Nature-Based Learning Programs Improve Environment and Climate Literacy in Chennai, India

A group of people have learning session on a beach
Mongabay India
Chennai, India
Nature-Based Learning Programs Improve Environment and Climate Literacy in Chennai, India

Walking on the shores of Elliots Beach in Chennai, the largest city in Tamil Nadu, India, with an 18-member-group of children, is naturalist, educator, and activist Yuvan Aves. He asks them, “Oh! So, this is interesting. Do you know why this seashell has a hole here?”

Thamizhselvan, 15, from Urur Olcott Kuppam, a fishing hamlet in Besant Nagar, giggles and replies, “Hmm… maybe to put a chain through it and wear it around your neck?” Aves pauses for a second and gives him a baffled look that makes the entire group burst into laughter.

Aves then opens a booklet with images and names of common coastal fauna found in Chennai. He explains, while pointing to the image of a bladder moon snail, “Carnivorous seashells like the Nilanathai shoot hydrochloric acid to penetrate their prey’s shell and eat the soft flesh inside.”

For the next 40 minutes, a baffled Thamizhselvan trots behind Aves, asking questions and brimming with curiosity as they continued to explore the biodiversity along the coast.

A group leader gives explanation to the members
Yuvan (left) explains different types of seashells for the youth climate interns / Credit: Aparna Ganesan.

The youth participating in the shore walk, ranging in ages from 13 to 24, are selected from climate-vulnerable communities and are called "youth climate interns." They undergo a 10-month climate internship program under Palluyir Trust for Nature Education and Research.

Established in 2021, the Trust focuses on empowering communities that are often marginalized and at risk of exposure to the impacts of climate change, through nature-based education (NBE) and advocacy. In Chennai, they work towards making place-based, outdoor education a common practice in educational institutions and for the city’s public.

The need for nature-based education in Chennai

Chennai is one of the most at-risk coastal cities in the entire country. The role of nature education becomes all the more relevant in this case, so that people are empowered to understand and question their surroundings and potentially be motivated to take action to mitigate and reduce risks in the future.

By 2025, 100 meters of Chennai’s 19-kilometer coastline is at risk of being submerged because of a projected 7-centimeter sea level rise. The city ranks second on the climate vulnerability index in a district level vulnerability assessment conducted across India by the Council on Energy, Environment and Water (CEEW).

The naturalists believe that the city’s vulnerability is further exacerbated by Tamil Nadu allowing polluting industries to be set up about 20 kilometers north of Chennai in the ecologically sensitive Ennore-Pulicat region. There is an exponential residential development down south along the coast, poorly managed water bodies within the city, construction waste dumped in wetland regions and more. The Ennore-Pulicat region is historically important and attracts a lot of biodiversity and serves as an important wetland.

Boats along the beach
Elliots Beach along Chennai’s coast / Credit: Aparna Ganesan.

During their internship period, the youth climate interns learn how development projects negatively affect the environment and biodiversity in the region and what local communities can do to mitigate and reduce risks in the future.

“To reach out to the public, we need them to form a connection and sense of belonging with that landscape,” says Aswathi Asokan, a nature-educator at Palluyir Trust and a postgraduate student pursuing her Masters in Wildlife Conservation Action.

Asokan explains how nature education needs to be tailored for different age groups, “With children, our aim is for them to create a sense of excitement and wonder with their landscape. And with adults, it’s to help them understand the need for that space and then advocate for it.”

Sunset seen in power station area
North Chennai Thermal Power Station owned by the Tamil Nadu government located in the Thiruvallur district near the Ennore Port / Credit: Aparna Ganesan.

Proven benefits of nature-based education

A 2017 study conducted by the University of Cambridge indicates that an involvement with nature at an early age has long-term advantages The study results prove that providing positive experiences in nature during childhood and better knowledge of actions that promote environmental stewardship may help develop care for the environment in adults.

“Nowadays, people aren’t connected to their surroundings. They ask, ‘so what?’ to any development projects that come about and shrug it off,” remarks Prem, a teacher from Pudiyador, an organization that works on the development of marginalized communities.

“With outdoor, direct experiences while learning, children see the consequences themselves. You don’t have to tell them.”

Gaining environmental knowledge in combination with direct experiences has a stronger influence on people’s behavior than indirect experiences, states another article published by Tufts University in 2002.

A teacher interacts with a young boy
Prem, a teacher from Pudiyador, interacts with a young boy who collected seashells in a plastic cup that he found on the beach / Credit: Aparna Ganesan.

Mainstreaming nature-based curricula

While these educators organize nature-based learning sessions for the people interested to learn, what can be done to include nature-based education in the classrooms? Charlotte Jeffries, who is also part of Palluyir Trust, who spends her weekends and days off on the beach educating youth and teachers from Pudiyador, said, “I can’t change the system but I can try and change how schools work in the city. I want to at least encourage schools to allow a two-hour session every week to introduce children to the biodiversity and nature in their landscape.”

Across India, similar initiatives surrounding nature-based learning are emerging. For instance, Spiders and the Seaan organization based in Bengaluru conducts urban walks in in the city. Nature Classrooms, another Bengaluru-based initiative of Nature Conservation Foundation, aims to integrate nature learning with the existing environmental studies curriculum for primary school children.

However, nature-based education is a long way off from entering mainstream academic curricula.

After realizing that there have been no studies on nature-based education in India, Aves and his team reached out to the Education Department at the Greater Chennai Corporation (GCC). They submitted a plan to begin program for middle-school children from government schools in the city. The Education department has agreed to shortlist five schools for the pilot program to begin in June 2023.

“As long as there is a defined plan and execution, we would be open to conducting a pilot program for such initiatives,” Sharanya Ari, Deputy Commissioner (DC) of Education at GCC, tells Mongabay-India. She also explains that some of their major challenges for such program include dealing with a large crowd of students, giving equal access and opportunity to all and figuring out funding sources for effective implementation. “But we have to ensure that this does not eat into the students’ existing schedule,” she adds.

A teacher giving presentation
Charlotte (left) teaches about seawater infiltration inland / Credit: Aparna Ganesan.

Asking the right questions

Nikkitha Terrasa, a 20-year-old nature-educator at Palluyir Trust and a postgraduate student in zoology, reveals that her enthusiasm for nature-based education stems from her experience as a student in a traditional classroom setup.

“I remember how my teachers frowned at me for asking new questions. They said, ‘It’s not part of the syllabus’ or ‘why are you asking unnecessary questions?’ I was shocked to hear that response,” shares Terrasa. According to her, the current education system is heavily reliant on the exam portions and not what is relevant to the students and the world around them. “People just probably end up apathetic or apolitical,” she adds.

To counter that apathy and inculcate problem-solving skills in children, one of the activities the youth do as part of the nature-based programs is Kelvi Sanguli, or Curiosity Chain.

“If you see a crab, you’re allowed to ask any question about it: Why does it have ten legs? Why does it look pale?—The idea is to only look for questions, not answers,” Terrasa says.

When asked why asking questions is important and how it is tied to being political, Terrasa laughs and says, “Otherwise, someone will walk into your space, take everything away and you won’t even know that it’s happening. An informed and engaged community would defend its environment. The basic thing would be to acknowledge the fact that we aren’t an independent or a separate entity from the ecology around us.”

A teacher interacts with her students
A teacher (left) closes her eyes and receives a seashell from Nikkitha (right). This is part of the ‘feel and guess’ activity which is stereognostic in nature / Credit: Aparna Ganesan.

Documenting the ecosystem to understand the threats

As an extension of nature education, surveying and documenting local environments can potentially support activism to protect these ecosystems.

Some of this work is being done by Asokan and Aves along the 1,076-kilometer coast of Tamil Nadu and Puducherry where a growing number of infrastructure projects are being proposed. Environmental activists say that these projects ignore or devalue the unique landform of this region. For instance, the State Fisheries Department proposed setting up twin harbors for 235 crore in Kaliveli estuary, a region bordering the Chengalpattu and Villupuram districts. And this ecologically sensitive region is home to the Kaliveli bird sanctuary and to thousands of olive ridley turtles that visit the shores every year during the nesting period. The project was later stalled by intervention from the National Green Tribunal.

Between September 2020 and April 2021, a team of six volunteers from the Madras Naturalists’ Society including Asokan and Aves conducted field surveys in this biodiversity hotspot of Kaliveli Lake and four others along the north Tamil Nadu coast: Pulicat Lagoon, Adyar Estuary, Kovalam-Muttukadu Backwaters and Odiyur-Mudaliarkuppam Lagoon.

Of these, Odiyur and Adyar Estuary have not been declared as Important Coastal and Marine Biodiversity Areas (ICMBA) by the Wildlife Institute of India. “We checked to see if these two areas also satisfied the criteria to be marked as ICMBAs and they did,” shares Asokan. Some of the criteria to be qualified for an ICMBA include a coastal ecosystem’s resilience and its biodiversity uniqueness.

Their aim was to provide scientific literature for regions that had limited to no existing documentation. “This form of documentation can one day be used to help fight for that place against any possible threats,” says Aswathi.

Marking stones placed inside the lagoon
Marking stones placed inside the lagoon by the NHAI / Credit: Yuvan Aves.

On January 21, 2023, Aves, Terrasa and Jeffries carried out bird surveys at the Odiyur Lagoon and found over 17,000 migratory ducks including the Northern Pintail, Eurasian Wigeon and Garganey. Large and small wading birds like the Eurasian Spoonbill, Greater Flamingos and Black-headed Ibis were also documented in the hundreds. In total, the team counted about 20,000 waterbirds including migratory ducks and large and small wading birds.

They presented the findings to the Tamil Nadu State Coastal Zone Management Authority (TNSCZMA).

Furthermore, last year, the National Highways Authority of India proposed to widen a stretch of the East Coast Road (ECR) near Odiyur lake from a two-lane road would be expanded to a four-lane road. Located 92 kilometers south of Chennai, the Odiyur lagoon is a rich and complex wetland system. It is about 10 kilometers in length and 5 kilometers in breadth and is a flood catchment for the region. Seagrass present in the lagoon helps sustain small-scale fishing practices and supports local fisherfolk in catching shrimp and crabs.

In a letter to the Tamil Nadu State Coastal Zone Management Authority (TNSCZMA), Aves wrote, “We found that these areas have been erroneously marked as CRZ IVB and a small stretch of land as CRZ IB. With our study and findings, these areas definitely qualify to be reclassified as CRZ IA regions (ecologically sensitive areas) for their eco-sensitivity and biodiverse nature.” The CRZ Coastal Regulation Zone Notifications are issued under the 1986 Environmental Protection Act of India to regulate development activities along the coast.

The team also found that the presence of seagrass studied in the region and the sand dunes present on the southeastern edge of the lagoon were not marked on the CRZ maps.

They shared their findings with the petitioner who filed a case with the Southern Zone of the National Green Tribunal (NGT). On March 7, 2023, the court ordered an interim injunction that asked the NHAI to reconsider realignment of the national highway near the Odiyur lagoon.

Migratory birds at a lagoon
Migratory birds at Odiyur Lagoon / Credit: Yuvan Aves.

Local language and local knowledge

“Through this entire effort, we’ve been able to interact with people from the fishing communities who have named the local flora and fauna based on their behavior and their experiences in interacting with them,” says Asokan. This led to them creating the bilingual (Tamil and English) coastal fauna of Chennai guide with names of 160 common species found in this coastal region—the very same resource that serves Thamizhselvan and other youth interns.

Commenting on the importance of educating children in their local language, Aves shares, “I remember a child asking me, ‘Why should I learn English?’ – because it is still seen (by many) as an oppressive force. We know that the mother tongue is the language in which the brain thinks. So, if there are certain concepts that need to seep deep within the child’s thinking, we need to convey them in the mother tongue.”

The coastal fauna of Chennai guide paved the way for numerous other nature-based materials that the entire team has worked on. Asokan shares that despite the difficulties in documenting these names in Tamil it was crucial because “when you document local language, you are documenting local knowledge.”

“It was only because of the Tamil names that I was able to remember everything I learned much easier,” says Gowtham, a 21-year-old from Urur Olcott Kuppam, who is a youth climate intern. He now focuses on empowering children within his community by facilitating bird watching sessions for primary school students.

Participants have a discussion
Participants discussing coastal threats during a youth climate internship session / Credit: Aparna Ganesan.

Inspired by the coastal guide Gowtham, he spent two weeks creating a custom activity sheet for the bird watching sessions that the children can use. He says, “I encourage children to name the birds however they want to. It could be with the sounds it makes or what it looks like.” He added, “This helps them remember the species and be present. I then proceed to educate them on the species name and its significance. This way, they’re involved and learning at the same time.”

Through guides like these, hands-on activities and advocacy efforts with local schools, nature-based educators in the city are striving to inculcate a sense of wonder and appreciation for the environment among the city’s youth.

“My definition of home has changed,” says Jeffries, who switched careers after being inspired by the youths she worked with and their passion for conservation. Having been a nature-based education intern herself, she shares, “Earlier, if anyone ever asked me ‘what is home to you?’, I would have pointed to the walls of my room, my locality, malls or restaurants in the city.” She smiles and adds, “It now includes the beach, parks and the species around me!”

A participant is writhing her notes
A participant notes Tamil names of seashells / Credit: Aparna Ganesan.

This story was produced with support from Internews’ Earth Journalism Network. It was first published on April 25, 2022 in Mongabay India and has been edited for length and clarity. 

Banner image: A shore walk session conducted for teachers from Pudiyador Learning Center by naturalists from Palluyir Trust / Credit: Aparna Ganesan.

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