Kenya · 1 September 2022 · 3 min
Monday afternoon is everyone’s favourite part of the week at the Aga Khan Nursery School in Mombasa. After lunch, children and teachers don their aprons before stepping outside, equipped with gardening tools, to check on the progress of their vegetable patch.
At the rectangular section of land marked out under a palm tree, they arrive to find green shoots springing from the earth. Thankfully, it has rained over the weekend. Growing vegetables is one of many nature-based activities here. At the Aga Khan Nursery, and its sister schools around the world, the value of caring for the environment is introduced early on.
Studies have shown that the human brain develops most rapidly in the first five years of a child’s life. During this time, children look to the people around them for care, guidance, knowledge and inspiration, all of which have an influence on their social and emotional development as they grow.
“Oftentimes, as students we remember how our parents act, as well as how our teachers act, and how the activities that they do make us feel, in the core,” says Dr Fozia Parveen, in an episode of the Aanchal ECD podcast, produced by the Aga Khan University’s Institute for Educational Development (AKU-IED). “Experience and action coming together is of utmost importance,” she continues.
Dr Parveen, an associate professor at AKU-IED, described how growing up next to the snow-capped mountains and ice-cold rivers of northern Pakistan fostered in her an innate appreciation of the natural environment later in life. She shared one of her earliest memories while at nursery school: learning letters and numbers by placing pebbles into squares etched in the earth.
Nurseries and preschools operated by the Aga Khan Development Network have, for many years, employed similar activities to inspire an affinity with nature, and aim to combine experience and action in their pedagogical approach.
Across town from the vegetable patch, at Tudor Creek in Mombasa, teachers and children from the Madrasa Early Childhood Programme are busy planting mangrove seedlings along the coast.
Every year, the Aga Khan Foundation’s Madrasa Programme, along with other AKDN institutions, takes part in the “Plant your age” initiative. Community members come together to plant the number of mangrove seedlings equal to their years on Earth.
As the children grow, they will learn about the importance of mangrove forests. The salt-tolerant trees grow in-between the land and sea, are important coastal ecosystems that protect shorelines from severe weather and are 10 times more efficient than terrestrial ecosystems at absorbing carbon from the atmosphere.
As the plants grow, they will help to benefit local people, the natural environment in general, and native sea life in particular.
Helping children to appreciate the wonder and awe of the natural world is increasingly considered a prerequisite for learning about climate change and caring for the environment later on. This method can offer opportunities to those who will be most impacted by climate change to actively transform the world they will inherit.
At the Aga Khan Preschool in Thorala, western India, children are taught to be mindful of their responsibility to the environment through fun activities in the classroom.
“The Preschool is taking extra care to nurture students and encourage the habit of protecting the environment in the students from a very early age,” said parent Rahim Vasaya. This care creates an added benefit in the process. “We as parents are becoming more conscious of protecting nature.”
Sustainable measures at the school include switching from paper towels to cloth napkins, using only all-natural cleaners, encouraging eco-friendly toys and nurturing habits such as reusing, reducing and recycling. The school serves only organic vegetarian food, and leftovers are recycled or composted by staff.
“Our preschool encourages and promotes awareness of environmental responsibilities and implements practices that contribute to a clean and non-toxic sustainable future, which also immediately benefits the health and well-being of children in our care,” said Dr Iqbal Sama, Regional Head for Gujarat.
AKDN / Zohra Hemnani
Nature-based education can empower young children to develop the knowledge and creativity to reduce climate anxiety and combat climate change. It also helps children to form bonds with their natural surroundings and with each other, enabling them to embark on larger-scale change later in life.
Every year, AKDN’s activities reach over 2 million preschool children across Asia, Africa, the Middle East and Europe. Today’s youngest students may be small, but with the right education, they can grow to have an outsized positive impact on the world.