A swim in the river, a jog with the breeze, and a game of catch amidst tall trees
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Children running in the forest. Image: Kailash Kumar/Pixabay
Sport and development programs could learn and adopt from the rich traditions of indigenous communities that promote sustainability and respect for the natural world through outdoor play, without the need for lessons on ‘environmental science’.

While recollecting her childhood memories, a friend of mine at university spoke fondly of her first swim lessons in the river. Along with her siblings and cousins, overseen by adults, she used to plunge into the water with the sole intention of having a good time. 

“It was so much fun that I really don’t remember at what point I just began to swim. It happened by itself!” she said. 

For her, those playful times were not only about bonding with family and friends but also a way to learn about the river, its ebb, and flow, and cultivate a deep lifelong respect for the natural world.

Indigenous and forest-dwelling communities - including the one to which my friend belongs - tend to view nature as a living system with which they have a reciprocal relationship. 

In contrast to modern conceptualizations of the environment as a collection of resources to be managed, they view the natural world as imbued with spiritual significance and emphasize the interdependence of all living beings around them. 

Modern society, however, has confined environment and climate to the domain of science and positions issues as technical problems to be solved. This fails to inspire passion and widespread urgency around the environmental cause because for most people growing up in urban settlements, the cause feels detached from lived experience.

Discussions on sport and environment often involve two main streams of thought. 

The first revolves around how sport-based programs can support communities that are most vulnerable to the devastating effects of climate change. 

The second is about how mainstream sport itself can be reorganised to become sustainable through research and innovations that lead to the emergence of a low-carbon or zero-carbon sport industry. Such discussions, however, cannot ignore the need for a critical review of the evolution of modern sport.

Sport, as we know it today, finds its origins in the plethora of traditional folk games that existed across the word.

The industrial progress of society led by the colonial powers demanded bureaucracy, quantification, record-breaking, and principles of achievement, all of which reflected in the gradual institutionalisation of leisurely games. 

The demarcated periods for work and leisure due to the imposition of time consciousness resulted in specified time slots and standardisation of venues.

The manufacture of equipment and the construction of grounds, courts, fields, or stadiums necessitated an appropriation of natural resources. 

One could argue that the evolution of sport has been in sync with a kind of ‘development’ that has caused the climate crisis in the first place.

The question, hence, is can participation in sport-based programs truly support the environment when sport itself is steeped in methods that necessitate its degradation? 

Or does sport have to devolve back into its raw form and bring back the essence of traditional folk games?

It is worth considering that the rich traditions of indigenous communities, which according to scientists is an important source of guidance for biodiversity conservation, disaster preparedness and climate resilience, do not involve the methods of scientific enquiry to teach children to respect the natural world. 

The socialisation processes promoted simply allow for copious amounts of outdoor play, where children learn to interact with and respect other living beings on their own. Perceptions of sustainability are thus innately inculcated and do not require lessons on ‘environmental science’.

Let us consider a child whose favourite childhood memories are of the carefree days spent playing Tenga ball in the forest with the Pomelo fruit or Tarnambai on the beach with Spinifex seeds. 

Now let us consider another child whose memories are mostly about watching English Premier League on television and playing football on an artificial turf pitch. 

While both these children might promote the environmental cause, it is fair to assume that the latter would never be able to feel as intimately about it as the former. 

Sport-based programs would thus do well to ‘devolve’ by learning and adapting various kinds of indigenous games into their curriculums to redefine the way children connect with the environment. 

Perhaps we need more swimming in the rivers, running through the breeze, and a game of catch amidst tall trees.

Main image: Kailash Kumar/Pixabay


Learning Design Consultant (Freelance)
Bengaluru, India


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