Botanic Gardens Conservation International
BGCI provides a global voice for all botanic gardens, championing and celebrating their inspiring work. We are the world's largest plant conservation network, open to all. Join us in helping to save the world's threatened plants.

School in the Forest – Educating the Young at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary

Number 20 - July 2000

S. Seshan





Attracting People with Many Interests

Every year around 2000 people walk up the 3 km of dirt road, in rain and sun, to visit the gardens at the Sanctuary. Around 80% of these are local and regional folks namely families on an outing, schools, youth groups, nature clubs, botany students, seminarians, tribes people, farmers, women's groups and so on. All are given a tour by one of the Sanctuary staff or residents. They are taken around the main garden areas which host an attractive and comprehensive collection of native and exotic plants, arranged in taxonomic order and also landscaped under the natural forest canopy. For these casual visitors it is a chance to satisfy their curiosity and see something quite different. It is also an occasion to learn a little about plants, the importance of conservation and regional efforts to maintain and protect biodiversity. Most are quite surprised and delighted, and many fall under the spell of a colourful and bounteous tropical world, full of unusual and fascinating beings. Often these casual passers-by return with other friends, colleagues or associated for a more detailed and slow exploration of the tropical microcosm that is the Sanctuary.

There are the individuals and groups that come out of more specific concerns or interests. They want to learn horticultural techniques, study the botany and taxonomy of the various groups of plants, see ecology in action, do bird watching, explore possibilities in restoration, conservation, and integrated land use. Some of them come several times over the years and become friends. They are from all over the south; scientists, environmentalists, educators and students. They bring with them wisdom, knowledge, techniques and insights and their visits are a chance for us to explore issues of common concern with a very wide network of individuals.

Workshops Focusing on Conservation and Sustainability

Yet another category of day visitors come as part of a workshop, where a range of activities, tours and discussions are woven around the central theme of conservation and sustainable living. We provide tea and biscuits, they bring a picnic lunch and there is a lot of intense exchange. There are increasing numbers of organic farmers and groups working with farmers who visit us as farming and self sufficiency are among the primary concerns at the Sanctuary. We try to farm the ‘natural systems’ way where the forest is the model and our lessons from forest ecology and plant biology are applied to food crops. The goal is to maximise diversity and productivity using successional and seasonal dynamics. Such workshops are very practical and involve detailed discussions on farming, agro-ecology, plant diseases and the economics of it all.

There are workshop type engagements with large school groups as well. A number of NGOs are working regionally with environmental science for school kids. We collaborate with them and use the land, plants and animals to demonstrate and explore questions in ecology with the very young.

Most of these children would have grown up in a similar landscape and have intuitive and experiential knowledge of different crop plants, soils, wildlife and the climate. However, for a large number it is still a first time contact with the primary ecosystem of the place. Our local kids are very comfortable with the outdoor environment and yet their eyes are conditioned to lemon grass hills, tea plantations, and increasingly few traditional home farms. Their familiarity with local regional environmental issues brings a kind of schizophrenic element; they know very well the problems of soil erosion and water loss, the dangers of chemical intensive farming, the heating up of the environment, and on the other hand they are vulnerable to the burgeoning mindset that values the so called benefits of modern development and cash economies, which are intolerant of native cultures and ecosystems. To these children the forest looks messy, wild and dense, and full of dangerous animals like leeches and elephants! (something you could nicely replace with orderly tea slopes and areca nut plantations).

Thus a great deal of time, during local schools’ visits, is spent in looking at and discussing the forest world and exploring the feelings and impressions it arouses in their minds. And this is done through a playful exploration of plants, an excited and eager rediscovery of their native landscape and wild community. Common themes that come up include: beauty, gardening with nature, uses of plants, and the role of wildlife.

Working in Partnership with Neighbours

The Sanctuary's intertwined relationship with the neighbourhood allows for an exchange or flow at many levels constantly (labour, services and support). Virtually all the older people in the neighbourhood have at some point or the other worked at the Sanctuary over the last twenty years and this makes the work very locally rooted. Most significantly, the main garden staff for over ten years have been directed and trained by two remarkable young women who have themselves grown into inspired conservationists and highly competent gardeners. They are from the very immediate locality and are part of the core team that shares responsibility for the place. In addition we hold annual festivities which involve the whole neighbourhood. These ritually honour the forest, the earth and the elements followed by a feast for all which is a kind of a remembrance and thank you to powers and forces that have sustained the human community.

Residential Programmes with Regional Schools

I will now focus upon our residential programmes with regional schools, significantly one or two schools with whom we have jointly developed the whole concept of ‘School in the Forest’. This term is in part derived from the title ‘Gurukula’ and is very much the original inspiration under which the place was founded, as a forest retreat and a place of learning.

In ancient India students went to live in the homes of their teachers which were usually in remote quiet places, perhaps in the woods. In this quiet and conducive natural setting, significant disciplines were explored through the act of living and learning together. In our case the Gurukula, or the ‘house of the teacher’, includes the forest, the garden with its colourful assemblage of plants and animals, the river, the monsoon climate and also the community of humans in which children and adults can live, participate and share responsibilities for varying lengths of time. Thus, community life at the Sanctuary involves the daily care of other living beings and a consistent and playful enquiry about the wild natural community of which people are a part. Children have come to the Sanctuary and made the place their home and a very critical aspect of all this is that they learn to listen and look and take great interest in the various creatures they share their daily space with.

The main intent of ‘The School in the Forest’ programmes is to provide a diverse and challenging exposure to a way of life that is intimate with nature and natural processes. The stay at the Sanctuary involves a number of different and complementary aspects. Attention is given to the quality of the whole day, from dawn to dusk, rhythms of other living beings, chores and jobs around the garden and kitchen, quiet contemplative moments, health and physical activity (swimming, tree climbing, outdoor forest games etc), investigation and discussion. Usually, children join in with little or no resistance, especially on their second or third visits by which time they have overcome their initial inhibitions with nature and also established a rapport with the residents and the place itself.

One reason why we have welcomed these residential programmes is that working, functioning and living in nature demand an alertness of the senses and the ability to look continually and afresh at what is going on around one. We feel it is of critical importance for youngsters to develop a different relationship with the natural world and this process requires time. Nature moves in unpredictable ways, never static, always new, revealing deeper patterns and principles. To engage fully with this invites looking and listening, an agile body and a quiet, non-judgemental and yet intensely alert mind. This takes time to develop and most kids, whatever their background, come upon this slowly if given time, some playful guidance and space. All of this is of value, wherever one is; in manual work, play, academic study, human relationship or travel. Our thesis is this; that the loss of such qualities is part of the severance of the connection between humanity and wild nature.

Creating a Space for Learning and Discovery

We have been wondering if it is possible to draw out young people's inherent sensitivity and readiness to look and learn through observation of, and participation in, nature. Awakening the most primary mode of learning (i.e. direct experience and first hand awareness) is too often ignored in education, especially as the child grows older. Contact with the primary gets progressively shaded out as abstract learning takes over, too early in our opinion and often with detrimental results. This may be one factor leading to disconnected, disoriented uprooted youngsters with no sympathy for their immediate environment or for things and people. We thus attempt to create a space for learning that allows for the discovery of something new and fresh, of spontaneous perception, engagement and enquiry as can indeed happen when immersed in nature and natural processes, even for short periods of time. We don’t begin by giving them lots of knowledge and information, rather we take them out first and then let perception and understanding blossom into compassion, action and applicable knowledge.

This ‘back to nature' form of learning has a second component that is of great relevance too. Making sense of the world around, communication, raising questions and articulating one's observations and concerns are all critical aspects of learning. Seeing connections and reflecting upon them, expanding the capacity of the brain by allowing its very different intelligences to flower all help to generate a connection to the earth. There are so many fascinating dimensions to explore with the children as their own windows open: heightened awareness, body-kinaesthetic abilities, interpersonal skills, linguistic and intellectual abilities, as well as aesthetic and artistic sensibilities.

If direct experience is woven together with sharing and reflecting and enquiry it brings about good science. This is really to do with being very close to your subject, so close that you suspend your own judgement and watch, free of ideation and pre-conceived assumptions of the subject (be it the river habitat, or the bird community, or the plant) until it tells you its story. This becomes extraordinarily intimate, if given time and space, and this intimacy with creation in its vaster aspects or its more minute details has the possibility to bring about a truer and more active compassion.

If you add to this the incentive that children feel when they are active participants in research, (they are assisting and enabling the work of the Sanctuary to continue by bringing in their observations and questions), then the zest for nature study doubles. They are not to be underestimated in their acuity of perception or in their abilities. So, if you want to undertake a study of ants or birds for example, just invite a whole bunch of kids to help you widen and deepen the pool of knowledge of local natural history. The kids become your extended eyes and ears, assistants and junior scientists in a joint exploration and discovery of the natural world.

Thus, the understanding of nature needs a direct involvement, in whatever way, and it can happen in city parks, within a home garden, or trips out to the wilderness. But what is essential is the building up of care, involvement, curiosity, activity and responsibility over time, which begins with a slow tuning in to the cycles and rhythms of the natural world.

Does observation really bring about learning? People differ in their opinions about this, especially about the usefulness of such learning and especially in a world that is dominated by the intellect and where individuals, even in rural areas, are subject to bits of information that trickle down to them third hand and bear no relevance to their immediate world. We believe we have not even touched upon the potential of direct observation, which we suspect is vast, especially for the very young. The trend is to fill them up with colourful books and hi-tech films on nature very quickly and the electronic, virtual or printed media becomes the only gateway to the vital, dynamic, rich and beautiful world. Rather, can the young mind be awakened to the muse of the forest, the incredible complexity of tropical life, the fragility of this ancient ecosystem and the fact that there is no separation between humans and nature? And, once initiated can this connection be sustained?

By observation so far I have been including the action and involvement of all the senses. The senses are a fundamental component to our earth bound existence and to us as physical beings. It is through the senses that we relate to the world at large. Looking, listening, touching, tasting, smelling - by bringing these together through games, activities, explorations it opens the doorway into a different and more integrated mode of functioning. This seems to give children a degree of self confidence, self awareness and also a boost to their natural liveliness and spontaneity.

Our main focus has always been on the local outreach programmes and so our residential programmes grew quite organically - slowly, bit by bit, over time. We never had the idea that it could build into anything significant as most schools are ready to send their kids away on trips for a few days at the most, and at best so far as we have seen this turns out to be an enjoyable experience.

Taking the Initiative

However, one school took the initiative because a few of the teachers were very struck by the beauty of the forest and the possibility that children could develop a more caring relationship with the environment. In 1993, the Centre for Learning asked if they could send some 10 students, around 13 years of age, to the Sanctuary for three weeks. They came along with books, teachers and homework, so that they wouldn't miss out on their regular curriculum and we essentially provided a kind of a physical support structure and took them on walks and gave small garden projects to the interested ones. At first we had to deal with quite a lot of reluctance and fear; the leeches, the immersion in wildness, the lack of physical conveniences (we have no electricity or television) and the sheer overpowering effect of it all. Still it went reasonably well, so they came again the next year.

This time all their old inhibitions were gone and they were much more active around the place. They started taking responsibility, becoming easily involved in kitchen and garden chores. The third time round, we decided to run a pilot project with them. This focussed on sense-based learning and the students took to it well. Each had a specific topic they wished to study: one chap followed a colony of red ants, another looked at purple sunbirds, a third looked at one tree and all the animals and birds that came around to the tree, a fourth compared different spots in the river and a fifth investigated rhythms of activity in the main garden area and so on. They were out looking and watching for several hours a day. From the programme some lovely documents were developed: log books, stories, caricatures, tables, and illustrations. These were very different representations of natural phenomena, but all valid and rooted in the perceived and perceptual field.

This was so exciting that the school sent its 11 years olds the following year for a one month stay and we studied the bird life of the Sanctuary. The same process ensued. On another visit fifteen year olds came and looked at ants. We took their work into the entomology lab of Centre for Ecological Sciences in Bangalore and were told that this was excellent science and that all observations were valid and relevant and the only thing we had to ensure was that we didn't mix up species, which is quite difficult to do with ants! This led to further projects on insects in general: the different orders, their peculiar life habits and cycles, habitats, movements and so on.

Finally the oldest students at the school were sent for a three month immersion in simple living. They built their own thatch hut, managed and took care of a piece of land, did lots of natural history observations and some craft work (as they made their own mats and tools and ladles). Into this physical land based natural context, were woven daily lessons in ecology, globalisation, environmental and personal health, questions in careers and sustainable livelihood, the relationship between self and society, energy issues and farming.

The Commitment Spreads

Lest you assume that all this is happening with only one school, I'd like to add that although it took one school to develop the whole programme of nature education to such a comprehensive and sustained depth, the relevance of it has been picked up by other schools who are now ready to send their children on similar programmes. In the last year, four other schools so far have participated in our residential ‘School in the Forest’ programmes. This year a school for children with disabilities has asked to come, as well as an NGO working with village youth and a rural school. Being small we can handle only certain numbers. In addition, as the programmes are so intensive they can only really be conducted with a maximum of 10 -15 kids at a time. However, it is very encouraging that increasingly, schools in south India are seeing the relevance of this kind of learning, particularly as they are able to use it back home in different ways; especially schools that are really serious about the environmental crisis. The relevance they see is that in such a learning situation conservation is not an abstract idea, but rather a daily living reality through the care and interaction with other life forms and that this brings about a dynamic involvement with the environment.

Working with all these different individuals and groups (local, regional, young, old, on day visits or longer stays) through all these years has brought about an enthusiastic and creative spirit of learning, care and common ownership of the Sanctuary. Children turn up on holidays with parents and friends in tow and introduce them to environmental issues. There is a slow but definite multiplier effect. Young gardeners and budding ecologists, teachers, farmers and travellers, not only take away with them this sense of a marvellous, beautiful and vital world needing care and responsible participation from its human members, but they also bring with them a joy and enthusiasm that nourishes the place itself. In a world that is otherwise directed by the intellect and subject to unnatural and unsustainable pressures of being, there are few opportunities to explore a more basic and spontaneous mode of living. This tragically and inexorably leads to separation from other people, the environment, society and even oneself. It is this fragmentation and separation that we seek to address through the work with nature and young people at the Gurukula Botanical Sanctuary.

L’École Dans la Forêts - Education des Jeunes à la Réserve Botanique de Gurukula


La Réserve Botanique de Gurukula (GBS) est un petit jardin botanique isolé dans la forêt tropicale humide du Kerala, en Inde, dont la mission est la conservation et l’éducation. Elle travaille principalement avec des espèces locales, des moyens techniques simples et les populations locales. Son objectif est de générer et de soutenir un mode de vie sensible à l’environnement naturel. Environ 2000 visiteurs sont accueillis chaque année, surtout originaires de la région. Le GBS, avec sa flore colorée et ses hôtes animaux, est une excellente ressource pour l’éducation des enfants et mais aussi des adultes sur la biodiversité de leur région et la nécessité urgente de la conserver. A travers des études, des jeux et des animations, aussi bien que des activités mettant en jeu les 5 sens, on espère que le jeune public développe un plus grand intérêt et se sente concerné par la forêt et ses habitants. Ainsi, la conservation n’est pas une idée abstraite dans la mesure où il est possible de vivre et de ressentir les rapports entre les différents organismes et leur environnement comme une réalité vivante quotidienne.

 Aula en el Bosque – Educando a Los Jovenes en el Santuario Botánico de Gurukula


El Santuario Botánico de Gurukula (SBG) es un pequeño y remoto jardín botánico dentro de los bosques humedos tropicales de Karala, India, que está dedicado a la conservación y a la educación. En la mayor parte se trabaja con especies autóctonas, baja tecnología y con la población local; el énfasis es el generar y sostener una forma de vida que es sensible a la naturaleza. Varios miles de personas visitan el jardín al año, la mayoría procedentes del entorno. El SBG con sus variados habitantes vegetales y animales, es un excelente recurso para educar, tanto a niños como adultos, sobre la biodiversidad de la región y la urgente necesidad de conservarla. A través del estudio, el juego y la participación, y de actividades que utilizan todos los sentidos, se espera que los jovenes desarrollen un interés mas profundo y una preocupación por el bosque y sus comunidades naturales. La conservación no es una idea abstracta en esta situación donde es posible sentir y disfrutar de la conección entre los diferentes seres vivos y su medio ambiente como una realidad viva diaria.