Greening young minds

A school near Kodaikanal nurtures children for an ecofriendly future

Published: Sunday 15 July 2001

Greening young minds


nestled in the serene environs of Palani hills in Tamil Nadu -- a stone's throw from Kodaikanal, -- there is a small school with a difference. Known as the Sholai school, this unique school generates energy for its entire campus from micro-hydels, wind and solar energy and has no connection to the Tamil Nadu Electricity Board. Besides, the biogas plant set up within the campus also caters to the daily energy requirement. Not just this, the school is also practising rainwater harvesting to tap the monsoon rains.

It all started in 1989. An Englishman Brian Jenkins for long toyed with the idea of starting a school where children could learn from nature and be given full freedom for individual growth. While sauntering through the Palani hills, he found it an ideal location for study and reflection. Brian published advertisements in the papers and recruited a few teachers who went around and mobilised students through word of mouth. The money came from Brian's inheritance. At present, Brain is investing nearly us $6,000 a month on the school. Brain feels that most of the parents of these students are farm workers and to achieve financial self sustainability, the strength should be increased to 100 with more students from outside.

Initially the school had only six students. However, today the strength is 32. And these children(aged between 3 and 17 years) are being inculcated with knowledge of water conservation, non-conventional methods of energy, sustainable agriculture and lots more. Most importantly, this knowledge is not confined to books but is made functional. The students are given a free hand in selecting their subjects of interest and are "encouraged to study and learn on their own ." What's more, students get individual attention as the student- teacher ratio is 7:1.
Nature education The children studying in Sholai are already well-versed with solar photo-voltaic electricity. They are also involved in organic farming. Students have been allotted a small plot each where they have built a compost heap. This compost is used to grow vegetables and all the food that the students eat is organically grown.

Sholai children have taken turns at measuring the wind speed at the top of a hill. They collected the data on the computers and printed out 18 graphs. Impressed at the results, an appropriate technology consultant Ram Subbu got a 10 kilowatt government subsidised wind generator for the local village.

Interestingly, the children also bring out a Tamil newspaper through which they generate awareness on various local issues. Sometime back, the children had suggested that by building latrines, the hookworm disease, which kills little children, could be combated.
Adopting a different approach E F Schumacher (author of the seminal book Small is Beautiful ) learnt most of his intellectual philosophy while working on a farm for a year. Robert Pirsig wrote ' Zen and 'The Art of Motorcycle Maintenance ' only after he had explored for years the complex psycological relationship that develops when one takes apart and rebuilds an engine. These exemplary feats reaffirmed Brain's belief that a different approach was needed in education. Having taught in J Krishnamoorthy Educational Centre (Brockwood Park) for 14 years, Brain felt that any of the seemingly technical subjects such as Engineering and Architecture still did not help young people to learn to be practical and versatile in using, understanding and caring for materials. Explains Brian, "When one is in direct relationship with practical problems, one develops an objective and logical thought process."

At this school, there is ample scope for children in their formative years to learn how to use their hands in doing electrical, motor mechanical, plumbing and other such disciplines. During woodwork, when the child is making something, be it a spoon or a small desk for the school, he discovers a strong sense of his or her own ability to create something in life.

Brian holds the conviction that a young person who has discovered that the Earth is beautiful will naturally feel responsible towards it. Once the child feels that responsibility, he or she will find out the practical solutions needed to care for nature's bounty. Certainly, it is this conviction in his children which motivates Brain to carry on his cause.

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