Are trees rearing our children?

On the developmental and sociopolitical importance of making vegetation and living habitats as children’s prime learning spaces

by Yuvan Aves

I walk out to gaze at the sky after many long meetings indoors. A Yellow Elder bush (Tecoma stans) is flowering profusely, looking molten under afternoon sun. A single blue-glistening carpenter bee hovers and veers clumsily from flower to flower. There are three primary children’s classrooms around the play area where the Yellow Elder is at Abacus Montessori School and while all the primary teachers had convened for a meeting, most of the children had come outdoors. I watched their spontaneous activities in their free time. 

Two girls came to the Yellow Elder, looked into its flowers briefly with palms on bent knees, shrieked in cheerful caution about the bee and went away holding hands, a flower each behind their ears. Near the center of the play area is a storm-toppled but living Copper Pod tree, its trunk almost horizontal, its largest boughs resting on the ground. Two children scale its length, balancing bare feet on powdery bark with arms spread. Few others climb over a dead fallen Copper Pod nearby, left there for climbing, its canopy branches bearing no longer compound leaves or blossoms, but children. One boy carried a soil bingo activity sheet to a swept up pile of leaf litter and searched its depths for creatures he saw on the paper. Ten other boys were playing a running and catching game, wherein an Indian Beech and a Crepe Myrtle tree became the runners’ pivot points, gripping their trunks hard with their palms to swing around and change sudden direction to throw off the catcher. Some others walked around the periphery of the play area holding feet-long sticks of Neem and Almond with a beautiful playful purposelessness. The fallen flowers of Coral Jasmine were being collected in a basket by another two children. Many other interactions and spontaneous forms of play were happening. Yet the trees and vegetation of the space held all of it, making it a natural habitat for children and their expression. I made a quick note of the floral diversity here.

Trees/large shrubs: Copperpod, Peepal, Crepe-Myrtle, Lime, Indian Beech, Badam, Yellow Elder, Coral Jasmine, Premna and Alexandrian laurel.

Other vegetation: a vegetable garden with lady’s finger, brinjal and other crops, two rows of aromatic, medicinal and flowering plants like Ixora, lemon grass, Thai ginger, betel leaf creeper.

Before the next meeting, I thought about how a diversity of trees and vegetation can create a rich growing space for children, and whether it’s time we begin thinking about learning environments as habitats—a defining part of any habitat being its aliveness and inter- and intra-connectedness.

A decade ago, as a very young science teacher pondering how to emplace my teaching with the living landscape around me, I came across the work of Daniel Chamavitz from Tel Aviv University, who wrote ‘What a Plant Knows.’ His book de-centers human agency and instead focuses on plant agency and intentionality in shaping human history. The narrative coheres rather neatly. Wheat and paddy were central in initiating river valley civilizations and agricultural settlements. Cotton, sugarcane and fruit plantations fuelled machine and industrial advances but also slavery and colonization. Poppy, the first painkiller, gave birth to modern medicine. Mulberry pushed the silk trade routes. Spices steered seafaring. 

Another plant scientist, Robert Spengler from Max Planck Institute, studies the co-evolutionary influence plants have on human biology and society. He puts forward that domestication for food, medicine or aesthetics of plants was a practice plants intended, a mutualism they initiated with humans rather than the other way around, intended for their survival and proliferation. Just as flowers attract pollinators and fruits attract frugivores. Plants chose to be domesticated, and the rest of human history followed.

Among the education philosophies deeply supported by child developmental studies and neuroscience is the Montessori method. One of Montessori’s four main pillars is ‘education of the senses,’ which holds that our sensory portals need appropriate and repetitive use and exposure to the right kinds of stimuli, especially in the young growing child, for their healthy development. This is true across all species. The deep cross-modalities and the utter entanglement of our sensory pathways—receiving information from the external environment and from within the body-mind—is now a well known fact. Christoph Kayser, a scientist of sensory integration, wrote this poetically: “The brain sees with its ears and touch, and hears with its eyes.” We are profoundly synaesthetic—sensorially cross-wired—as Diance Ackerman writes in her book Natural History of the Senses. French physician and educationist Edouard Seguin, who worked a lot with mentally challenged children, stresses that the growing child’s senses must be adaptively engaged and dysfunctional education of the senses arises from objects ‘untrue to nature’ that ‘attract more attention than his faculties of perception can safely bestow.’ 

During a tree observation activity for Science and Maths teachers of Chennai Corporation schools

With the agency of plants and the nature of our senses in mind, let’s now look at our palms, or deep into our thumbs, into our fingerprints—among our most frequent and crucial points of sense-contact with the world, and one of the identifying features of each individual. The spirals of skin we see are known as epidermal ridges. Primates as well as other arboreal mammals have fingerprints which have primarily evolved to grip in arboreal environments. They tell us we once inhabited trees and were adapted to climb, pluck, carry, feel, tree-matter. Another strange theory exists about the presence of epidermal ridges on our fingers, but one with some evidence too. Known as the ‘fruit texture hypothesis,’ it posits that our fingerprints evolved to feel fruits and determine their species, ripeness and edibility, among other things. And similarly our vision apparatus, skull shape, intestines, musculature, skeletal structure, limbs, olfactory and mechanosensory receptors, brain chemistry to name some, have been deeply shaped by plants and their historical/pre-historical connections with us—to move-in, grow, gather, harvest, eat, use, create out of, see, identify, seek, avoid. 

This is fascinating research for the educator to undertake for themselves. Few other forces have shaped our physiological and psychological, even socio-political structures more than the vegetation around us. As Richard Powers says in Overstory, a novel about trees, “This is not our world with trees in it. It’s a world of trees, where humans have just arrived.” A little reading into our co-evolution shows this to be true.

Another important aspect of human development (or that of any species), one often forgotten in education, is that ontogeny mimics phylogeny—a.k.a. the recapitulation theory, which posits that the growth of a human from natal conditions to full adult corresponds, broadly, to how (co-)evolution of life occurred on Earth. Like life itself, we each begin as a unicellular life form drawing nourishment from a watery medium, then develop multicellularity, then come organs, limbs, the formation of the hindbrain and the limbic system and midbrain—and so on. The parallels continue after birth too: the development of the senses, parental attachment, quadrupedal to bipedal movement, complete development of the forebrain, formation of social bonds and community. Each of our lives is an embodied memory of all of life, a ripple of deep-time co-evolution on Earth. 

What then would it mean to see the young child as a ripple and voice and memory of the entire living world? And can this vaster lens speak meaningfully into this world of climate crisis, ecological breakdown and the social struggles which children are born into and navigate and shape too?

Putting these deep-time truths together—that is 1. our senses co-evolved with and within the habitats we lived in, of which vegetation was foundational (along with other phenomena and beings, including animals, water, soil, the sun, moon, seasons, and so on); and 2. ontogeny mimics phylogeny (each of our lives and development is an echo of all life on Earth)—can help us make a radical, much needed leap in educational thought. It becomes clear that for the healthy and functional development of young children’s senses, brains and bodies, their learning-growing-playing spaces need to be living habitats.

While many educational thinkers have worked hard on the meaningful development of the senses, few have actively worked—among them Friedrich Frobel, Richard Louv, KB Jinan, Penny Whitehouse—with its deep connections with the ecology around. Often in the practice of sensory education, the synaesthetic, cross-modal nature of children’s world-making is forgotten too. One result of this is separate boxes and kits kept indoors, meant for the child to exercise separate senses. These are valuable by themselves, but not if their purpose ends there. It is only in the outdoor living world that senses develop naturally, especially due to the interconnectedness and relationality they grapple with. That interconnectedness is explored both inwardly and outwardly—and this needs to be the deeper educational principle. This can happen when learning spaces are ecologically restored spaces—especially where it is degraded—and the young child grows as a co-earthling in a living habitat. 

Urban sprawls make learning in living habitats extremely challenging and in the absence of nature and lack of access to it, teachers are confined in their imagination. I am among those who have been trying to create a counter-movement to this, especially in urban spaces in my city Chennai, because cities are also modern cultural crucibles. Impact in urban areas can reach far, rise fast, though it is extremely challenging. Here, vegetation helps us. Plants are the most accessible portals into the living world—and accessible in many ways. Firstly, they’re perhaps the only beings in nature so completely engaging to all our senses: the exteroceptive (sight, hearing, smell, taste, touch) and the interoceptive (kinaesthetic, proprioceptive, equilibrioception, nociceptive, load-bearing, and more). Plants can be accessible to a range of children too, whatever their capacities and abilities. I was at the Museum of Possibilities in Chennai earlier in the year, a museum by and for the variously differently-abled, speaking with the curators about the potential for nature activities there. So much of our discussion naturally was around exploring plants. We walked through the large and beautiful touch-and-smell garden setup behind the museum. Plants are accessible across the year in most parts of the world. Care and empathy is also most accessibly practiced with plants.

In recent years, I have jumped at this transformative potential trees and other plants have in education and child development. In the multiple internships I run to train people as nature-educators in Chennai’s landscape and waterscape, I begin with an assignment of tree-mapping of their local neighborhoods. Interns find local tree-stories and observe how trees shape human socio-political life. They note that trees and their shade support numerous small livelihoods and activities—flower-sellers, tender-coconut sellers, cobblers, auto-rickshaw stands, homeless people, children’s cricket and football matches, lovers, resting Uber drivers and construction workers, and more. My colleagues and I have worked on a comprehensive module on vegetation and climate—brainstorming all the various ways in which children and other learners can observe vegetation, connecting it with larger realities about climate and Earth-system boundaries.

The activities in our modules begin with ways and formats for observing plant species (across grass, herb, shrub, climber, trees); then progress to mapping vegetation in one’s locality; documenting the biodiversity community of a specific plant species (‘a world in a plant’ project); keeping time with the blossoming of different flowers (making flower clocks); identifying plant families through observing their flowers; keeping a plant calendar; investigating plants in our common foods; studying invasive plants and climate change; studying the social, emotional, health importance of public green spaces around us; and then studying tropical dry evergreen forests—the rare forest type found only in coastal Tamil Nadu and Andhra Pradesh. 

Through Palluyir Trust, we’ve also made a tree guide for Chennai and soon will be releasing a wildflower guide. Our material creation will go on around this. Yet, we still do feel, after making so many curricula and related resources, that plants have even more curricular and pedagogical possibilities and creativity to offer, across ages. We continue to co-imagine with them. I have now come to believe that unboundedly creative and versatile is the nature-educator who is strong with local plant-based learning.

Recently, I was reading the tree stories my current batch of interns had collected from around their neighborhoods—stories of a ghost on a Copper Pod which kept people from using the restroom near it; one student’s childhood attachment to a Banyan and efforts to save it from a storm; the tragic killing of a Cluster Fig by gashing it for its sap; the tree-love of grandmothers; a game of shaking branches and catching Jamun, and so on. One story, shared by fellow educator Nritijuna, starkly stood out for me. She wrote of a massive Rain tree which once stood beautifully alive at the center of a road near St. Patrick’s school in Adyar. Due to garbage burning under it by people, the tree caught fire and completely burned. A local has told her that numerous parakeets lived within it and possibly all their nests burned too. Then, for very many years, the tree stood bare. In the last few years, however, parakeets and other birds have planted (meaning, pooped) Ficus seeds on it. The big Rain tree, now dead, is nonetheless, again, full of life. I went to visit it a few days after reading her account. On the Rain tree’s bare bole and branches, Peepal and Bat fig are growing. Three of these young ficus trees have scaffolded onto and into the form and spirit of the Rain tree. Two Neem trees grew out of its cavities. Like the Lernaean Hydra—but in a beautiful resurrective way—burned once, now growing back many times more. Like when the great Hadrian Sycamore was cut down some weeks ago, poets across the world resolved to grieve its loss by growing a forest: a story and symbolism we can bring into our nature-education—the resurrective power of trees and plants to afforest and restore our minds, bodies and our children’s learning spaces, many times more powerfully than it was lost.

The Resurrection tree in front of St. Patrick’s school in Chennai

(My grateful thanks to Dr. Ovee Thorat who proofread this piece and gave valuable suggestions)

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This Post Has 4 Comments

  1. Elumalai R

    Things to ponder.

  2. Bhaskar. G.S

    Please let me know if you can educate us regularly

  3. Vidhya Srinivasan

    Excellent write-up especially the sensorial development benefits students benefit from trees.

  4. Sreedevi K

    Excellent piece Yuvan. Am so glad to hear about the impressive curriculum that you have evolved. And moved beyond words to read about the resurrective rain tree. I am no plant expert but I do talk with trees and plants. Hence, I could really feel it.

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