Environmental crises require collective and sustained action. However, pro-environmental action (PEA) has been mostly approached as an individual process. Further, conventional approaches to promote PEA assume an information-processing model of actions based on knowledge acquisition, which has been critiqued. Recent environmental education approaches emphasize more complex, non-linear models of action and focus on the acquisition of action-competence, which allows students to feel empowered to act in their local communities. Extending this approach, the potential of using the school as a base to involve other members of a community to engage in collective pro-environmental practices is a promising, but under-researched, direction to address sustainability issues. In this school-based case-study, we explored the development of action-competence, particularly the processes that lead up to such competence, by facilitating an urban farming project (40 students, 12–13 years old, tracked for 10 months). We studied students’ interaction with farming structures and entities closely, taking an analysis approach inspired by: (1) recent work highlighting the affective-aesthetic appeal of environmental entities and (2) embodied cognition models. Based on these data and analysis, we show how meaningful and embodied encounters with nature contribute to the enhancement of students’ environmental “action-space”. More interestingly, sharing of these “action-spaces” with adults, through various social experiences, motivated adults to participate in PEAs. This case-study is relevant to environmental educators and researchers seeking to design proactive interventions and explore general principles underlying collective environment-oriented actions.

KEY MESSAGE

The study explores farming in schools as a way to develop community-level environmental actions. The analysis outlines key interactions that support pro-environmental actions, such as nature of the encounter, somaesthetic interactions, instances of “enchantment”, social and material feedback, feelings of being challenged, the novelty of practice, and expanded action-space. A joint-action based model of how such activities allow others to join and thus develop community engagement is also provided. The case-study questions are designed to help educators develop similar interventions and reflect on its pedagogical implications.

INTRODUCTION

The dominant role of human actions in environment destruction is widely acknowledged [1]. Education is seen as an important measure to address this complex problem, specifically by nurturing a culture that embraces environmentally responsible actions [24]. Civic-ecological practices can emerge from authentic school experiences that engage with the local environment [5]. However, formal education oversimplifies the notion of experience [6], promoting uncritical and token activities to nurture environmental sensibilities (such as planting saplings on Earth day, making “Save the Tiger” posters, etc.). Further, curricular material mostly focus on global scale perspectives of environmental degradation (such as climate change), which makes students acutely aware of the “big” problems, but lacking in competency or ownership to engage in sustainable transformations within their own locality [7, 8]. It is now well documented that dominant information-based approaches to environment education (EE), which provide information on environmental issues, have been unsuccessful in seeding collective and impactful pro-environmental actions [911]. Hence, many educators have argued for the need of “action-competence” [1214], where students feel ownership and take responsibility to promote pro-environmental actions [29, 30].

In line with the recent approaches mentioned above, our work focuses on helping children participate in practices that embed ecological principles, in an effort to develop an embodied sensibility toward the environment. Our intervention model is based on urban farming in schools, which helps children ground complex ecological issues, and seeds further actions in the community. School food gardens have been researched from the view of its impact on health and nutrition of students, as they show increased preference for the vegetables grown in their gardens [15, 16]. Other researchers have focussed on the use of food gardens as a pedagogical tool to teach natural science and other subjects [17, 18]. However, the processes and nature of interactions underlying farming activities from the view of motivating wider ecological perspectives needs further research [19].

CASE EXAMINATION

The case reported here is from an urban farming project, conducted with 40 students of grade VIII, at a school in Mumbai, India. The project was facilitated by the researcher along with the help of two teachers and school gardeners. The project spanned 10 months. Most of these students had little or no exposure to growing plants, especially food crops, since they were brought up in the city. The study was exploratory, and based on an interpretative framework and qualitative methods. Sessions on the farm were video-recorded, and students were encouraged to maintain their personal farm journals. The researcher maintained field notes along with a co-observer. Students usually worked in groups of three to four. One student from each group was interviewed (total 14 interviews). The focus of the study was an exploration of students’ evolving motivation toward farming, their relationship with different artifacts on the farm, and instances that provided the impetus for larger perspectives, as well as environment-oriented actions in communities away from the farm site. The project was deliberately kept open-ended with broad goals of growing plants using principles of organic farming, while using minimal resources. A barren terrace was provided, which over the next 10 months would be populated by over 20 varieties of edible plants and fruiting trees. The project was not graded, thus encouraging students to have the autonomy and freedom to engage with the project based on their interest. Every session would typically start with some observation of the surroundings, followed with discussion and suggestions for activities. Major activities in setting up the farm included making a compost pit, collecting dried leaves to add to the compost and mulch the plants, making cardboard and up-cycled plastic planters, saving seeds (Figure S1), harvesting, designing supports for climbers and creepers (Figure S2), and plant care.

Emerging Themes

Somaesthetic Interactions

Students were observed to engage with plants in a rich, visceral manner, through senses of touch, smell and taste, thus widening their modalities of perceiving the environment. As Bai and Romanycia [20] argues, instead of appealing to vision-based discursive categorization of the surroundings, a more sensuous perception arouses a participatory consciousness and nurtures an emotional relationship. Using the body as an “organizing core of experience” ([21] p. 51) accentuates the immediacy of experience, along with a growing sensitivity to anticipated changes in the surroundings. The continuously evolving landscape of the terrace, through the growth of plants, turned into a motivation for students to explore the surroundings in a somatically grounded fashion. To illustrate, students had never seen the plant called Indian Roselle (locally called Ambadi). It was grown on the terrace, and they were informed that the leaves of the plant are edible. Initially, for most students, the mere idea of eating something directly off a plant was a novel concept, given that their interaction with food is mostly in packaged, frozen or cooked form. However, apprehensions gave way to curiosity, as they began to sniff, taste, and finally nibble the leaves tentatively. The sour-tasting leaves went on to become a garden favorite, as evident by frequent comments like,

“leaves taste so sour. And I liked to eat it!” (AM)

“we used to come everyday excited for terrace farming but the main reason was that we would get to, used to actually eat the plants. There was that ambadi plant, it was sour and we also actually opened up many of those, you know, the containers not containers actually, but the parts in which the seeds were held. And we got to see, the actual seed and it was like ‘wow, this the entire plant grows from this!’” (YS)

Given, that they had started out with a bare space, the emerging life-forms and relationships initiated more actions to encourage further growth. Such engrossed participation prompted a student to remark,

“we never even touched plants this way earlier. I mean we play on the grass, but not this way. To take care. This time we learnt how to grow the plant, otherwise it is said that just drop a seed and the plant will grow . . . the book says that. But now I think the book is very fake, because the book only says what the author can see, but while doing it we see many different things.” (AY)

Bonnett [22] critiques formal education pedagogies for its emphasis on abstract knowledge by describing schools as places of “Unselving”, wherein particular histories and connections with the community, land, and local context tend to get marginalized. The student’s perception regarding the “fakeness” of the book is indicative of the gaps existing between the experience and information provided.

Instances of “Enchantment”

Students would often find themselves taken by surprise in their manifold encounters on the farm. This was evident in the way they would completely immerse themselves in the experience, often losing track of time until someone or something else interrupted the interaction. There was a strong affective component to these events, and all weren’t necessarily positive. For example, in one session during the monsoon, some students were completely taken aback by the sight of small wild mushrooms that seemed to have grown overnight. They went about trying to touch them, fascinated and slightly disgusted at the same time, because of its almost alien like growth on the wet pieces of cardboard planters. Such encounters allowed for spaces of intimate, non-representational forms of connection with the farm [31]. Bennett [23] uses the term “enchantment” to describe such affective moments, and argues that such encounters are critical in seeding empathy and generosity torwards the more-than-human world.

A variety of insects and worms also caught students’ attention often, from slime trails all over the farm. Many students started spontaneous “bug rescue missions” wherein they looked around for worms crawling on the terrace, and put them back in the soil to save them from getting trampled accidentally. Even snails, usually considered a pest in gardens, won their affection, as one of the students actively defended it by saying,

“We can give it some fresh leaves to eat too. We don’t need to harvest everything!” (SS)

Such episodes provide a rich platform for more complex discussions about the ideas of pests, weeds and biodiversity as grounded in their experience.

Motivational Scaffolds

Challenge

Students found some tasks challenging, such as figuring out how to provide support for climbers by tying up bamboo poles and reinforcing cardboard planters so that they could survive the monsoon. However, the challenge motivated them to work out solutions for the given context. They made tripod designs and engaged in collaborative work to make structures that could be used on the farm. They reported the process to be quite enjoyable, perhaps because it involved peer validation and the tangible outcome of stable support for the plants.

“then most important was that trellis . . . making it was a fun job because we were trying different knots that we knew but had never really used.” (AY)

Sense of Purpose

Students enjoyed the open-ended design of the activities, since their opinions were sought on how they wanted to set-up the farm. Only minimal guidance was provided, when required. This freedom also resulted in students assuming responsibility for the upkeep of the farm. They would often stay back even after the session was over, sacrificing recess time to finish a task. They also volunteered to come during holidays to ensure that the plants were taken care of. As one student commented,

“this gives us a lot of liberty and freedom to do what we want to . . . we are choosing the seed we want, harvesting many plants. In school you have a large number of children, so work (outdoor activity) has to be divided equally to everybody. Then because there are many children, you don’t get a lot of work, you just do something small, then you sit down. Here, there is so much going on continuously that, if one thing is over then you can go into the other and help them out. So it is really nice.” (MH)

Feedback

The evolving landscape of the terrace farm became an interesting form of feedback for the students, who started noticing different aspects of plant growth. Episodes of seeds sprouting, plant fruiting, or recovery of plants from infestation seemed to lead students to feel markedly more involved in farming.

“First I was kind of bit bored because I didn’t want to do it, because of the mud and all I didn’t like it, I didn’t even plant the first sapling that time . . . but after the plant started growing I liked it. Every time I came, it had grown more leaves!” (LK)

An interesting type of feedback involved students’ perception of each other, in terms of how it helped in creating social norms of collaboration and sharing. To illustrate, many students working together felt that their friends had become more helpful and interested in farming, while stressing that the activities on the farm require team-work. Here, students share their observations about their peers.

“KS became more responsible and helpful . . . he wasn’t that interested earlier. MH has also started noticing lot of things and asks lots of questions now.” (TN)

“TN didn’t want to put her hand in mud but later started enjoying it. NM is usually lazy when there is any work to do together, but started working hard on the farm. We have to ask him to let us water the plants sometime!” (MH)

The collaborative nature of the activities also contributed to a shared identity as a farming group.

Actions Away from Farm Site

Students reported diverse ways in which their immediate community became involved in different activities related to the farm. Students often describe their interactions with parents based on their experiences on the farm. They would make associations with plants grown at the farm and try to grow some at their house as well. Many students took saved seeds and saplings from the farm to grow at their home.

“We usually buy lemongrass from the market, but then I saw we are growing so much here. I told my parents that we can grow some too. So I took a stalk from here, and have planted it in my balcony . . .” (LK)

Students reported trying out related activities such as composting, leaf-collection, mulching, and recycling, often drawing their parents into the discussion or physically helping them out. Students’ urge to try out some of the farming activities at their homes led parents to take more interest and support their child’s interests. Some parents helped students compost at home. Some saved cardboards, bottles and other materials that could be used on the farm, instead of disposing them. It was especially interesting to note that senior citizens, who had prior experience of growing plants, were eager to help the students in various activities. Such instances also helped in community building, as the “expanding action space” of the students overlapped with other disparate individuals (such as older people) with similar interests, and this motivated them to explore more activities in this space.

“Earlier when my grandmother used to mention it (gardening), it wasn’t a topic of much interest to me because I did not know anything about it. So I used to just avoid this topic. But now that I have seen so much happening and it is so exciting, so I have started to help my grandmother out. In fact, when I told her about all this (terrace farming), then she got hyped . . . means totally hyped. On the same day, she did not tell me, she went to the nursery, bought a few saplings, seeds, pots, mud everything and she brought it home. Now, we are growing a lot of stuff.” (AN)

Broader Perspectives

The various activities on the farm gradually reflected in students’ more general thoughts pertaining to the environment, many of them taking shape through direct engagements or discussions on the farm. For many students, the idea of recycling took on a new meaning, as they began to look for other materials which could be used as planters. Sorting plastic from the compost led to many discussions regarding the amount found in the environment, and they began questioning its use in packaging, and possible alternatives. The use of dried leaves on the farm sensitized students about the use of dried biomass, which they made efforts to collect.

“Actually I started recycling more because I started caring actually about the environment and the plants and I have planted. And my (housing) society as well, we had introduced a scheme that each member or each family would plant one sort of sapling or tree in the garden. So, that as well we carried out.” (RC)

Many students found themselves empathizing with farmers, as their respect for manual labor and food grew in the process of working at the farm.

“They (farmers) have to work a lot. Whatever we eat is what we get from them. We are making a small farm but they do cropping on a large scale, so it must be more difficult for them. Now when we see a plant infected we feel so bad. So if they have a large population of plants being infected, it must be a loss for them at a greater scale, so we think about that also.” (SM)

Their engagement with composting, adding cow-dung slurry, and mulch to soil helped them appreciate the richness of soil as an entity.

“Earlier we thought soil is just something we get in packets and plants will directly grow in it. But now, we are realizing that it needs cow-dung, dry leaves, and many decomposition materials that improve the nutrients. This has really changed what I thought about soil.” (DV)

DISCUSSION

The case study reported here provides insights into how participating in a pro-environmental community practice led to changes in students’ action capacities and perspectives related to the environment. In particular, it describes the significance of somaesthetic interactions, in building students’ interest and growing their sensitivity toward the farm, as well as the broader environment. Affective episodes, instances of enchantment, served as precursors to active participation and care of plants and other living beings [27]. The free exploration and interaction with various entities on the farm allowed different motivational aspects to surface, ranging from novelty, challenge, autonomy and feedback.

The extension of farm experiences, to activities in spaces away from the farm site, is a significant aspect of the study, especially activities done in groups. In the cognition literature, joint-action is termed as “any form of social interaction whereby two or more individuals coordinate their actions in space and time to bring about a change in the environment” ([24] p. 70).We postulate that activities with joint-action as a central component generate motivation, particularly to engage with and expand the possibilities of work, because such social experiences are rewarding by themselves. As Godman [25] argues, social motivations seem to form a distinct factor contributing to joint-actions, apart from shared intentions and representations. The increasing involvement of teachers and parents as volunteers on the farm, through the students’ sharing of their experiences, suggest that social motivation plays an important role in facilitating community participation.

Sustained engagements at the farm contribute to new environmental perspectives, which are generated through interaction with “performative” substances and “coagulative” practices [26] such as the soil, planters, and compost. The term “coagulative” symbolizes the integrative function of a practice. Performative substances embody specific action possibilities since working with them allow students to internalize the values they embed, such as interdependency, dignity of labor, avoiding food wastage, etc. in an enactive and embodied (i.e., non-descriptive) way (Figure 1).

FIGURE 1.

A proposed spiral model of motivation, where sustained engagement with the core activity motivates participants to involve and expand their action spaces. In this case, growing plants on the school terrace led to concern toward related aspects such as composting, seed-saving, etc. and also broader stances toward the environment. The activity also facilitated growing participation of other community members.

FIGURE 1.

A proposed spiral model of motivation, where sustained engagement with the core activity motivates participants to involve and expand their action spaces. In this case, growing plants on the school terrace led to concern toward related aspects such as composting, seed-saving, etc. and also broader stances toward the environment. The activity also facilitated growing participation of other community members.

We believe this design provides a model for designing similar practices that embed such “performative-substances”, which help coagulate various environmental themes into broader values, thus providing engagements that lead to the development of resilient environment-oriented communities. Such an experiential approach to EE may be critical to embrace such animistic ways of being, where dynamic relations with the immediate environment become central to one’s identity, agency, and well-being [28].

CASE-STUDY QUESTIONS

(To further theoretical discussions)

  1. Can this case description help in identifying or designing elements of practice in other kinds of community-based environmental interventions, such as waste management, local conservation, etc.? For instance, what could be described as “performative substances” in such practices?

  2. Can values emerge in any context where embodied actions are performed? What might be a contrast case, and the reasons for challenging this claim?

  3. In an educational context, can such approaches be described as a form of indoctrination? What might be the justifications to support or critique this idea?

  4. Many scholars describe pro-environmental behaviors as a specific case of altruistic values. In other words, people who can transcend their immediate self-interests are more likely to engage in environmental actions. In what way is this case-study providing a contrasting narrative, and what are its implications?

  5. Is the emphasis on somaesthetic encounters, or moments of “enchantment” trivializing the enormity of ecological problems? In other words, do such encounters appear as feasible options to engage with global dimensions of environmental crises?

AUTHOR CONTRIBUTIONS

The authors contributed equally to the case study manuscript.

We are thankful to Siddharth Tiwari and Adithi Muralidhar for their help in data collection. We are grateful to Dibyanshee Mishra for her assistance in documentation and analysis of the data. The abiding enthusiasm and support of the “Green Souls” NGO, school principal, teachers, and students is also gratefully acknowledged.

COMPETING INTERESTS

The authors have declared that no competing interests exist.

SUPPLEMENTARY MATERIALS

Figure S1. Pictures from the Terrace Farm: saving seeds.

Figure S2. Pictures from the Terrace Farm: making a trellis.

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Supplementary data