Birding collective Early Bird's recently launched Handbook for Bird Educators captures the gist of the entire project with a lovely introductory sketch. It depicts a little boy and his mother on a scooter, both looking up, delight writ large on their faces, at an inquisitive weaver bird peeking out of his nest. "Young children have an innate affinity to nature, which often gets lost while growing up," points out Garima Bhatia, Project Manager, Early Bird, Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), one of the authors of the handbook. "Through this handbook, we wanted to focus on the joy and wonder of nature, and encourage educators to incorporate this into their engagements with children, through games and activities."
The origins of this handbook go back to 2014 when Early Bird, an initiative by the Nature Conservation Foundation (NCF), a Mysore-based NGO, was started to get children more interested in birds and nature. To do so, the organisation, part of NCF's education and public engagement programme, began creating materials like flashcards, pocketbooks and posters. "However, we realised that it isn't enough to create content; we also need to provide training to those who will use it," says Bhatia. By 2017, Early Bird was conducting in-person workshops "aimed at equipping amateur birders and educators with the knowledge, skills and materials needed to effectively engage children on birds and nature, both inside and outside the classroom," she adds.
The handbook is the outcome of a series of workshops called How to be a Birding Buddy. According to Bhatia, the workshops—Early Bird did more than15 in-person ones between 2018-19 before lockdown and two online earlier this year—connected the team to groups of educators across the country. "The interactions with practitioners enriched our own understanding and ideas about nature education," she says. As early as 2019, Early Bird had come up with the idea of compiling the games, creative activities, tips and tricks they used for their workshops into a handbook, one that had the potential to reach even more educators. The book, co-authored by Bhatia, Abhisheka Krishnagopal and Suhel Quader, is illustrated and designed by graphic designers Aditi Elassery and Saumitra Deshmukh. It also contains cartoons by Deborshee Gogoi, a professor at Digboi College, Assam, and Nagpur-based artist Rohan Chakravarty.
The Handbook for Bird Educators is divided into four chapters, some of which have multiple subdivisions, offering a wealth of information about bird species, habitat, courtship, taxonomy and communication and ending with a glossary of technical terms used in the book. Peppered with sketches, illustrations, posters, cartoons, and evocative quotes, the book is as beautiful as it is informative and practical, giving detailed instructions on conducting bird walks or talking to children about birds.
It also contains a series of suggestions for games—outdoors and indoors—which can help a child get more familiar with our feathered friends. Take, for instance, one that involves matching birds' bills with various foods, illustrating how diet impacts avian bill morphology. Or a survivor game that teaches children about the various survival challenges faced by birds—both natural and manmade. "The games and activities featured in the handbook are compiled from various sources, including those created by us and other organisations that have been active in the field of nature education," says Bhatia. She adds that they focused on those that a single educator could conduct without requiring the use of gadgets or technology.
Bhatia hopes that the handbook will convince educators not to feel limited by their perceived lack of knowledge or understanding of the natural world and take the plunge, along with their children, to explore, discover and appreciate the fascinating world of birds. "We believe that an early association with nature, guided by an adult mentor (parent or teacher), can have many emotional and physical benefits for a child," believes Bhatia. Birds, she says, are the perfect starting point for this journey, since they are beautiful, accessible and interesting.
"Birdwatching can help get a child interested in many other aspects of nature and lead to a lifelong love and appreciation of the natural world," says Bhatia, pointing out that this is sorely needed in an age of overwhelming loss of habitats, species and ecosystems. Quoting environmentalist David Sobel, she says, "If we want children to flourish, to become truly empowered, then we must allow them to love the earth before we ask them to save it."
Handbook for Bird Educators is available for free on the Early Bird website.