Though the sky over Mumbai remains the same everyday, the layer of smoke and dust encapsulating the city thickens at an alarming rate as the day progresses. To a child, such visible changes may not mean much - she could easily conclude that this is ‘normal’. It is only later, when she encounters knowledge about climate change in more structured learning, that she will realise the harm she sees everyday.

The level of ignorance about environmental problems amongst young children in the country is remarkably high. A UNICEF study conducted last year found that today’s children will pay a heavy price for climate change and global warming as they grow into adulthood and old age. These could include not only economic and environmental problems, but also personal health problems caused by environmental degradation. But they have very little knowledge of those risks today.

At the same time, nearly all the ‘education’ about environmental issues that is available today seems to be directed towards adults. These talk about laws, Supreme Court decisions, pollution governance, and such things. These are difficult to grasp at a young age.

Instead of letting kids grow up to suffer the consequences of environmental crimes not committed by them, some have now taken it upon themselves to guide them while they’re still young, and teach them how they too may be able to alter their fate. These few people have understood the importance of educating children about sustainable development through different learning activities outside their regular educational curriculum.

In their unflinching commitment towards changing status quo and righting wrongs, they are trying to create sustainable solutions to attain environmental justice for all sections of society.

Eco Kids

One such organisation is Eco Kids, an organization in Mumbai founded and run by Smita Kharbhanda since 2009. Children develop a sense of self, society and belonging at a very young age. Eco Kids believes that it is this tender age and sensibilities that adults need to take advantage of to mould them and inculcate an understanding of sustainable development and environmental impact.

Government strategies focus on educating adults and students at the higher secondary level about climate change, but not children who have just entered school. This small step taken by Eco Kids to educate very young children about how the natural world works and showing them how to live sustainably in small ways is thus reason for hope -- hope that these children will grow up and make the best decisions in their daily lives for a better, cleaner planet.

When Kharbhanda started out, her main aim was to get children of the age of her daughter Ishna involved in hands on activities that would sensitize them towards the environment. Not only does Eco Kids identify environmental problems, they also teach children how to start making changes at home and in everyday life that will in time help overcome some of the greatest challenges the world faces.

It is one thing to educate and teach children about their responsibilities and duties as citizens of the modern world but it is another to help them initiate the process and encourage change. Smita devotes her all her time through the week organizing workshops and sessions for children all over the city between 3-10 years of age.

Workshops for older kids include ones on the importance of recycling, waste separation, composting, vermiculture, global warming and solar cooking. Younger kids are taught the importance of gardening and the different elements of the earth through diverse activities. All classes are held in public green spaces available in the city where children can connect with nature.

Green spaces for kids

However, urban green space is not something that Mumbai has been blessed with, and this in many ways affects the overall growth of children. Martina Spies, who came to India to do her PhD realised what the children here were missing and started Anukruti, an organisation that works towards building safe and sustainable urban green spaces for children and women, especially from poorer sections of society.

Anukruti conducted a workshop titled “Urban Flowers” for the students of Rizvi College of Architecture in Mumbai. Together, the participants had to create a sustainable playground for neglected children within a safe environment which would in turn create a positive impact on their lives. The YMCA in Khar gave them some unused open space which they transformed to create a playground for the children of the neighbouring slums. It also provides a healthy outlet for the women.

Martina tied up with the college and YMCA to work together to help create this space, which in turn enabled the college students to understand the importance of sustainable design, conservation and management of available resources.

“This has definitely been a very important project for the students because they have been involved from the first to the last step of the design and building process. We all designed, planned and built the play area together,” says Martina. She explains that the students successfully collected all the recycling material from within the city and had to deal with a very tight budget. They learned a lot about materials and how to choose and select the needed items – and how to put it together.

The most important thing about the project, which also makes it sustainable, is that the students learned how to use these recycled materials in a very safe, creative and innovative way to evolve a play area. Martina stresses the practical implementation of sustainable development through design.

Of the many things that can affect children who do not have access to green spaces, the biggest threat is anxiety and health problems. “Urban Flowers” aims to educate students about that and implement ideas to overcome multiple environmental problems the city is facing. Martina is looking at working with more architecture institutes and colleges and organizing as many workshops as she can.

The journey for these organisations is not smooth; they face many challenges that can be overcome only by perseverance, and nothing else. But the hope for a better 21st century and beyond depends on how young minds are shaped today. While formal textbook education gives them information about the global changes we witness today, it is non-formal workshops and programmes such as these that allow them to be the change they want to see.