On March 26th, a gathering of over three hundred government school students was organized as part of the annual Ecofest event, at the Sri Sankara Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Thiruvanmiyur.

The Ecofest is organized as a day for all the students of the schools who are part of the Schools In Action For The Planet environmental education program, to gather, share and learn from each other.

Given that schools had only reopened in early March, it was nothing short of brilliant to see the students do all the art work, exhibit making and script writing themselves in the build up to the day of the Ecofest in such a small window of time. It was equally fantastic to see how the teachers facilitated but didn’t overly intervene in what the children were doing, giving the students the chance to fully express themselves.

On the day itself, the Ecofest was a space that held an abundance of stories.

Students were brimming with their exhibits and their artwork. A constant theme was the choice we had before us in the kind of planet we wanted to continue living in. So many charts showed the Earth divided in two – on one side a lush, thriving planet with bright blues and greens and on the other, a desolate brown landscape with either industries spewing toxic waste or with no life in sight.

One interesting interpretation of this was how if we continue cutting down the trees at the rate we are, in twenty years we will need to wear space suits to go outside and do the same tree cutting, for lack of enough oxygen and a healthy atmosphere!

Students also showed the different aspects of the natural world they found interesting. One student made a clay exhibit of snakes she found in the backyard of her home in the village. Another group of students put together an exhibit on plants and their medicinal values. While another set of students made a diorama of the water cycle!

Looking back on the year, from the online session asking students to list out the biodiversity in their backyards, to the class on medicinal plants , to the lessons on water and the water cycle, seeing these exhibits at the Ecofest were a testament to just how much the environmental education sessions had made a difference to the students.

Not to mention the class on elephants as well making quite the impression!

It was also wonderful to see students very keen to share their take on plastic pollution and the different ways to address this, something they’ve begun to think about after their lesson on ‘closing the loop’ where they learned about recycling and waste management efforts like waste segregation.

Looking around at all the exhibits and posters the students had thought of and put together themselves, it was astounding to see the overwhelmingly positive impact of an online environmental education program through three different waves of the pandemic! 

After the exhibits, came the round of plays written, directed and performed by the students! From showing how the simple act of watering the plants next to one’s school’s cycle stand can make a world of difference to the plants, to addressing issues of farm lands being converted to factories, it was wonderfully inspiring to see the students really put their hearts into their performances and the messages they were conveying through them.

Sea turtle conservationist Raghuraman R. was invited as a special guest for the Ecofest where he treated the students of all the schools to a video clip of turtles coming to nest along the city’s shores. Students learned about setting up of hatcheries and their importance to conservation. After the program, one of the schools, thanks to their willing headmaster, got to go in person with Raghuraman to see baby sea turtle hatchlings being released in to the ocean!

As an extra-curriculular environmental education program conducted in ten government schools in Chennai, the Schools In Action For The Planet program owes its progress to the support and commitment of the teachers, headmistresses and headmasters of every school. Their complete faith and belief in the need for a holistic environmental education for their students is what gave both students and educators the confidence to continue the program through a pandemic, which culminated with the year’s Ecofest.

In recognition of this, they were honoured on stage with organically made herbal products from award-winning herbalist Parvathy Nagarajan’s women-led rural enterprise Amirtha herbal remedies , and with books for their students from Thumbi, the children’s magazine.

Speaking of support, Harish Deshistha Kulkarni, the backbone of Tata Communication’s CSR with Pitchandikulam Forest, attended the event and connected with many of the students and teachers. When addressing the students from the podium about the container gardens in their respective schools, asking the students if they would water their plants regularly, he was met with a cheerfully resounding, “Yes!”

The journey to Ecofest’22 has been a long, adventurous one with plenty of learning for students and teachers alike.

We look forward to what is in store over the coming year and for the next, Ecofest’23!

Avvai Home Student’s Visit To The Zoo

A trip to Children’s Park, or Guindy Park as it is popularly called, is a rite of passage for almost every school child in Chennai. It forms one of the best memories, to later cherish with your friends in adulthood. For most children, it is also the first time one gets to see such a diverse collection of animals, birds and snakes! A visit to Children’s Park is many things, and one of them is the beginning of seeing ourselves as part of the larger web of life.

As part of the Schools In Action program, students from the Avvai Home T V R Girls’ Higher Secondary School visited the zoo where they had a dozen questions a minute when seeing the different animal enclosures! It was wonderful to be able to address these questions as it showed just how invested the children were in understanding what they were seeing. This helped the educators facilitate a deeper learning during the entire trip.

One of the first enclosures had a mix of pelicans, herons and storks. Children were interested to learn what made these birds both different and similar (‘why are they in the same enclosure?’). They especially loved seeing the rosy pelicans with their baby pink colouring and large bills. The next enclosure that piqued their curiosity was that of the barking deer, with its unusual name and size. What helped throughout the visit were the multilingual information boards outside every enclosure. Many students had their pens and notebooks out, furiously jotting down notes.

When headed to the snake exhibit, several children were alarmed to see baby chicks present with the snakes they were learning about. They sincerely asked if these chicks could be rescued. It took some understanding for the children to learn how snakes need to feed on the right diet in order to remain healthy and why live chicks were important for snakes in environments such as zoo enclosures. The conversation proved to be an important one. It helped put into perspective the student’s own food needs and how as humans, we eat chickens as well, and living in urban settings, never really think of them as having grown from baby chicks!

The students then headed to the primate enclosures where the path was overlooked by a life-sized cut-out of a gray langur, a nilgiri langur, a rhesus macaque, and a lion-tailed macaque. Seeing the picture of the lion-tailed macaque, one of the students pointed to it and asked the educator Achsah if this was the primate she’d seen on her wildlife trip a year ago. It was surprising and affirming to hear this asked from the student, as Achsah had discussed her trip in passing during one of their earliest classes, where she’d described the lion-tailed macaque to the students. For one of them to remember this conversation and make the immediate connection in seeing the picture during this class trip, was a wonderful testament to how keenly the students engage with their environmental education sessions.

A lot of questions revolved around how one could differentiate between the males and females of the different species of birds and animals we were seeing, along with what they ate. Asking these questions helped the students also understand why these differences existed in the first place. The one species they immediately related to though were the rhesus macaques, which they cheekily called out with their friend’s names.

The students were quite taken in with the lone Cassowary in the zoo, which equally seemed taken in by the students. Seeing ‘flightless birds’ first hand and that too three kinds of them (ostriches, emus and the cassowary), was quite the learning. It also brought up several questions about what these birds were doing here, in Chennai of all places! 

It was quite the treat, not just for the students but for the animals and the birds, as we’d happened to visit exactly around feeding time! Students got to see porcupines sniff at their fruit and kites perform quick dives to pick up slivers of meat in the blink of an eye.

One of the best things about Guindy Park is that it recognizes that this space is essentially for children. The playground, the large banyan trees (to swing from) and the many benches, proved a much needed respite from all the learning and the children got to play to their heart’s content without disturbing the animals. 

It was extremely encouraging to see that by the end of the trip, children not only shared with us the many things that stuck with them about their visit, but also came up to earnestly ask educators the questions that had sparked in them, after seeing the many birds, animals and reptiles!

Food is Medicine – a Green Pharmacy Lesson

Plants and their many uses, especially from the herbal lens, is a topic that has in recent times gained a lot of urban traction. It has increasingly become a topic of conversation to recommend a certain kind of leaf or tea brew to, as one would put it, feel better naturally ‘with no side effects’. While many herbal remedies do work, it is key to be well informed and educated by a professional, rather than from an arbitrary video that is doing the rounds. Which is why as part of the Schools In Action class titled ‘Green Pharmacy’, the educators sought to gauge the children’s views on herbal remedies and set the space for them to learn from a professional directly.

Parvathy Nagarajan is a sixth generation healer and herbalist. Her healer roots extend from a family where the women have been practitioners of traditional medicine for generations. Parvathy and her family have been intimately working with medicinal plants, gathering a vast, deeply enriching and invaluable resource of traditional medicine and practice. In other words, the best professional for the students to hear about herbal remedies from!

A video was played for the students where Parvathy shared her personal journey with plants. She started with how the long walks to school made her acquainted with the many treasures she enjoyed from the plants along the way – their fruits, flowers, roots – not just in terms of enjoying them as a snack but in understanding them as a part of the whole. She shared how these walks helped her develop a fondness for plants, a friendship even. Children learned how for a daily hello and a dedicated time to water them, the plants she now grows in her gardens give her and her family so much in return.

“Why am I telling you all of this? I want you to think about the air we breathe, the food we eat, the cotton dresses we wear, the furniture we use (chairs, tables) and many such things – to think about where they come from. Almost all of the things we use come from nature. From the trees, shrubs and vines.”

Parvathy Nagarajan, traditional healer and herbalist

Parvathy then explained two of the most important things for her when it comes to health, the food we eat, and the air we breathe, both of which come from plants! How both medicine and food are borne from the soil and bloom through plants. She described how she started perceiving the plant world as a place she could look to for her food and medicinal needs. She illustrated this with the ‘kuppaimeni’ plant, a plant that is found to grow in many places. She explained how she had learned that it can be used to treat itching from mosquito bites, how the swelling could be healed by rubbing the kuppaimeni’s leaves on the affected part. 

Next, she spoke of her journey with the Tulsi plant, how she learned that if we have a cold or are suffering with sneezing or headaches, a Tulsi tea would hit the spot!

From here, Parvathy picked up the pace, fluently listing the different plants and their medicinal uses. With the children so keenly interested, they had no problem keeping up! 

Parvathy explained how the curry leaf or ‘karuveppillai’ can be made into a chutney! Something the children found very interesting given that the curry leaf is mostly used as seasoning in Indian cooking. They learned how the karuveppillai helped with eyesight, encouraged better hair growth and also helped to make skin smoother.

The students learned how tea made from the sembaruthi flower (hibiscus) and consumed regularly, helped decrease anemia over time. Also, how it was used to make a nourishing hair oil! 

Parvathy highlighted the beautiful point that one needn’t only look to medicinal plants when one falls ill, but to look to them as a means of strengthening oneself and preventing falling ill in the first place. She helped the children understand why our ancestors practiced the adage “unave marundhu” (food is medicine). 

After sharing the first half of the video about Parvathy, the educators paused to ask the students if they and their families practice similar remedies as well. Many of the students were aware of such remedies, especially in terms of the teas prepared from Tulsi to ‘sukku’ for anything between colds to indigestion. The educators carried the narrative of how ‘unave marundhu’ exists in the present day, pointing to how our kitchens hold many of the ingredients of remedies, thus making them ‘green pharmacies’.

It was a good place in the session to stop and highlight how natural remedies, while helpful, did not completely replace going to visit a doctor or a hospital. The educators explained how striking a balance between the two was useful, rather than completely alienating one for the other. The main point of the lesson being, that a system of medicine exists with plants.

The educators then continued to the next part of the video where Parvathy’s daughter Preethi explained how she currently looks to plants when it comes to making a natural facepack or shampoo.

For a facepack, Preethi illustrated how she uses drumstick leaves. She showed how she grinds the leaves to a paste and applies the paste as a facial for 5-10 minutes. She then demonstrated how the pack has to be washed with freshwater instead of hot water. She shared how this facepack has helped her treat both pimples and dark circles.

For a shampoo, Preethi explained how she uses aloe vera stems. She showed how to first cut and remove the yellow part of the aloe vera stem and then to transfer the gel to a container and whip it. She explained how applying this on one’s hair for 10-15 minutes followed by washing it, helped reduce dandruff and make one’s hair healthier.

As the lesson proceeded, the school principal as well joined in and asked for some of the remedies earlier illustrated to be repeated once again. She shared that she was extremely happy that her students were learning about this topic. By the end of the lesson, everyone in the class arrived at the understanding that learning to use herbal remedies, meant learning how to grow and conserve the plants we use them for.

If you would like to reach out to Parvathy Nagarajan who conducts workshops on herbs and health, you can write to her at You can watch Eco India’s beautiful coverage of her work here.

Resolutions and Reminders – the Schools In Action Way

The start of the year is usually a time of optimistically making resolutions to better oneself, followed by weeks of stoically trying to stick to them. The narrative of needing to do better this year! The Schools In Action educators however flipped the script on New Year’s resolutions with an activity as part of their first class of the year.

If you are reading this and would also like to do the activity the children did, you’ll need a used piece of paper about the size of an A4 sheet.

It was amusing how one child asked if she had to crush the fresh A4 sheet of paper in front of her since she didn’t have an already used one! To which the ready answer was for everyone to switch to some good old newspaper.

Needless to say this activity brought a lot of questions (and interesting paper art) to the session. The educator then asked the children to show what they had with them by the end of the activity.

Celebrating Diversity and Difference

Paper of differently torn patterns were shared, with some having streamers in their hands, some with lots of large paper bits and some with an interesting diamond shaped tear in the middle. The educator asked the children what they thought was the point of the activity and what they felt while they were doing it.

Answers ranged from,
“To improve our listening skills!”,
“To make some crafts!”,
One child cheekily added, “To make our room a mess!”,
And one child insightfully said, “Everyone has different ways of doing the same exercise. Happy with what I got!”

With this, the educator then highlighted how every child is talented, different and unique, which the children could relate with after the activity they had just done. The educator beautifully explained how our worth remains untouched and true, no matter the comparisons and how much higher or lower one might score than a fellow classmate.

A New Year’s Resolution

As all the children said they hadn’t made any New Year’s resolutions, the class decided to make their New Year’s Resolution as one, to remind themselves that they are unique, and to have the paper with them as a visual reminder of this resolution.

Looking Back On A Favourite Class!

The next activity in tow was for the children to draw about the one class they really loved from the past year. This was another insightful activity which helped validate how much the Schools In Action program makes a difference to its students.

Drawings ranged in number and topics, from the natural colours class to the class on butterflies!

Another child shared how she really loved learning about medicinal plants and trees. She also pointed out that she’d written “I love my EE class” in the blue side of her paper from the first activity.

Another interesting drawing was one where the child wanted to share both his favourite ‘offline’ and ‘online’ class from the previous year. The ‘offline’ class that was his favourite was the free period classes in school where everyone would either read books, play tic tac toe or sleep, as illustrated with the expressive sketch! The ‘online’ class the child shared as his favourite, was the online gardening class he’d participated in.

One of the children shared how much she loved learning about the soil. She highlighted how nobody had taught her to think about what’s underground, what’s below trees, but this Schools In Action class did. She shared how she loved learning how microorganisms underground work like telephone lines for the trees to talk to each other (referring to the wood wide web ), how they share messages, and how happy she is to know that in the soil there is something that connects every tree.

It was wonderful to hear about every child’s favourite lesson and it showed just how much these environmental education lessons, even though online, makes a difference to the children!

Learning With Horses

“Horses are used for racing!”
“Horses sleep standing up!”
“Horses get their feet cleaned!”

These were some of the many enthusiastic responses by the students when asked about what they knew of horses.

As one of the facilitators of the session on understanding horses, it was a wonderful start to the session to see the students keenly share all they knew about these animals, with an equal willingness to learn a whole lot more!

One doesn’t really think of horses when thinking about environmental education. Given the wholesome nature of the Schools In Action program though, with an incredible educator team curating an amalgam of lessons on different aspects of nature education for the children, the spontaneous session on horses fitted in seamlessly with the week’s program.

It was a lively class where after a round of covering the basics, children got to meet horses in real-time on their screens and enjoyed seeing in action everything they’d just learned about.

Connecting With Colours

Children learned about the different names used to refer to the myriad colours of horses and their facial markings. They were quick to pick this up, much like how one would when learning to identify birds. It brought a sense of connecting to these beings further than just terming them as ‘horses’. From “dapple grey” to “appaloosa” and “star” to “blaze”, children pointed out their own personal favourites when it came to a horse’s colours and markings.

“Do horses understand Kannada?”

Posed with the multiple-choice of which language horses communicate in, one child enthusiastically picked, ”Kannada!”. This didn’t prove entirely false as pointed out to all the children, since horses do respond to the verbal cues their humans use, be it Kannada or English!

Building a vocabulary

The session delved into horses as social animals and how they communicate and understand each other using body language. The children promptly grasped how to ‘read’ a horse’s ears, tail, eyes and mouth and understood how horses pretty much used their entire body in communicating different behaviours. From ‘relaxed’ and ‘sleepy’ to ‘excited’ and ‘angry’, the students swiftly gained a rudimentary vocabulary of understanding horses. They recognized how learning about how horses communicate with each other was a useful step in learning to understand and empathise with them.


Horses are incredibly social animals and form many friendships during their lifetime. Children were shown how they say hello, how they groom each other by scratching an itch on the other’s back, and how they even go to the extent of swatting flies off each other’s faces during the day. This was enthusiastically compared and contrasted with how our own friendships function and how it forms a vital part of our everyday lives.

The importance of the environment

Children learned to look at the world from the horse’s point of view, their relationship to the environment and what it meant to need close to 50 litres of water every day and the need for shade to rest under and plenty of grass to graze on. It brought into perspective how important the environment is and how we as humans, much like horses and every other animal really, are profoundly dependent on our environment for our needs.

Horses and Humans

Given that horses are traditionally viewed through the lens of how they are useful for humans, from travel in earlier times to entertainment and competition nowadays, it was interesting to hear the children’s views on why humans need horses. One child simply put it as it being a lot of fun to be with a horse, “jollly ah irukkum” and another child offered how her grandmother used to tell her that horses are honest creatures to have around and as friends.

Meeting the horses

It was time for the special treat of introducing the horses live on air to the students. First, the children were introduced to Django, a retired thoroughbred race horse. They excitedly pointed out the markings on his face (“star and snip!”) and what their ‘read’ was on him in terms of his body language (“look at his ears, relaxed!).They were also introduced to Mani, another facilitator of the class with experience in natural horsemanship. It was at that moment that Django chose to scratch an itch by rubbing his head against Mani, which the children immediately understood as a sign of friendship and trust!

After Django, the children were introduced to Shadow, a retired Indian horse from Marina beach. Once again, the children were very excited to be able to identify the colour and markings they had learned about and agreed amongst themselves that Shadow was somewhere between dapple grey and appaloosa in colour (their favourite!).

Live from the stables

Seeing Django and Shadow, released a continuous stream of curious and enthusiastic questions from the children. They loved being able to see their questions answered in real-time. For instance, when asked if a horse’s hoof will hurt when it is being cleaned, the children were first shown the hoof, learned that it was made of keratin like their hair and nails, understood how hooves worked like shoes and lastly, were able to observe a placid Shadow receiving his pedicure, thus sealing the deal that cleaning the hooves doesn’t hurt the horse!

Horse FAQ’s

As facilitators, it was a wonderful experience to listen to and answer the many questions children had for the horses!

“Can horses sit?”

“Horses have such big noses, when they sniff the sand won’t it go inside?”

“How are their teeth? Does it have to be strong to eat grass?”

“Do their feet pain when travelling long distances?”

“Are horses mammals?”

“You can’t take a horse to a pet doctor so does the pet doctor come to the horse?”

“How do you groom a horse? Will it hurt?”

“Do you use soap to bathe a horse?”

Needless to say, all of these questions were patiently answered to the satisfaction of the children!

Thinking like a horse – learning about empathy

One child asked,

“When the owner stands behind the horse, it doesn’t kick them, when an unknown person stands behind them, it kicks them, why?”

To answer this question, once again with Shadow as an example, children learned how the horse’s eyes are placed, and that in terms of vision, the horse has a blindspot directly in front of him and similarly behind him. The children understood that approaching a horse from behind, is guaranteed to startle him, which in turn could cause a kick to happen, given that horses are prey animals dependent on their defence mechanisms to survive.

The children also learned how it is important to build a mutual feeling of trust with the animal you are looking after, just like one would with the family dog at home. They saw how in order to build a bond of trust with a horse like Shadow, looking at the world through Shadow’s point of view and listening to what he is communicating with his body language, went a long way in this process of trust building. In its essence, this is what empathy is about and it was something the children were actively learning to practice during the session.

Schools In Action – exploring new frontiers

The session on horses was yet another feather in the Schools In Action cap as it successfully pushed the limitations of online environmental education learning. The program gave its students front row seats and the full freedom to learn through questions and observation about animals and the environment in a manner that was both safe and wonderfully interactive.

( Thanks to Mirrabelle from Horse 2 Human, Manjeev and Charlotte from Natural Horsemanship India, Manikandan from Nomad Horses India and to Pooja from The Sanctuary ECR for the learning and support which went into this class. Special thanks to Django and Shadow who were wonderfully patient teachers throughout the session! )

A garden we will sow

In the rare period when Covid numbers were at their lowest and it looked safe to venture out into the world again, the Pitchandikulam Forest Environmental Education (EE) team along with thirty volunteers from TCL headed to Perunthalaivar Kamarajar Government Girls Higher Secondary School in Ambattur.

The plan for the day was to set up a herbal garden and to plant indigenous tree saplings as part of the Schools In Action environmental education program.

Armed with kadaparai, manvetti, gloves and masks, the volunteers and the EE team were all set!

The school children who were selected to participate in the program were at first shy, seeing as all the adults were in full gear and already up to their elbows in making pits for saplings. With a little help from their environmental educators who led by example, the children selected the spots to plant their saplings in and then all shyness forgotten, got down to planting the pits dug by the TCL volunteers with full gusto.

It was teamwork at play as each child took on a task, from carrying pans of compost, to filling the previously dug pits with them, planting each sapling to making small bunds for the water to seep through. Children and volunteers alike gained an understanding of all the steps needed to plant a sapling, and the work it requires!

With sloshing buckets, students and volunteers came together to water the herbal garden. Finding the right signboards with the plant’s name and uses, they placed them all proudly next to the freshly planted saplings.

The day helped everyone feel a certain sense of responsibility and stewardship towards the newly set up herbal garden and equally, introduced them to plants otherwise not found in textbooks or popular discourse.

While the saplings were being planted, many students opened up about how they had started growing kitchen gardens of their own, what grew, what didn’t. Classmates learned from each other as each shared their own herb and vegetable garden experiences.

One student from northern India with a farming background, very skilfully explained to one of the volunteers from TCL how to use a kadaparai to break the soil. She shared with us how every morning her family would head to the fields and how using tools like the kadaparai and manvetti were second nature to her.

The highlight of the day for all the children though was in seeing the sheer number of earthworms in the soil they were gardening in!

Some of them had never seen an earthworm before and were thrilled to be able to hold one in the palm of their hand. What had started as a herbal plants lesson quickly became about earthworms and how they help the soil. This connection between a range of topics is a constant theme of the Schools In Action environmental education program.

With every class, students learn to make larger connections to the world around them.

As lunchtime approached, friends of students who had participated in the garden program, quickly learned from each other about the different plants that had recently been planted. Even students from younger classes had a chance to learn about it all from their older school mates.

While the educator team was trying to figure out which student belonged to which standard, one child carefully explained how you identified the standard of the student based on the colour of their ribbons. You had orange, red, green and white and each one pointed to a different standard. Quite the learning for the educators!

The day ended with some much needed cooling down thanks to an elaneer each and a plate of snacks. It was also a time of reflection to understand what it means for community engagement as a volunteer.

Nevertheless they persisted

When you think of understanding the vast natural world around you and the growing sense of awe and curiosity that builds as you come across the multitudes of incredible natural phenomenon, the last thing that comes to mind is a Zoom meeting.

And yet, it is this appreciation and understanding of the natural world that the Schools In Action team have managed to share with children online.

As part of the environmental education program for ten schools across Chennai, these environmental educators have managed to achieve the near impossible task in taking a hands-on environmental education program to children over a screen.

No small feat given that ‘online’ and ‘environment’ are an Oxford edit away from being considered oxymorons and the program was initially designed to be an outdoor class.

With field visits.

In the age of Zoom fatigue, to have children ask when their next environmental education classes are, is a miracle in its own right.

This of course did not happen overnight.

How it started

At the start of the pandemic, with multiple lockdowns and schools being indefinitely closed, education, leave alone environmental education, wasn’t striking anyone as the need of the hour. If anything, it felt like something to completely scrap at the time.

However, as with most things Pitchandikulam Forest tends to, what initially seemed impossible was envisioned instead, as an opportunity to grow and create something beautiful.

And so began the Schools In Action online program.

The previously thought-out lesson plans and activities had to be reconceived and changed according to what did and didn’t work. The only way to do this was to learn and adapt with every class. Educators had to hit the ground running and at several times found the ground rising to meet them.

With a good dose of team spirit, blunt feedback and honest self-reflection, the educators found themselves crossing the collective chasm of the classroom yawn with creative, engaging lessons.

Where one once saw online classes as a constraint, the focus shifted to the world of possibilities going online now afforded to the educators. They now had at their hands tools that could help them facilitate environmental education at a scale otherwise unimagined.

But first, the educators addressed how students were already overloaded with a dizzying timetable of online classes.

The aim wasn’t to create yet another class the child had to sit through. Instead, the educators set the space for the class to be a time where the children could relax, connect with their friends and have fun while learning.

Schools In Action – How it’s going

This space saw an increasing number of children hitting the unmute button on their Zoom calls to actively engage in their environmental education classes.

Children learned to develop a keen sense of observation and insight into the very environment they were living in. The dawning that the environment wasn’t something far away in a park that you visit, but what’s around you and what you interact with on a day-to-day basis in your own home.

Students learned to observe, understand and think analytically about their water resources. They learned to understand why their household wastes needed to be segregated. They found themselves observing the different insects and birds visiting their home.

One child whose family were already growing their own food, found it exhilarating to share on video with the rest of her class her home garden, during the class on container gardening.

Activities galore

The educators put together a number of activities for the children to engage in. This helped immensely for the students to have fun during the session while also learning about the topic for the day.

From putting together skits dressed as farmers and singing old MGR songs to highlight the differences between modern day farming and traditional farming practices, to conducting art sessions based on the patterns one observes in nature, to hosting debates, nature quizzes and conducting games like Pictionary, there was never a dull moment!

All of these activities translated to a growing environmental literacy amongst the students.

Finding the right tools online

Using different online tools such as Google forms, YouTube videos, Google Jamboard, online game makers and SlideShare, educators were able to put together the activities that helped the class as a whole engage in and continue their environmental education through the pandemic.

For schools whose students didn’t have regular access to devices and a stable internet connection, the educators decided to take classes on WhatsApp instead of Zoom. They sent students environmental videos, simple google forms to fill in, books as pdfs and sent them instructions on crafts they could do with natural household items.

The educators could assess that these classes were important for the children as students started sending in their home assignments even two and three days before the submission date. Students would also send in voice notes to share how much they enjoyed the class!

Choice based education

One of the highlights of conducting the program online, was that it was more choice based. Only children who were really interested would attend. And this number steadily grew with every class. More children would not only attend but take part in the entire session planned for the day. Educators never had to plead with students asking them to keep their videos on!

A positive space

Every session had the school’s teachers assigned to silently observe and monitor the environmental education classes. More often than not though, these teachers found themselves moved to ‘unmute’ and share their feedback on how much they enjoyed the sessions themselves. This helped foster an increasingly supportive, positive space for the both students and teachers of the schools through the difficult time of the pandemic.

Lessons Learned

With the advent of online education, the educators of the Schools In Action program have found a wonderful way to reach out, engage with and educate students. To move beyond the constraints of pre- and post-pandemic settings and look at teaching anew.

Three Fishermen In A Boat (to say nothing of the bycatch)

In a standard science textbook, you will learn that sharks are the apex predators of the marine world. But the sea today, has another story to tell. It speaks instead, of the disappearing diversity of marine life and livelihood.

Large scale destruction of the fragile marine ecosystem and everything associated with it, isn’t an easy topic to discuss with children. There isn’t a simple narrative to explain why things have gotten to where they are now and how it can all be solved. It requires a balance of being given information of the ground reality, as well as an assortment of alternatives to deal with the issues being faced.

This balance was beautifully struck by the educators as part of the Schools In Action environmental education class! 

As part of the session, students were shown video clips of the different kinds of fishing practices observed along the coast. From mechanized bottom trawling to artisanal fishing, the histories of how each practice came to be and their subsequent long-term effects were showcased.

But first,

Students were asked what they would find in the sea. 

The answers ranged from “sharks”, “crabs”, “starfishes”, “fishes of course!”, and surprisingly, “kadal kanni” (Kadal kanni is the Tamil name for mermaid). After ensuring that the children understood the kadal kanni belonged to myth and folklore, the educators played a video clip of all the catch brought in by a trawler.


Trawlers are large mechanized boats which use trawl nets to catch fish in tons.

The children learned how trawling by its very nature, was destructive to the sea bed due to how trawl nets are dragged across it over long distances, capturing everything in its path.

Watching the magnitude of destruction caused by trawlers can be a lot. Which was why for the rest of the class, the educators showed children the different kinds of sustainable fishing practiced by fisherfolk even today, using this video made by Evanescence studios.

Free diving

The children watched as the fisherman named Kupertheen from Karankadu explained how he and his fellow free divers don’t use breathing aids but dive just by holding their breath! They learned how large chanks (sangu in Tamil) which are Turbinella mollusc shells, were collected to be traded, used as food and also sold to incense stick traders.

They learned how the divers are mindful of not touching small chanks, since it would affect the growth of the molluscs. With each dive lasting only a minute and a half they understood how there was never a threat of overfishing with free diving!

Traditional fish traps

Next, the children saw a clip of fisherman Soosai explaining how traditional fish traps are made. They learned how the intricate design of these traps have remained unchanged for hundreds of years!

From groupers (kalavai meen in Tamil), trevally (parai meen in Tamil) to emperor fish (vilai meen in Tamil), the children learned how efficient these traps are in capturing specific target fish.

Customized fishing nets

From mural (halfbeak fish) nets made in Mullimunai  to prawn nets made in Kollukadu, children learned about the different ways fishermen modify their nets to target specific catch, keeping in mind the fragility of the sea bed and the marine ecosystem.

It was also interesting for the children to note how the locally available plants like the milkweed’s stem was used to make the weights for the nets.

Sustainable fishing practices

The children understood four common themes which ran through all the different artisanal fishing practices they had seen. 

One, these practices were never indiscriminate, always targeting specific groups of fish. Two, there was never any overfishing associated with such fishing. Three, these practices were mindful of breeding seasons and leaving young fishes to grow and mature. Four, all of these practices were sustainable and non-polluting.

However, given the emergence of trawler boats leading to the decrease in fish catch, all of these practices have become just as threatened as the marine life they are dependent on.

Turning the tide

With growing interest in sourcing fish meat sustainably and the awareness towards needing to conserve our seas, there is a focus towards understanding and supporting artisanal fisheries. 

One such initiative is In Season Fish which helps consumers choose alternative fish varieties to avoid overconsumption and in turn avoid depletion of fragile fish stocks. 

Working with fishermen who follow sustainable fishing practices, initiatives such as In Season Fish show us that the tide is slowly, but surely, turning towards a more mindful, sustainable future. 

Who moved my eri?

The rains these past few days are a reminder that lessons still need to be learned in terms of watershed literacy and urban planning in Chennai.

Thankfully the future isn’t as bleak as the weather, with children in their Schools In Action environmental education class learning and understanding the significance of the water cycle, and the need to conserve and restore existing water resources.

A recorded skit put together by children and the educator, Vaishnavi Venkatesh, was played for the class to visually see how water is used by different stakeholders and industries. A clean glass bowl filled with water was used to represent a lake. The skit showed how water is readily taken out, but put back without any kind of wastewater treatment. From a poultry farmer to the head of a construction company, children in the skit enacted different roles to highlight the different kinds of waste we as a community put back into such water resources.

Once the skit was played, Vaishnavi asked the children what they thought would result if such waste dumping happened long-term and without any wastewater treatment.

Answers ranged from how “living beings could get diseases and die”, to how “there won’t be clean drinking water available” and how “people living in the region will get badly affected”. One of the most insightful answers was how “even clean rainwater which comes, becomes a waste because it mixes with the dirty water”.

A video was then played showing a newsclip of the Bellandur Lake in Bangalore catching fire. One of the students solemnly asked if it was on fire because someone poured oil in the lake. Vaishnavi then explained how the pollutants in the lake, from sewage to chemical effluents to construction debris, are inflammable. The children then understood the scale of the pollution, for a 1000 acre lake to catch on fire.

Following the explanation of water resource pollution, the educators Vaishnavi and Achsah, showed the children two maps. One was of the built-up area of Chennai in the year 1980 and another of the city in the year 2010. Areas in red marked the built-up area, with blue used to indicate water bodies.

In 20 years, the city bore the semblance of an angry red pimple.

The maps were followed by a video clip of a shrinking lake which clearly showed how encroachments on ponds and lakes have led to shrinking water resources. Equally, it explained how with no place to go, rains during the monsoons inundate homes and structures built on ponds and lakes.

Towards the end of the lesson, children clearly understood why we have a water crisis on our hands in the city, from flooding during the monsoons to droughts during the summers.

They were however, curious as to how all of this came to be.

They asked,

“When did this kind of polluting begin?”

“And why did we make it so water has nowhere to go?”

And that, was for another day’s lesson to understand.

Seeds Of Change

As the city woke up to a balmy Monday morning, the atmosphere at Sri Sankara Vidyalaya Matriculation Higher Secondary School in Thiruvanmiyur, Chennai was electric with excitement. The tree planting activity was planned for the day and several holes were dug in anticipation of the saplings to arrive. This wasn’t your run-of-the-mill plantation activity having large swathes of land to plant in or troops of middle-aged men bustling in crisp white cotton.

Instead, it involved a group of earnest high school students and their teachers, in a compact school compound having a little more than a foot’s width of soil bordering the school’s buildings. It was in this fringe of soil the saplings were to be planted. It was encouraging to see how interested the students and teachers were in learning how to utilize the space they had to plant the kind of saplings that could be nourished and grown in such urban spaces.

The Pitchandikulam Forest team and its group of educators brought close to 50 saplings made up of 24 herbal plant varieties for the students to plant around the campus. Children learned about the medicinal uses of each sapling before planting them and made sign boards to help with their identification. From notchi (Vitex negundo) to nilavembu (Andrographis paniculate), children grasped the significance of each medicinal plant and were eagerly looking forward to passing on and teaching their younger counterparts about it.

When asked how many of the children would like to take a sapling home, all hands went up! The principal Madam Latha Ravi was extremely supportive of her students and was equally enthusiastic about setting up their school’s green corner.

On that Monday morning, it wasn’t just saplings, but seeds of change watered in a small corner of the city.