One complaint parents and teachers have about children these days is that they’re simply not interested in nature. Many try inveigling their kids into getting interested by making them watch natural history documentaries that have been made. Sadly, though, many of these natural history programmes are now turning to only depicting violence in the animal kingdom. Good or bad, the problem is that these films often simply serve to bring the outdoors indoors. The child sees the show and moves on.
To my mind, the only way to get kids to be permanently interested in the natural world is to expose them to it —at a personal, hands-on level. During the rains, for example, every child should be encouraged to collect frog spawn, watch the eggs hatch into tadpoles and then the tadpoles gradually “eating” their tails to become frogs (No self-respecting child ought to be able to resist frogs). Once the froglets are jumping around, you let them go back into the pond you collected them from. No child should be allowed to graduate from school without having seen a butterfly emerge from a chrysalis, after having lived its life as a caterpillar with a gross appetite.
And, yes, since nature is violent and we ought not to ignore this aspect, let children watch the love life of a praying mantis play out! Spiders will give thrills and chills to kids as they watch them hunt, some with the help of webs, others just fierce ambushers with glowing film-starlet eyes! Wasps look like aliens from another planet — especially those blade-blue spider wasps that anaesthetise tiny spiders and then lay their eggs on them so their babies can have fresh meat when they hatch. Which kid cannot be thrilled to his or her evil little core by this — or by a dragonfly cannibalising another? While cramming for school tests at night in Bombay (during the monsoons), I used to get hugely distracted by the swarms of termites that used to fly into the verandah and head for the lights, shedding their wings left, right and centre. I had no idea what they were or that this was their grand nuptial flight, but it was fascinating.
Parents can do a lot to encourage this kind of thing at home. We still share our homes with a plethora of other creatures: draw their attention to how a gecko stalks and pounces on a moth on the drawing room wall; ask them to try and find out why a moth circles dizzyingly around lights before launching a kamikaze dive at the burning hot bulb, which promptly fries it! Birds can be another source of never-ending fascination. Parakeets are talkative clowns, pigeons stink and are not at all birds of peace, crows are bloody clever, mynas love scrapping, black kites fly magnificently — and these are the commonest of the common! I don’t really hold with keeping birds as pets (in cages), but if you’ve ever rescued a baby bird and raised it from chick-hood to free-flying adolescence, you (and your kids) would have had an experience you are not likely to forget.
Keeping a dog or cat as a pet needs to be made mandatory. When my sisters and I arm-twisted our parents into getting us our first dog, we had no idea what we were getting into, but it changed our lives forever. We were responsible for this tiny tremulous puppy and had to cater to all her needs — of which, there were plenty. We had to feed her, brush her, take her to the vet and clean up after her — a lot! (Very soon, of course, she won over the parents totally, but that’s another story!) “Inadvertent” pets can do wonders equally; my sister once rescued a baby squirrel which she raised and which would perch happily on her shoulder — and actually attended the convent school she went to! Keeping wild animals and birds as pets in India is largely illegal, which is sensible — no one wants to wake up one morning wondering where little Bobby has gone, and why the “pet” rock python is looking so smug and satiated, as happens in some American households.
Regular visits to national parks and sanctuaries are another way of getting children hooked: they are unlikely to forget their first sighting of a tiger or a tusker in musth, or a lumbering rhino doing handbrake turns! Treks in wilderness areas (few and far between, alas!) are even better as children now engage with all kinds of life forms — on their turf. Zoos are useful to the extent they exhibit animals that many kids would normally never encounter, but certainly not as a lifestyle promoter for the animals.
Children who have lived in small towns or in hill stations will probably have far more exposure to, and tolerance for, the denizens of the natural world due to their proximity to them and will have happily shared their homes with wandering goats, dogs, mongooses, squirrels, geckos, snakes, birds, mice, bats, maybe the odd straying leopard, and a host of kaleidoscopic insects. For children in large cities, meandering through a park — no matter how manicured — can also be surprisingly rewarding. Peer carefully at the gorgeous petals of a rose and you might spot an equally gorgeous crab spider, exactly the same shade, crouched there, waiting… Ah yes, here comes a clueless bee!
(Ranjit Lal is an author, environmentalist and bird watcher)