FREEDOM as a tool for LEARNING!  


I am no expert at anything and I would like to say right at the beginning that I am still learning. My ideas on what a school should be like are based on my memory of my experiences in my school. To be frank, when I started Puvidham learning center, I did not know how children should be taught or what kind of an environment children need but I did know that I did not learn anything of value in my classroom. So, I presumed that all children do not learn in such environments.

Based on this presumption I went over my memory of my experiences and realized that most of the memories were of confusion and questions of why I should be made to learn things that had no relevance in my life.  When I asked my father, he said he did not know, but of course if I ever wanted to make a change in the system, I had to go through it and then change it.

Later I came across the words of a famous teacher. A young monk once asked him, “Tell me master, what masters are for?” He had smiled and replied, “Well! They ‘re for nothing at all!  They teach you what you already know and show you what you have already seen.”  This struck home in my mind.  

I was further educated by my children as I observed how they learnt without being taught! I observed that the child uses its body to learn. The body is the first tool for learning. The body teaches the mind and the mind builds a world of pictures, experiences and actions that the body is involved in. The body experiences are instrumental to construct the outside world inside the mind. Trust, Self-confidence, Co-operation, Honesty, Truthfulness, Sensitivity, Autonomy and other positive and even negative attitudes stem from personal experiences. I also observed that anything was learnt fastest and best when the child decided to learn it.

Learning is full of challenges for the mind, even when the will is its own. This being the nature of learning the role of the teacher was an enigma to me!

The child’s mind is very active and inquiring. I was surprised by my daughter’s perception when she was around 3 years. She was able to deduce where our cows were grazing by observing the egrets flying around. She knew that the egrets liked to perch on the cows. She sucked all the grasses and flowers and knew which ones had nectar or sweet sap in them! She could recognize the differences in the grasses just by looking at the grass blades. If I gave her a stem of grass that did not have a sweet sap she would say, “No, not this ma!” very confidently. Even before my son, aged 2 years then, could voice his questions, I had observed him doing an experiment. We had a lot of small triangular pieces of Cudappah stone lying around. One day I saw him make a triangular cudappah stand on its base and then he pushed it down. It was interesting how he touched it to make it fall. After a lot of trials he knew that if he wanted to use very little effort he must touch it at the tip. And what followed was even more surprising. He picked up some stones and went and sat down a little far away and then threw stones at the tip to make it fall. In this activity he was engrossed for more than an hour! And there are studies that say that the attention span of a small child is around 6 minutes!

Slowly I came to the conclusion that I did not have to teach anything but had a lot to learn. The only use my children had of

for me was my reading skills. To read stories and sing songs, and find answers for their questions in the encyclopedia, that’s all, I did!  

And for this the children need to be FREE from the burden of text book learning!

“We have not inherited the earth from our ancestors. We have borrowed it from our children”- Einstein

The curriculum

“The only person who is educated is the person who has learnt how to learn; how to adapt and change; who has realized that no knowledge is secure, that only the process of seeking knowledge gives a basis for security.  Reliance, on process rather than on static knowledge is the only thing that makes any sense as a goal for education in the present circumstances.”

Freedom is a word that holds a lot of power! It means self-discipline, self-dependence, self-management and decision making while taking full responsibility for the consequences of our actions. It also means respect for every other person’s FREEDOM. So, essentially, when one is free one becomes more sensitive to the same feeling of free expression in others. It means that we can take and give criticism objectively without being personal. It means that we are continuously striving to enhance our freedom to a level where we do not need anyone to tell us whether we are good or not. We just do what we feel is right, just and appropriate in any situation without expecting anyone to appreciate us. Nor do we get unsettled when someone points out that the action was not appropriate and could have been done better. We are willing to forgive ourselves and the other. It becomes a state of mind where there is only learning, love and life in the mindfulness of each action each day.

One realizes that the burden of freedom is responsibility, for oneself, other humans, other life forms and the planet.

At Puvidham, we have been experimenting with freedom. All children and adults act from their own freedom and responsibility. No one is breathing down anyone’s neck. The plans for the day unfold as the day unfolds. Every day is a surprise and a co-creation of all the members present. They decide what they must do to live in harmony with each other and the environment. The whole of our learning through life is for living a good life. So, at Puvidham “The Living is the Learning”. The emphasis is on living a simple, frugal and wholesome life while providing as much as possible of our needs by our own labour.

It is the children’s world and the adults are by standers who at best get the same treatment as other children. The adults are there to bring with them their sensitivity, empathy, trust and experience of longer years in management of everyday life, only because children are children and can afford to be forgetful! There is provision for monthly circle time where the children inform the adults of their short-comings while the adults ask the children to change aspects of their behavior which is disturbing to others.

How to make children aware of what freedom means?

The first and best lesson in freedom and the responsibility it comes with can be explained to the children by asking them to imagine that they were on an island where there were no adults. How would they feel? Would they be able to manage? Or would they want adults to come there and tell them what do and how to do it? I have never met a group of children above the age of 9 years who say that they would want an adult to come. They very soon start describing how they would face life! And this is the starting point of understanding that complete freedom comes with collective responsibility. That we need shelter, so we need to clear a space and build our house; we have to keep it clean so that no insects or other animals can harm us; we have to grow our food, so we need to do farming; we need to collect the fruits and vegetables and cook our food; we have to wear clothes so we need to spin and weave; create arts, crafts, make tools all these are easily connected to the idea of the children’s world!

Then we have to promise that the school is their world and we adults shall not interfere in how they do things, but we shall remind them if they are becoming dependent on the adults to provide for them.

How do we ensure that children get necessary freedom but at the same time, also understands the value of rigor, hard work, persistence, honesty, sincerity and trust?

The children need lot of encouragement to do their chores. They cannot understand the need for keeping things clean all the time. They like to take short cuts and finish their work and go to play. All this needs to be taken in a light way and they have to know that the fact that the work was done shabbily was observed and normally we ask the child- What happened, were you in a hurry? Was the classroom cleaning your responsibility yesterday?  Hinting that something was not perfectly right with the situation. If a child continuously does shabby work, we ask the child if he feels that the work is unimportant? Or if he finds it difficult? Or if it takes too much time? Then we spend time with the child keeping the time and helping the child to do the work properly and then note the time that it took. This realization that it takes 5 to maximum 10 minutes and can be done without stress is a reminder that we can draw on whenever the child does his work shabbily. Sometimes the children need help to use the brooms or to understand how they can finish the work quickly and neatly. It is the duty of the adult to help the child in such cases. There are some children who do not know the motions of cleaning and collecting the dust in a dust pan and they need to be shown how it is to be done.

When we find that children start something and leave it half done, we talk to them to understand why it was left halfway. We try to make them realize the importance of finishing it to give them satisfaction and to show respect to all the material that they used in creating the half work. We talk about what learning the children gained in the doing of that task. We talk to find out what made them start the model or task and point out that perhaps their interest was too transient. Then we tell them the advantages of finishing the work and putting it as an exhibit. Honesty, sincerity, trust and perseverance are developed in a child only by imitation of adults who inspire them to be honest, sincere, who trust them and who are diligent in finishing their tasks!

The adults must be the role models!

Children cannot understand the value of rigor unless they are ambitious. Or they want to perform well in their exams. Or if they realize that things become easier when they practice. And perhaps there is no place for rigor in a world where there are new questions all the time!




What kind of dialogue and work would help children appreciate and responsibly use individual freedom and liberty but at the same time also able to live in harmony with others (who might have diverse ideas / practices on freedom) 

Justice plays a very crucial role in making children realize the place of harmony in the space. When issues are resolved, or work is shared, and responsibility is taken up after an understanding of the need for all of us to share the work by empathizing with the feeling of how they would feel if they were to do all the work. This kind of dialogue makes them look at work sharing with the aspect of fairness in sharing it and understand the need for doing it too. In our school though the children are free to choose not to do the things that is for their personal good and learning, when it comes to the well-being of the community there is no choice of not doing it because that would make the system fail. The community works because the individuals work and if any one is unable to do his or her share due to absence or illness, the others have to cover up and do it because the community has to work. When the fact that the well-being of so many others depends on their contribution is continuously reiterated, the children tend to do take their responsibility seriously.                  

For the personal learning we allow the child complete freedom to choose not do anything but when the child is from an economically weaker household, it becomes our duty to remind them of the sacrifices their parents are making to educate them and to appeal to them to value it and try to fulfill the expectations of their parents if they are not unreasonable.

In children, what changes with age? What / how should change in our practices / approaches?

For younger children, any adult can only help the child by allowing it to try out things and achieve the goals they set for themselves. Often there is no need for appreciation but there is a need for acknowledging the achievement. Similarly, there is no need for sympathy. There is only need for encouragement. When we are with older children, we have to appeal to their need to be good and be loved.

Persuasion is an active method of influence that attempts to guide people toward the adoption of an attitude, idea, or behavior by rational or emotive means. Persuasion relies on “appeals” rather than strong pressure or coercion.

The other more convincing and sure method of transferring an attitude to young minds is by example. The adults around the children are being observed all the time by the child and that the attitudes of the adults are easily absorbed by the children is a fact. Then the onus of being what they want the child to be is on the adults in the environment or the teachers so to speak. So, it becomes imperative that the teachers are good, resourceful, ingenious, enthusiastic, co-operative, free to express themselves, sympathetic and wonderful in every sense of the word.

Now, that is a tall order for a teacher! But here is where honesty came to the rescue. The fact that none of us is right and good all the time but that what is important is that we are always striving to do what is right. Our effort is towards correcting our shortcomings and working towards harmony and justice all the time. That forgiving oneself for our faults and recognizing the same need for others is what it takes to make an environment where each person is respected for his or her strong points and forgiven for his or her shortcomings. This builds a community where all are equal because all are doing their best to make the environment what it should be – healthy, just and considerate of others while being centered on understanding one self.

What creates the need of (external) discipline? 

When children are violent there is a need for external discipline. We cannot allow the violent child to hurt other children due to the fact that the child is free. In such cases the freedom to move around freely is curtailed and the child is asked to sit in meditation and it is explained to the child that he/she needs to reflect on his or her actions. That if they cannot control their hands and feet with their will, they cannot be in the common space with everyone. Often, I ask the child to talk to his or her hands and feet to tell them to not hit anyone without the knowledge of the child. This makes the child conscious of the undesirable action and the action slowly stops being the mode of expression of frustration. In such children it is important that they feel loved and cared for. While talking to them I often tell them that they are such wonderful people but their hands and feet and sometime the mouth if they are used to speaking bad language are the one’s that need to be corrected. What works wonders in mollifying the child is the separation of the act from themselves. Separating the act from the child will allow the child to forgive himself/ herself and become conscious of their actions. This slowly brings about change in behavior.

How can parents/adults appreciate certain perspective of freedom – discipline when they themselves live/experience/believe different realities?  There must be an understanding that the children are not ours to rule and control. Our children are born through us, but they are not ours. They are the manifestation of Life’s longing for itself. They are like flowers, each special in its own way. They are like mirrors, reflecting our thoughts and actions. They are like birds wanting to fly and explore the world. Children are learners from the minute of their birth. They are curious, intuitive, creative, inventive and a lot of other things.  

“Your children are not your children,

They are the sons and daughters of life’s longing for itself.

They come through you but not from you,

And though they are with you, yet they belong not to you” ——-Khalil Gibran

It is the duty of every adult to look back at the child in them who was misunderstood and whose imagination was streamlined with the force of the expectations of society! We must give the child the same kind of care we would give a plant! When we plant a seed that we do not know the origin or purpose of, we nurture it and wait for it to grow. We take pleasure at every new leaf and at every new branch. We do not try to change its form because we do not know its function. We provide for its needs, we give protection from destruction, we remove the weeds and provide manure, we respond to its need! Similarly, we must respond to the need of the child. And most often the need of the child is to learn. And the child learns! Look at the child with wonder! Look to see that the child is not just your offspring or your student but an entity in itself!

The various attempts of the child at learning to see, to hear, to feel, to talk, and to move are made without conscious emphasis on the learning. Learning is an instinct, like hunger!

Only through the body experiences does the mind learn to recognize its parents and loved ones and other good-natured people. It learns to classify and identify sounds and expressions. It learns to use its body to move in the desired direction. It learns to use its tongue to make the various sounds it hears. It learns to recognize the sounds of various animals and humans in the vicinity. It learns to walk. It learns to talk. After the child has made such an effort to learn the ways of the world and learnt to communicate with it; As soon as the child can speak, walk and eat his/her own meals- we decide that it is now time to teach the child something.  Why don’t we teach the month-old baby?

So far, the child has been learning as a response to the stimulus it has been receiving from its environment. Now suddenly there is a break. Now suddenly it must learn things that have no connection with everyday living. The child learns to separate the learning from the living!

The very nature of learning is tampered with. And artificiality begins! Instinct, innocence, creativity, thinking and intuition all get affected. All become maimed. All become servants to memory. But memory is limited. Memory is short.  Memory is useless in the face of a new situation. Memory is dependence. Memory is monotonous. We have no use of memory if we cannot adapt from it to the real-life situations. And the adaptation will come only by doing and living.

Observation, intuition, innovation, sensitivity and sensibility are the building blocks of wisdom.

If the school is designed to give the body varied experiences, the mind learns without effort. Like Rabindranath Tagore, one of the forerunners in emphasizing the difference in learning and teaching said, “We don’t remember much of what we were taught but only what we learnt!”

The complete cooperation and intimate observation of the body and its responses build knowledge that we may not know exists. We should enrich the experiences of the child and provide the learning as a response to a search beginning with in the child. It is possible to create an environment where learning is continued in the same natural way in which we learnt to walk and talk! It is possible to allow learning through discovery and observation, discussion and dialogue!

Each time a Child discovers something about the world he also discovers something about himself!

How do children negotiate or balance between parental/family beliefs / practices and school practices on freedom/discipline?

Children are highly resilient. They often live and thrive in spite of the mistakes of adults in responding to the needs of the children and understanding their perspective. The role of adults including parents lies in being a role model for the child. By understanding and listening to the child. Remember that the child is learning by watching what we are doing and not by listening to what we are saying!

“As human beings, our greatness lies not so much in being able to remake the world- that is the myth of the atomic age- as in being able to remake ourselves.”                                                                                        – M.K. Gandhi



Meenakshi Umesh

Meenakshi runs an alternative learning centre, Puvidham, in the Nagarkoodal area of Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu. She is an architect by training and loves to explore alternative architectures with sustainable designs and environment friendly material.