A learning centre in the mountains of Kumaon is working to put a unique face to the region's education

Thoda hi aagey hai” (it’s a bit further), squeaks the figure, obscured from behind by the huge backpack bobbing up and down on his shoulders. With a short bouncy stride, and a tendency to jump into a trot every now and then, you wouldn't believe that this 10-year- old had just walked four kilometres after a full day of school. As if to prove a point, a few of his classmates run forward, climb an apple tree and swing into a pile of raked up leaves, screaming “Watch me!” on their way down.

Well, these are the Himalayas, and in sync with the mountains, the residents' sense of distance and space also seems to have been distorted to incomparable proportions. But more importantly, after spending a day at the Aarohi Bal Sansaar, the ‘short’ commute back home is worth it. Right now, ‘a bit further’ could mean anything.

The Aarohi Bal Sansaar is a non-government, non-profit school that was begun in Satoli, a village just beyond the popular Kumaoni getaway town Mukteshwar, and tries to provide a higher standard of education than the other institutions in the area. And for a number of reasons, they definitely can't be called conventional.

One difference, it seems, is the atmosphere. “The environment of the school is welcoming to children,” says Kamiya Dargan, a longtime volunteer at the school. Unlike most nearby institutions, she points out, “here teachers laugh and smile with children during casual interaction.”

The evidence certainly points that way. School begins at the comfortable time of 9:30 am, but students often leave home much earlier, and begin pouring in from all corners of the mountain by 8 am. Not to meet their friends or sneak in some games before school, but to clean up. Voluntarily. In an astonishing example of self organisation, the kids independently open up the building, form groups and begin a comprehensive wash down of the entire structure. Indeed, snuggled into a groove in the mountainside, the only way a visitor can hope to locate the school at this time is the industrious buzz that it seems to radiate.

A typical class is never too typical here; children working on Mathematics workbooks or listening to a teacher are interspersed with sessions involving song, art and dance, and ‘classes’ which aren't even in the classroom; student teacher groups walking outside looking at plants or studying the land in their “aas paas” (surroundings) class. As Kamiya informs me, at Aarohi, “they stress on holistic development of a child”.

An old stereo set is belting out some Kumaoni folk music in the background, and in between guiding a group of students through a few forms, the dance teacher, Vijendra Kumar, says introspectively, “Maybe I do push them a bit hard, but the reason they do whatever I tell them to is that they know they want to learn what I'm teaching.” Vijendra is a young teacher at the school, who choreographs commercial dance videos in his spare time. Later, he says, “here students are shown so many things that they can do, I wish I had been in a school like this.”

However, when it comes to academics, there is a lot that they would like to work on. As Kamiya tells me, “they are trying to introduce more and more activity based learning.” She adds, “while interacting with a few parents I realized parents want the school to pay more attention on academic achievements rather than extra curricular activities.” Even though they realise that students become more confident when they come here, parents are still grounded in their traditional perception of school. The teachers, mostly local residents from nearby villages, continue to work on new techniques. The organisation also has an education steering committee which sits in every six months and discusses possible improvements.

While Kumaon affords the school a spectacular location, its remoteness tends to offer less opportunity in terms of exposure. Luckily, every year the school attracts a host of volunteers -- non-profit veterans, interested students, or professionals looking for a change of scene -- each with something unique to offer. And so, along with the more routine activities that go on at school, students tend to have an eclectic repertoire of skills which you would never expect; astonishing screen acting talent, the ability to make a friendship wrist band, and the knowledge of volleyball techniques are just a few.

For the past few years, the management has also been organising student trips to different cities in India. “The students put up a very decent cultural show, you could tell they had worked hard on it,” says a Delhi college student, referring to a show put up a year ago.

Chancing upon the school for the first time, it isn't easy to believe that an organisation tucked in the central Himalayas could be pioneering educational practices that average city school can't boast of. In a region where English is uncommon, interested teachers tend to be rare, and the nearest town that stocks school provisions is a bumpy two hours journey away, learning faces a number of drawbacks. But just like their uncanny dance performances, at Aarohi, education is something that is continuously worked at, and it is improving all the time.