Barefoot in a recycled school
The environment hasn’t been spared in India’s headlong rush towards development and consumerism. With it came mounds of garbage, piles of waste that had nowhere to go, industrial pollutants that were fed straight back into the rivers and lakes that supply drinking water to millions. Walking around the streets of any town in India, you don’t get the feeling that care for the environment is on the top of anyone’s list of priorities.
So it was with a little skepticism that I read about a school which claimed to be completely environmentally friendly. I made a plan to travel to Pune, about 190km (118 miles) from Mumbai, to take a look at the Aman Setu school, which means “bridge to peace”. They claimed fantastic things – the buildings were environmentally friendly made entirely out of recycled and natural bits and pieces – they had their own vegetable garden for children – kids were allowed to run around barefoot.
What I found really was surprising. The “school” consisted of just a handful of buildings. Madhavi Kapur, who came up with the idea for the school, told me how they’d made the buildings – they’d taken old cement bags, commonly left over at many construction sites after buildings are made in India, and compacted them together with mud to make the rooms. One of the buildings was cone-shaped, others rectangular. Roofs were made out of old advertisement claddings. Ventilation was provided through disused plastic pipes.
Instead of using toxic paints and whitewashes, they used a mixture of cow dung, mud and water. I was told it’s been traditionally used in India for centuries because strangely enough, a mixture of cow dung and water insect proofs buildings. Who would have thought?!? It smelled reasonably pleasant too, you wouldn’t think you were standing somewhere were the floors and walls were plastered in cow dung.
There were rough windows cut into the walls. No lights or fans, just natural light streaming into the rooms, the sound of wind rustling the trees outside. The children seemed to love it. Why wouldn’t they? The classrooms were rustic but nice. If they got bored of studying maths or whatever, they could just leave the class, run around in the grass for a while, feed fish in the local pond, or do whatever they want and then come back in. A teacher told us they wanted the kids “to be one with the surroundings” to give them a sense of responsibility, and also to release energy – when they do come back to studying multiplication tables, they’re docile.
They’d thought of everything – they bought an old municipal transport bus and stripped it down to make it kid safe. They installed a blackboard and it doubles as a classroom and a play space, where the boys can go and dangle from the handlebars on the roof.
The children get to run around barefoot on the grass anytime they want, play in a garden on recycled car tires, hang out by a pond – all with no teachers screaming at anyone. Surprisingly, the children are attentive and obedient in class, and for all of the running around, it’s got to be the quietest school yard I’ve been in. There’s no bells to announce classes, just the teacher saying “we’re done for now”.
In one of the classroom walls, they had a normal door for adults to enter through – and a second smaller child-sized door called the “rabbit hole” for the kids to enter through – incredible. They loved it.
The founder told me she burned a lot of her money in starting the school, and in the first year, they only had four students. Three years later in 2011 they have 140 – with a lot more people getting interested in enrolling their kids, and they’ve expanded to another patch of land nearby.
Leave alone India, even in Australia where I come from we haven’t invested in our kids feeling like part of nature – I was really impressed that they’d managed to do it here, and that in a small way, they were starting to teach the next generation that will fuel India’s economic boom a thing or two about how, as a teacher put it, to be “one with nature”. Maybe there are still things that places like India can teach developed countries about eco-friendliness.
As I walked around barefoot on the grass and cowdung-plastered floors and I photographed excited kids entering and exiting their class through the “rabbit hole”, I started to really wish that I’d gone to a school like this – maybe I would have eaten all my greens, and my dinner today would be a fresh salad instead of fried rice and a coke!!