Learning from the Land

“I recall being at my mother’s friend’s office when I was young—seventh grade perhaps,” recalls Yuvan Aves, “Someone asked me what I wanted to become when I grew up.”

“A naturalist!” the boy responded with enthusiasm only to hear jokes about the lack of financial stability that such professions would lead to. Amidst the roaring laughter, the young boy was lost in his thoughts. “What is so funny about wanting to be a naturalist?” he wondered.

At sixteen, Yuvan decided formal schooling was not for him. He dropped out and pursued his A-levels and college through distance education while working at a residential school in Chengalpet. He had a new proposition for the teachers at the nearby government schools. “I will take the students out for educational walks around the fields of paddy,” he proposed with confidence.

The young naturalist assured the teachers that the students would get better marks from his revolutionary method of teaching. “At that point, I was hoping that the outdoors would excite the children enough to study better,” he chuckles. Linking everyday life with academics seemed to have done the trick. To everyone’s surprise, Yuvan’s walks made an impact on the students.

Two years down the line with a little over nine workshops complete, the joint director reached out claiming that the number of dropouts had reduced and the average marks had increased. The statistics caught Google’s attention resulting in a grant, a bus, a projector and a few Google Tabs towards the initiative. “Seeing children with an intrinsic desire and excitement to learn instead of being afraid motivated me,” he reveals.

The foundational exploration of what a career should be and an undying passion for nature and education drove Yuvan to found the Palluyir Trust. “It took me a while to proudly call myself a naturalist, nature writer and educator,” he admits. The foundation aims to act as a springboard of sorts to allow young naturalists to grow confidence and gain skills from the community to spread their wings and fly.

The young naturalists and wildlife enthusiasts met for the first time through the Madras Naturalist Society for Nature Education and Research. Yuvan crossed paths with the youngsters—Aswathi Asokan, Rohit Srinivasan, Nanditha Ram, Sara Mohan, Bianca, Nikkitha Terasa, Charlotte Trishika Jeffries and Balakrishnan Ram who eventually formed the core team. The group was studying the coastline of Chennai to create campaigns to save Pulicat Lake.

While studying the ocean biodiversity they realised that there weren’t many resources available. The gap inspired the group to make educational material using the research they were conducting. Meanwhile, the team would also curate shore walks for children and adults to deal with the unawareness or the false sense of entitlement that leads people to indulge in activities that would degrade the environment around them.

Around December 2021—“After two months of struggle with the formalities,” adds Ashwathi—Palluyir Trust was registered to create a legal and financial foundation. The objective was to develop a framework for the work they were already doing.

During one of the walks through the Urur Olcott Kuppam (near Besant Nagar beach), the team noticed the children of the fishing village playing in the sand around their walk. The session seemed to have piqued their interest. As the walk progressed, the children of the village joined in on the activities. “That was when we realised that these kids were curious and loved to draw!” explains Ashwathi.

The incident instigated the team to create an apprenticeship program. They collaborated with an organisation called Pudhiyadhor from Urur Olcott which is run by teachers from the fishing community. The program empowers the children to learn through experiences and activities along the coast—a landscape they were familiar with. “They see a new species and they want to know what it is. Later they want to write its name or draw it,” Yuvan explains to describe the potential learning curve.

Seashells is an activity book that developed as an offshoot of this program. The several interactions with the age-old community of Urur Olcott Kuppam left the team with takeaways on how they could learn from the land. “For instance, if you are in a random place, how do you find the North?” Yuvan questions. Seashells is a book that helps teachers and parents to guide children through fun coastal activities. Each coastal activity helps to build a specific skill or sensitivity.

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