Open air classrooms are superfun
Cheryl Rao
We thought we were just having fun in the desert. We did not consciously seek to make our child a happier individual — as we are now told children become when they are more connected to Nature and Mother Earth. For us, picnics and outings were just enjoyable — and amazingly, we also learnt from each trip into the outdoors.
When we first drove towards what was to be our home in a tiny hamlet in the Indian state of Rajasthan a quarter century ago, the starkness of all that sand came as a shock to us. True, there were clumps of keekar trees and other shrubs — the names of which we had to be sure of because we were dealing with the curious questions of a child who would not be put off with “I’ll tell you later” because he was already aware that “later” tended to get translated into “never”.
We didn’t have the internet, we didn’t have smart phones and other electronic aids. We didn’t even have access to well-stocked libraries. We had to rely on each other and the information supplied by knowledgeable and more aware local dwellers — and miraculously, we got by.
During that first summer, we marvelled at the swarms of the most beautiful “grasshoppers” we had ever seen and let them feast on whatever they rested upon until we realised that they were locusts — and then we rushed to squash them into oblivion and save the greenery around! There were other creepy-crawlies too, some harmless, some venomous, but all viewed from a safe distance — and if they were indoors, from the top of a chair or even a table.
Book of birds
Then, like a breath of fresh air, winter brought us all manner of birds who sought out the many tiny lakes that dotted the countryside. We never stepped out of the house without our copy of Salim Ali’s The Book of Indian Birds, even if we left our purses, the sandwiches and the coffee behind: for who knew when we would spy a great horned owl or an adjutant stork or have the outspread wings of an Indian spotted eagle or a fish eagle glide close to our faces as it headed for its nest and its eaglets.
While the flora and fauna went a long way to connect us to the land, our emotions were super-charged by the history and archaeology around us. Out in the open, under a couple of innocuous looking mounds, lay the remains of a town that dated back almost 4000 years to the Indus Valley Civilisation — and we could go there whenever we wanted! We could dig in the sand. We could climb down into the few pits that remained, we could run our fingers over the bricks that were only partially re-covered, we could imagine the layout and the activities of all those years ago and build stories around crumbling artefacts …
During those years of our son’s childhood, we also went to other small towns across the country. We lived “camp style” in cramped temporary accommodation and the best way to stretch out was to trek or cycle into the great outdoors.
Somewhere along the way, when we realised that we were being educated as we communed with nature in the midst of all that enjoyment, we started dreaming of the infinite career choices that could come from these outings: herpetologist/ornithologist/geologist/palaeontologist/archaeologist/botanist …
Naturally, because we dreamed of it, our child chose none of those careers and we then took to brooding and wondering if all those outings had been a waste of time; so now it is with great relief that we can cast aside that slight pique and instead bask in the assurance that we helped build a memory bank that supports his “happiness factor” — and ours — in the years ahead.