The education system is the second-most crucial foundation of a child’s development, the first being the family. Yet, for generations now, learning by rote and memorisation has been the practice, instead of analytical thinking and experiential learning. Bringing about this change is the Academy for Earth Sustainability by Sukriti Gupta in Mumbai where students from different schools are taken out of their classrooms to experience environment and learn from it.
As our summers get hotter, glaciers melt faster, as droughts and deluge signal extremes of our climate, there’s now growing awareness about protecting our environment. Yet our effort to do so is quite superficial. Learning the definition of deforestation within four walls and air-conditioned classrooms will not help kids really connect with the issues.
“As kids, we were accustomed to spending a lot of time out of homes, riding bicycles and running around in the muck and heat. Today, children lead a very different life, often restricted to sanitised environments. For example, a child once complained that she was allergic to ants and another allergic to mud. It took some care and guidance, but at the end of the workshop, these children were enjoying the feel of earth, planting with their hands and not squeamish at all,” says the 31-year-old founder of the academy.
Gupta’s exposure to this came from a personal setback. Having pursued interior designing, she was working in the same field in Hong Kong until she fell sick. She quit her job to take care of her health, and started taking an interest in organic farming while volunteering on a farm. On returning to Mumbai, she realised the potential and scope of it, and also how people can benefit from an organic diet and environmentally-friendly lifestyle.
Instead of going back to her profession, Gupta started the academy in Mumbai in 2014, hoping to bring about greater awareness. Her focus group consists of the youth who often grasp the rudiments of a problem quite easily and are not rigid in their thought process. “They see things in a black and white fashion and ask relevant questions. While in Aarey colony recently, the kids were shocked to see the damage being done to the environment. ‘Don’t the politicians know what they are doing? Why is nobody cleaning up the river?’ These are few of those innocent, but very valid queries we received from the children,” says Gupta.
Initially working on short-term workshops, Gupta soon realised that they weren’t having the desired response or effect. So she shifted her focus to more long-term projects. Instead of focusing only on school kids, Gupta has brought in children with disabilities. She involves them in market places and garden building, where these children also learn leadership and team work. Going to the organic market set-ups is a great way for children to interact with farmers and others from the same field, learning on the go.
Taking children to such farms is highly educative, where they can actively participate in the fields and also have some fun.
This creates a lasting interest and greater involvement among the young. However, this is not always possible so Gupta tries to bring a bit of the forest to the city. She helps schools and communities set up their own gardens, introducing the concepts of organic farming, permaculture and their benefits. Garbage distribution into wet and dry categories is no longer an alien concept in Mumbai, and to explain the process of composting is not much difficult, she says.
Taking a walk in the Aarey colony was equally enriching as the children got to see the problems first-hand, instead of reading it in the newspapers. “Most importantly, it is a cultural exchange that otherwise wouldn’t be possible. Kids learn to interact with the farmers and tribals, explore their cultures and traditions — talk to them, share their food, see how they live. This is one of the greatest benefits of out-of-classroom, experiential learning,” points out Gupta.
The academy hence wants the children of our society to have a more in-depth learning of the issues and be in contact with nature, so that these kids can bring a change in their immediate surroundings, as well as take active responsibility for a better future. They can help at a micro-level, influencing their families to adopt a greener lifestyle. Moreover, some of them will later become policy-makers and this childhood farming experience will go a long way in bringing about sustainable solutions.