For city dwellers in India, life in high-rise apartments amid the hustle-bustle of traffic has become the norm. Our days are spent in office cubicles and the only connection to nature is probably a tree outside the office window or a few flower pots in our balconies. Bird songs are restricted to mobile ring tones or the National Geographic channel! Nehal Shah was once very much a part of this world, but motherhood got her thinking about the kind of childhood she would be giving her son.
Nehal says, “Many of our first, most cherished childhood memories originate from direct experiences in nature together with a parent or a grandparent. Adults are effectively children’s gatekeepers to nature. It is important to keep in mind since kids today have considerably less freedom to play outside by themselves than their parents did. One of the reasons why I am so passionate about children spending time in nature is that it makes them more likely to protect the environment as adults.”
Nehal, 34, is the founder of Heart & Soil — a nature club for parents who want their children to discover the simple joys of being friends with nature. She started off with planning activities for her son so he could spend time outdoors instead of being cooped up at home in front of the television. In a natural progression, Nehal soon decided to start a nature club so that other parents could introduce their children to nature while also spending quality time together in what is essentially a bonding exercise. Hailing from a media background, Nehal was already experienced in organising events and so Heart & Soil was soon a reality.
The club started off very informally in September 2015 with Nehal’s husband lending a helping hand with the logistics and her mother even cooking and packing snacks for her first group of 30-odd parents and children. Nehal conducts her activities in around Mumbai with a few out of town trips thrown in. Heart & Soil has been working smoothly with minor hiccoughs despite the young age of its participants, presumably because it’s got its heart in the right place. She plans activities that range from a gardening get-together for a few hours to overnight camping trips. The group size ranges from 15 to 40 people. The activities can be broadly divided into nature-related ones like camping and trekking, adventure activities like kayaking and rappelling, and activities that introduce children to village life with a day at a farm. Children get to feed farm animals, indulge in creative activities like making a scarecrow, or go on a tractor ride. A recent trek organised by Nehal was on a flower trail near Sanjay Gandhi National Park so that kids could see the Karvi flower that blooms only once in eight years.
I have seen multiple benefits up close as kids observe the flora and fauna and get comfortable in the countryside. They are participating in a process that promotes ecological awareness while at the same time improving their problem-solving skills and creativity. When children develop an early appreciation of nature, it will not only sensitise them to vital issues like ecological balance and the value of biodiversity but will also make a child’s world view that much richer and more inclusive.
There have been challenges, of course, from organising the logistics and food on time to handling children’s mood swings. However, Nehal often finds that children adapt easily and it is the parents who have mental blocks when it comes to allowing their children to play in the mud or eat the food prepared at a rural farm. When she senses a resistance in the father or mother, she encourages them to come in for a shorter activity at first, before joining overnight events. So, it is often a learning experience for both the parent and child.
Nehal prices the events very reasonably, with a farm trip costing Rs 900 for an adult and one child, because as a true mompreneur, her primary aim is to add value to other parents’ lives. “Seeing children excited about something as simple as drawing water from a well or frolicking with animals at a farm is heartening to watch,” she says.
Nehal also shares nature activity tips with parents through parenting platform BabyChakra and her plans include helping make happy memories for many more children and their families. She wants to include more activities that will help children understand the benefits of organic foods. Spending time at farms where they see cows being milked or vegetables getting harvested helps open their minds to healthy eating and an active lifestyle.