Schools Teach Kids How to Survive the Future's Harsh Climates - OZY | A Modern Media Company


It's not enough to teach children about climate change. It's important to prepare them for it.

By Catherine Gilon

  • A growing number of Indian schools are teaching students not just about climate change, but also how to live through droughts or long winters they might encounter in the future.
  • It’s a model that could hold lessons for education systems around the world.

A friend’s teenage daughter, Meghna Balaji, recently offered me some sage advice on stopping the spread of zoonotic diseases like the coronavirus, which jump from animals to humans. “Aunty, these viruses will become more common if we keep usurping the habitats of wild animals in the name of development … that is the social distancing we should really care about,“ she told me.

Growing up amid a “new normal” that — even beyond the pandemic — includes increasingly frequent extreme weather events, the Meghnas and Gretas remind us of the grim world we’re leaving for them. Now, some Indian schools are trying to better prepare them for it. They’re teaching students not just about climate change, but also how to live through droughts or long winters. They’re educating teens about climate-resilient crops that’ll survive the next big flood. It’s all part of a carefully crafted set of green syllabi schools — even though they’re shut for the moment because of the pandemic — are developing

secmol students working on dry toilets

Secmol students working on dry toilets.

At Puvidham — “love for land” in Tamil — a school in a drought-hit district of the southern state of Tamil Nadu, children are trained to grow their own food and help regenerate neighboring forest land. Since 2017, students of Lawrence School in Lovedale, another Tamil Nadu district facing growing water scarcity, has been planting the shola grass that’s native to the region as part of an effort to raise the water table, depleted by alien grasses that have spread.

In India’s extreme north, SECMOL, an alternative school in Ladakh, teaches students how to grow vegetables and make apricot jam using hyrdroponics and greenhouses, to prepare for winters that might get longer as the climate changes. And Akshar Forum, a school in the northeast state of Assam, is accepting plastic trash as fees from students and then training them to turn it into eco-friendly bricks.

These Indian schools are different — their entire syllabus and mindset … are specifically geared toward training children to prepare them for a more hostile climate.

It’s changing students. Gowtham V, a 13-year-old at Puvidham, is an introvert, his mother tells me. But he proudly talks about how he’s learned to grow okra in the school’s garden and make natural fertilizers.  

Lawrence school students reviving shola grasslands (1)

Lawrence school students reviving shola grasslands.

“My most memorable experience has been taking a walk along a river,” he says, before telling me about the excess of bore wells in the region and how they’re draining the water table.

Sustainable schooling isn’t unique to India. The National Wildlife Federation’s Eco-Schools movement in the U.S. works with thousands of schools across 69 countries to teach students lessons in sustainable development. Several schools in the U.K. have added farming to their curriculum. But these Indian schools are different — their entire syllabus and mindset not only revolve around sustainability but are specifically geared toward training children to prepare them for a more hostile climate.

At Puvidham, founder Meenkashi Umesh says the curriculum is designed around the five elements: air, water, earth, sky and fire. “A younger kid learns about how the sun helps a plant grow … the older ones might get a lesson on solar panels,” she says. Most lessons also involve hands-on experience.

secmol students preparing jam for the winter

Secmol students preparing jam for the winter.

Starting in seventh grade, students at Lawrence School, Lovedale, are taught how to grow the shola grass. Heeba Firdous, a student in the 12th grade, says the school also carries out cleaning drives around the neighboring hills and has a solar-powered sports center.

At SECMOL, the curriculum marries sustainability with traditional Ladakhi culture. “The students are taught the importance of dry Ladakhi composting toilets and the advantages of the manure produced from the same,” says Bhavya Bhagtani, a teacher there. Students are trained in making bricks using local materials that are in abundance — such as straw. And that’s apart from the lessons in hydroponics and growing food for extended winters, says 24-year-old eco-architect Stanzin Phuntsog, a former SECMOL student. He, along with other students, learned how to make Ladakhi stupas — artificial glaciers that are used to save water for the dry summers.

These are early days for this schooling model in India. A handful of such initiatives can train only a few thousand students in a nation where more than 300 million children are in school.

But they’re a growing example for others, in India and beyond. What might appear out-of-the-box schooling today could become an essential set of skills as the planet hurtles toward an uncertain climate future. Those skills will need to be local to each region, the vision global. These Indian schools might be showing the way.

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