Rabindranath Tagore created India’s most celebrated open-air school in Santiniketan in 1901 in line with the schooling model prevalent in ancient India. A few years after that, a handful of open-air institutions were established in certain parts of Europe and America, mainly for health reasons. Today, except for the Poet’s school which constitutes the nucleus of the international university called Viswa Bharati in Bengal, there are hardly any outdoor schools in India and, there too, many subjects and activities are pursued within the confines of classrooms. Tagore’s belief that hands-on learning within natural surroundings engenders in young people not only the qualities and competencies needed for real-world success but also a strong sense of self-esteem and independence, seems to have undergone some sort of “modern” reinterpretation.
Even though the worst levels of pollution have blighted life in most Indian cities and open-air schooling could be lethal there; there are enough places on this sub-continent with the right climate and environment for outdoor schools to flourish. Such institutions are much cheaper to set up and run. At least, it could partly solve the problem of too few schools for too many people. Extreme weather conditions are anyway taken care of by summer and winter vacations; and during rains, certain types of shelter serve the purpose quite well. Further, technological support for effective learning could be provided outdoors too. With the correct vision and political will, open-air schools could surely provide India with the right solution for aptly educating and skilling the masses.
A person who is able to learn only in the controlled ambience of the classroom or the comfort zone of the study at home unwittingly walls oneself out of the boundless open spaces of life where real learning happens becoming nearly a misfit in the modern context. Research has proved that the most valuable learning happens in the unconstrained, joyful, pretty boisterous, and vividly intense context of life as we live it. The 21st century human being who needs to be a life-long learner must have the capacity to imbibe from all walks of life constantly. So, it is imperative that even if we do not have full-fledged open-air schools, a vast spectrum of school activities are programmed to take place outdoors to guarantee the growth of certain essential skills, aptitudes and attitudes.
Developing a deeper understanding and relationship with nature is of paramount importance for everyone today as humanity is on the brink of total ecological disaster. To make this possible, school programmes should be designed in a way not only to nurture skills of survival, problem-solving, observation, concentration, teamwork, and leadership to boost personal as well as social maturation in students; but also stimulate in them a spiritual quest into the super-sensible truth behind life and creation. Contemporary schools should compulsorily celebrate the great outdoors by incorporating regular open-air classes, field trips, games and sports, camps, excursions, adventure activities and much more within the curriculum. As always, mankind must learn its greatest lessons from Mother Nature.