting such a learning experience was during my late teens. I was living on a school campus bordered by three villages in Tamil Nadu and was to conduct workshops for younger children from these villages. At that time, I wanted my classes to fill in the gaps left in their EVE classrooms. I decided to take them around their own local ecosystem in an attempt to encourage learning from scenes from their everyday lives. We visited a paddy field, looked at ways of documenting local knowledge around plant diversity, and set up a butterfly garden. The children’s interest in the ‘environment’ was much more heightened, as compared to the classroom set-up.

I noticed that the local context acted as an extremely useful portal for learning, as opposed to when nature is spoken of in abstract and ‘external’ terms, to the student. Ultimately, an understanding that humans and nature exist in a continuum is an important part of the nature-based learning pedagogy.

Read more: Chennai is home to nearly 150 species of butterflies. What do naturalists infer from that?

How can we understand this idea of ​​a continuum in the context of Chennai?

A few days ago, we did a walk along the shores of Elliot’s Beach, starting from the Karl Schmitt Memorial, and moving along the coastline. The walk aims to understand that particular coastal ecosystem. People living along the coast, their practices and culture would be a part of the coastal ecology.

During the workshop, we spoke about the indigenous view of the ocean, the local habitats mapped by coastal fisher folk, tides, fishing practices taking place that day, local languages ​​to refer to biodiversity, fishing, wind patterns, etc. We often speak of the ocean as one blue thing, but it is so diverse as we move from place to place. How this changes life and people’s practices is an extremely important aspect of understanding the relationship with our environment.

The human is thus not outside of the ecological. So when I say nature-based education, human society, its politics and all its beauty and squalor are included, in a very non-isolated manner.

What are the key aims you have in mind when conducting nature-based learning experiences?

Over the years, I have developed two general goals for nature-based learning:

The first is the process ie engagement with the real world, conversations and meeting realities. The second is the values ​​that inform the pedagogy: which is prioritizing the well-being of human and ecological systems. This sense of purpose is often lacking in the traditional schooling system.

In a traditional classroom, a child practices passive sitting, where they sit, absorb knowledge and learn to respect authority. When they witness the hardships of others, social disadvantage, etc, why would they ask questions? Their responses are often delayed. They have practiced passivity for so long. Nature-based education can allow children to develop a sense of involvement and urgency.

In fact, a study which followed 2000 children studying environmental science shows how those who were exposed to nature-based learning in their lives, tended to take charge and grow in accountability for spaces far beyond themselves, as opposed to those who were only exposed to intellectual experiences.

Self-directed learning is also a key philosophy when it comes to nature-based learning. This would mean that the child is empowered to take their learning forward at their own pace and method. A certain topic can be understood in numerous ways, with various cross-linkages, and entry points into learning. A self-directed learning scenario allows for this to happen, more so than a typical classroom, where the teacher is directing the entry points into a topic, or the focus of study.

So typically, in any kind of experience creation, I want to allow for a mix of the two: self-directed learning as well as me directing some kind of experience. This direction could be in the form of facilitating a conversation with somebody there, pointing things out and speaking about it, sharing stories, and giving them a field guide.

For the Elliot’s Beach walk, we made use of a coastal field guide to help with self-guided learning. The guide has pictures of around 160 species along Chennai’s coast for each child to hold, and observe. We had children drawing things they saw, learning new names of species, as well as the local names given to these species by communities living on the beach.

nbl learning chart
Self-guided learning is a key component of nature-based learning. Pic: Palluyir Trust

You mention the term ‘indigenous’ knowledge, which is an important part of understanding the ecosystems you want to learn from. What does it mean exactly?

Indigenous knowledge is a bit of a strange word. I’d rather describe it in a way of ‘Inhabitant’ and ‘exhabitant’ knowledge. If you look at a lot of artisanal fisher folk in places like Chennai, the beach and coast is part of their identity and selfhood. There is also a divinity and culture that they have formed around, the ocean and coast, as it is an important source of livelihood for them, and is part of their everyday life. Dwelling there comes with practices, knowledge and experience with that environment. This could be called inhabitant knowledge as they are part of that ecosystem.

Exhabitant knowledge would be related to the work of a harbour. For the trawler, the ocean is not a part of their identity; you go to the ocean to exploit and extract. There are certain knowledge and practices emerging from this. This would be exhabitant knowledge. I like to keep these terms in mind when describing the relationship between humans and their ecologies.

Read more: How industrialization has rung the death knell for Ennore’s ecology

Could you recount any workshops/nature walks you have conducted, which illustrate how the social and ecological are connected?

For Madras week we did a heritage tour for 24 people. We showed the change in landscape from South Chennai to North Chennai. North Chennai was initially called ‘Black Town’ by the British as a way to refer to scheduled castes and daily wage workers who comprised the majority of the area.

If you look at North Chennai, it is a watery landscape. It is where the Kosasthalaiyar comes in, and in Manali, it darts north and spreads into 10,000 acres of wetlands. There are about 35 re-category (hazardous and deadly) industries here. As per laws regarding the setting up of industrial sites, watery landscapes are actually avoided as the effluents will travel far, and the land is shifting.

However, numerous factories have been built here over time, as the people here do not have the financial and political power to stake a claim on the lands they live in. The same factories cannot be set up in Besant Nagar; if Adani comes and sets up his factory here, his shares will plummet.

As soon as you cross Napier Bridge, ie the Cooum Estuary, towards Kasimedu Harbor, the beach vanishes due to coastal erosion from the port building.

We looked at the thermal power station industries, and the pollutants they release into the water. What happens is many do not have a cooling tower for the hot water they release. It kills local ecosystems, and you even hear stories of people dying because of the hot water. We use maps to observe the change in landscapes, greenery and natural systems.

This walk was done in collaboration with the Chennai Climate Action Group. We took people from South Chennai who are from privileged backgrounds, who can exercise their voice and have significant reach. Maybe later they will become volunteers in some sense. These walks are usually done with this intent.

What are some important observations you have developed while teaching and facilitating, over the years?

Nature-based learning can really help children from disadvantaged social and economic backgrounds. A team of us have been running an apprenticeship program for children of the fisher community at Urur and Olcott Kuppam – two coastal hamlets at Besant Nagar, Chennai. Children from different social backgrounds and cultures show differences in how they grow and what capacities mature fast and slow.

Nature-based learning
From the apprenticeship program for children of the fisher-community at Urur and Olcott kuppam. Pic: Palluyir Trust

We wanted to make their home coasts (Elliot’s beach and Adyar Estuary) a rich, multidisciplinary learning space beyond any classroom. Fisher communities have historically been marginalized in urban society. Difficult socio-economic conditions deeply impact the healthy growth of children through their developmental planes. But through this programme, I am learning how nature-based learning can be an extraordinary equalizing force.

Not everyone is on the same level playing field in the traditional school setting, due to a lack of resources, time, and access to different methods of learning. In these months, we’ve been seeing how studying their home coast really heightens their interest levels and even their overall language and understanding skills.

Another important observation is that nature-based learning caters to various developmental stages as one grows up. Sensorial learning is extremely limited in traditional education. It’s all mostly cognitive. Nature-based learning is able to weave into this and take care of children’s developmental needs.

One thing to remember as well, is that we didn’t really have kids coming on some of these walks, for example, the South Chennai to North Chennai walk. It was mostly for adults as well as late adolescent kids. Educator David Sober has shown how children if exposed to gloom and doom at a young age see a diminishing interest in the natural world and the world around them. They start perceiving it as a threat. This is different for the late teenage child. A part of their sense of self is a social identity and how they engage with the outside world. So it is important to craft experiences which are developmentally appropriate.

Nature-based learning is ultimately an attempt to encourage learners to develop a real-world, social, political, and ecological sense when they think of their surroundings. Realities such as industrialization and its violence, the process of social exclusion, and discriminatory development are important environmental issues. They cannot be compartmentalised as isolated problems, which is often a trend in dominant environmental discourse. It will be important to look at attempts to counter this type of thinking, the methods they employ, the tools they want to use, and the changes they could bring about, so as to step away from dominant forms of thinking which aim to maintain a status quo.

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