Aaranyak — Unschooling in the Forest

A friend reached out to help with a fundraiser for her daughter. The daughter is Isha Sheth, daughter of Parul & Falgun Sheth. Isha and friend Daksha have started a new project Aaranyak, operating in the Dediapada block of Narmada district, in Gujarat state in India, on the outskirts of Shoolpaneshwar Wildlife Sanctuary.

About Isha & Daksha

Isha’s parents dreamt up the child rights organization Shaishav in Bhavnagar — the town that I was born in, the town that my mother Kokila grew up in.

Isha therefore grew up in the Shaishav circles, and their Balsena. Coined by Shaishav, the words Bal and Sena literally mean Child and Force. Balsena is a collective run and led by children, facilitating activities that develop leadership and citizenship skills at weekly meetings. 

After finishing high school, Isha joined Swaraj University at Udaipur. This alternative university offers a two year non-degree course in Self-Designed Learning. During those two years Isha discovered herself, and left feeling that this kind of learning opportunity should be available to all children, to enable them to unlock their potential. 

After 2 years at Swaraj, Isha joined Bhoomi College at Bangalore. Bhoomi College is also an alternative college. There, a one year course on Holistic Education deepened her understanding about alternative education with children. 

Isha returned to work at her parents non-profit Shaishav, expressing a desire to create an alternative learning space for tribal and rural children. Her Balsena friend Daksha immediately joined the initiative that they call Aaranyak

Daksha joined Balsena when she was about 9 years old, escaping child labor and child marriage, growing up to become a Baldost, a forum of children’s friends made up of enlightened citizens of Bhavnagar who wish to contribute to the local child rights movement.

In Isha’s words… “I believe that if we wish to bring peace in the world, we must begin with children. If children are free, loved and accepted from childhood this might be possible.”

About Aaranyak

The word Aaranya translates to a wild region, basically a scrub jungle rich with a variety of plants and other life forms that are native and wild. Aaranyak refers to the people who live there, the forest dwellers, or the local indigenous peoples. 

Isha & Daksha’s budding project, Aaranyak is a new concept in Holistic Education. 

Aaranyak is neither a school, nor an alternative school, nor a vocational training institute, but an open and free learning space where children are leaders; where they understand and learn about life, about community living, about respecting each other and the environment; where adults just facilitate the process and not hinder it. The children get to decide what, how, when, where and from whom they want to learn. 

Having explored different areas in Gujarat, the team decided to make Dediapada the center of their experiments, visiting villages, schools and Aashram-shalas. Another concatenated word, Aashram and Shala, or retreat center and school, Aashramshalas are residential schools for tribal children.

When I first heard Isha talk about Aashramshala, separating indigenous children from their parents, culture, and language in the name of forced schooling, I was reminded of the forced schooling of Native American children generations ago. 

Isha seems to be aware of this parallel and tells me that tribal adults often migrate for work which disrupts their child’s education, who then ends up as child labor. An Asharamshala provides the children an opportunity to study and prevents them from joining the labor force prematurely. 

To retain some of the tribal culture, the Aaranyak team have hired 6 local team members, who use only their local language when interacting with the children. Isha and Daksha are learning the language and tell me…

“For us, preserving and practising good things from their culture is very essential and important. Tribals are made to feel very inferior and backward. When we interact with the elders, they say ‘we don’t know anything, we are illiterate!’  

image credit – schoolingtheworld.org

One of the reasons these two women want to work with the tribal children was to learn from their culture, their sustainable practices and help them see pride in their culture. To see that the ‘developed’ world is not as rosy as it is portrayed. It has so many limitations and is destroying the Earth. Hopefully the children will make decisions with full awareness about what they want to do instead of feeling that they have to become a laborer at a factory. Isha suggested the documentary film “Schooling the World | The White Man’s Last Burden”. 

Aaranyak was launched on Children’s Day last year — November 14th, 2019. The two women currently stay in a room in a 100+ year old farmhouse in a village called Pomlapada, population 500, about 7 miles from Dediapada, with a predominantly tribal population. 

Now, in July 2020, the team is working with about 300 children between the ages of 5 and 14 from 6 villages, offering Educational as well as Developmental activities. Educational activities are done using innovative methods and Teaching Learning Materials.  Developmental activities include cooperative games which imbibe a sense of community, cooperation, fun and friendship, leading to equality and unity among children. They’ve also undertaken a survey in these villages to better understand their socio-economic and education situation. Analysis is underway. 

Their work with about 8 Aashramshalas has reached over 1300 children between the grades of 5 and 11, with about 750 girls and 550 boys. Visiting these schools twice a month, the Aaranyak team covers a range of topics related to adolescence and life skills. 

Isha tells me about the children who live through much physical, mental, emotional and sometimes sexual violence. When the Aaranyak team goes to the Aashram-shala, the children are always eagerly waiting and welcoming. They report that the children appear to feel safe with them, sharing problems they have not shared with others. 

Children are free to come and go but those who need extra support and care such as children who are orphaned, single parents, non-school going, or child labour, with a special focus on girls, can also stay in the spirit of Community Living. 

They realized that they also needed to reach out to those who are most vulnerable; and it’s the children  in these Aashram-shalas who are the most vulnerable and marginalized. They come from very remote villages where there are no education facilities and from very poor and often migrant families. The team don’t teach them subjects but rather, life skills which boost up their confidence and self-esteem. Though they have worked here for a very short time, they already see positive changes among the children. Therefore, they are also trying to make some interventions in the mainstream system while creating viable alternatives through Aaranyak. For more, read their concept paper for Aaranyak, with grand life-long plans. 

Aaranyak is a very process-orientated space. Each child is unique and his/her diversity and uniqueness is respected. Due to this it is not always possible to create concrete outcome statements or targets. In an attempt to co-create this process with children without pre-define everything, they plan to keep it small. This makes it harder to get funding support from big funding agencies, which leads us to the purpose of this post — the fundraiser! 

About the fundraiser

There is a Global Giving Bonus Day Campaign on Wednesday, July 15th at 9am EST — TOMORROW!. This one time fundraiser asks us to contribute at least $100, which will be matched by Global Giving based on donation amount…

  • Donations of $100 – $499 USD will be matched at 15%
  • Donations of $500 – $749 USD will be matched at 30%
  • Donations of $750 – $1,000 USD will be matched at 50%

So, please share this within your circles. 

As mentioned, Global Giving is going to match funds for the donation so it is helpful to donate on the 15th. 

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