In May 2023, an enthusiastic group aged 13 to 69 from the Shishukunj Schools in Gujarat went on their first-ever Himalayan trek organised by Indiahikes. This is the story of how they forged an enduring connection with the mountains, with others, and with their own selves - despite numerous uphill battles.
Shishukunj And A Radically Different School Of Thought
Shishukunj believes in education that is holistic, healing, and abundant in possibilities. More than ever, the world needs individuals who question present-day realities instead of conforming to them. The school believes in diversifying children’s potential instead of viewing them as cogs in a wheel.
At the heart of Shishukunj’s education philosophy lies a fundamental question: what does it mean to be a good human being? A question that drives every endeavour at the school.
Embedded deep in the pedagogy and learning are the importance of human connections, a relationship with nature, and a culture of outdoor pursuits.
How It Started
The school approached Indiahikes to organise a Himalayan trek for students of its various centres in Gujarat.
From the outset, the aim of the program was clear: to use trekking as an immersive experience to connect to nature, the community, and oneself.
The students eagerly looked forward to the Gaumukh Tapovan trek, an adventure known for its scenic beauty and challenging terrain.
But unforeseen weather conditions made it unsafe to proceed with the original plan. The trek leader recommended switching the trek location to Har Ki Dun.
While most schools struggle to cope with last-minute changes in plans, Shishukunj took the news very well. The larger purpose behind the trek took precedence over being fixed on one particular trek.
This was an adventure of many firsts!
It would be the first big trek for most students. Many had never travelled without family for extended periods. Some students would be boarding a train for the first time. Some of the school’s well-wishers were flying in from overseas to accompany children on the trek. Although most of them were seasoned trekkers, this would be their first trekking experience in India.
Keeping in mind the unique needs of its students, Shishukunj identified numerous goals for the program, namely:
· Build a connection with nature
· Experience a shared physical and mental challenge
· Interact and mingle with co-students from various Shishukunj centres, all from varied socio-economic backgrounds
· Visit new places
· Appreciate different cultures
· Step out of comfort zones
· Work together as a team
· Discover new things about each other
· Discover and re-discover oneself
Beyond Comfort Zones: The Joys of Experiential Learning in Trekking
Experiential Learning is at the heart of the Outdoor Leadership program at Indiahikes - a methodology that emphasises the joys of “learning by doing.” Trekking and related activities provide numerous avenues for physical, emotional, and social development.
From enjoying a shared experience and learning to deal with hardships to moments of introspection, trekking pushes students beyond their comfort zones.
What’s more, this immersive approach fosters complete engagement and joy. Students tackle thoughtfully designed challenges and engage in a cycle of planning, action, and reflection.
The program contained four essential components with carefully-designed experiential learning activities under each one.
· Trekking and camping skills
· Nature Skills
· Sustainability Skills
· Life Skills and Behaviour
Learnings from the trek to Har Ki Dun
1. Developing empathy and building camaraderie
As students trekked on, step by determined step, exhaustion gradually settled in. Despite each student battling their individual struggles, a wave of mutual support washed over the group.
“We got up, started walking, kept walking, kept getting tired, and kept trying. A few students were crying visible tears of pain, and a few of us were crying inside. And then suddenly, what we had hoped would happen, happened - everyone started helping out each other with words, with actions, with a sip of water, with a bit of advice, with an arm around each other, with a small bite of food.” Rutvid Dholakia, teacher
“We always like being around familiar people back in the city. Yet, we don't have time for each other, let alone new people. I saw how children opened up to each other during the trek. I knew it would happen in a quieter place without judgment. It’s been brilliant on the trek. I thought the process would take more time!” Priyasha Sharma, teacher | Photo credit: Shishukunj Schools
2. Discovering a sense of community
Children exhibited care not only towards their friends but also towards other students—peers they had never interacted with before. Additionally, they felt a sense of responsibility for the adults participating in the trek, often looking out for their well-being.
“We saw a few of the other trekking group people struggling and just by looking at them, their body language, we could feel their struggle and there would be a word of motivation, or an offer of a sweet or just a question of ‘do you need something?’ – it was wonderful to see such concern surfacing up, the higher we went.” - Rutvid Dholakia, teacher.
The trek naturally makes students and teachers feel more connected to each other | Photo credit: Jothiranjan
3. Environmental awareness in action
Children became more environmentally conscious, urging their friends to pick up litter along the trail and advising against consuming packaged food from dhabas.
“Not only did we have to carry our own personally generated plastic waste back to Dehradun, but we also had to clear up the campsite of plastic waste which was left by other trekkers…Leading by example, the trek leaders started picking up trash…Hard plastics, soft plastics, tetrapaks, metals, glass, landfill material - these were the main categories of generated waste, and students learnt by seeing the waste just how much we generate.” Rutvid Dholakia, teacher
4. Curiosity takes flight
After gentle prompting, students began to show a greater interest in nature, the villages nestled in the mountains, and the unique way of life in these regions.
This newfound curiosity inspired them to ask questions and engage in meaningful discussions. It fostered a deeper understanding and appreciation of their surroundings.
On treks like Har ki Dun, students come across ancient Himalayan villages and get a sneak peek into their culture | Photo credit: Jothiranjan
5. Journeys Within: Self-Expression And Personal Growth
The trek provided opportunities for quiet introspection and self-awareness, usually scarce in the humdrum of everyday life. Students were remarkably expressive during daily reflection sessions.
The group openly discussed the day's triumphs and obstacles, allowing everyone to articulate their thoughts and emotions.
The reflection sessions also served a greater purpose. It encouraged many students to break down barriers and build new, meaningful connections.
“We had a quick session of reflection on how day 1 was - what were the challenges and what were the highlights for each of us? A process of reflection is critical for learning, and in this case, it also helped many students open up, speak and share in front of strangers and connect over similar challenges and highlights. Slowly, as students shared their experiences, everyone realised that we're all very similar underneath our societal makeup.” - Rutvid Dholakia, teacher
“A big takeaway for me was the children's capacity for joy and love. Children are able to break walls and barriers so easily.” - Priyasha Sharma, teacher
A glimpse of daily reflections | Photo credit: Jothiranjan
6. Discovering a new world and a new-found appreciation for life
Students expressed their astonishment at the different trees, waterfalls, terrain, and ways of life – so different from what they were accustomed to seeing in Gujarat.
The immersive experience expanded students’ understanding of the world in ways they had never imagined. It is one thing to learn from textbooks, and quite another to see the world unfold in front of your eyes.
In many ways, the experience also made them appreciate things they had taken for granted back home.
“For the group, who were coming from the heat of Gujarat, clean, flowing and cold water was nothing short of magic. The trees were distinctly different now, the language had changed from the already different Hindi spoken in the northern plains to a slightly mountainous /pahaadi accent, the features and dress of the local population had changed, and so had the music in the cabs! Some of them began complaining about their heavy bags on the trek when they saw the locals carrying firewood on their backs. The students realised that their lives are easier in comparison to the hardships other people face.” - Rutvid Dholakia, teacher
Being in a remote setting in the outdoors, away from the chaos of city life makes students appreciate and be grateful for the simple things in life | Photo credit: Jothiranjan
7. Learning how to adapt
Children embraced uncertainty and change during the trek. From unpredictable weather to living with the bare necessities at camp, students gained the confidence to face new challenges with an open mind.
Sometimes, things beyond our planning can yield far better results.
“The unexpected snowfall and snowball-playing session connected the students much better than we could have imagined…Additionally, the students indirectly became much better at problem-solving. They learnt to manage without electricity, or hot water. They learnt that it's ok when things don’t go as planned. ‘We'll find another way.’” - Rutvid Dholakia, teacher.
8. Developing resilience and overcoming self-doubt
As the reality of ascending to an altitude of over 12,000 feet became more real, internal voices of self-doubt and fear emerged.
The students pushed on, regardless – making sure to help each other along the way. The rewards were well worth the climb, both literally and metaphorically.
"Sometimes I felt like giving up while on the trek. It was very hard. But an inner voice told me to keep going. I never knew I could do something like this. It gave me a lot of self-confidence... I usually find it difficult to interact with other people. And yet, I met so many new people on the trek and got to know them better." - Avani, Student
9. Collaborating and working together as a team
Without collective effort and encouragement, the journey would have been much more challenging. Students learnt the value of teamwork by supporting each other up the mountain.
The trek brought out the importance of discipline, following instructions, listening to your body's needs, and collaborating as a team.
Trekking is as much an individual activity, as it is a group activity. The focus was going to be on teamwork. There was no such thing as reaching 1st or 2nd since the team climbed together.
These lessons of teamwork and collaboration extend beyond the trek. It served as a reminder of how people can overcome obstacles when we work together, share our strengths, and ask for help when needed.
“The children were so proactive in helping each other on the trail. They helped others who were struggling with heavy bags without us adults having to prompt them.” - Geetaben Jagani, teacher.
10. Respect for individual abilities and decisions on the trek
Some students chose not to attempt the final climb. Instead of viewing it as a failure, everyone recognised the tremendous dedication behind their efforts.
The trek not only helped students understand their abilities better but also recognize and accept other people’s abilities without judgment.
11. A different view on Leadership
The trek provided an immersive and transformative experience for the children, allowing them to understand the multifaceted nature of leadership.
Through observation, problem-solving, and self-reflection, they discovered that true leadership begins with leading oneself.
“ Students tend to see leadership as someone taking charge of other people. But on the trail, it wasn’t about which person took the lead or how many people were picking up litter, etc. If someone wanted to do something, they went ahead and did it.” Priyasha Sharma, teacher.
“Back in the classrooms, we usually worry about filling up free time for students, since the assumption is that they will be bored. That was not the case at all during the trek. Children were highly engaged in the activities they themselves chose to do. They were spontaneous and adapted well.” Geetaben Jagani, teacher.
“I used to think that leadership was about having power over others. After the trek, I realised that true leadership is in how you share your strength with others and help them. A leader thinks not only about themselves but about the community and environment.” Arzoo, student
12. Discovering interconnectedness, and how actions have consequences
Discussions arose about the challenges of life in the mountains. Students realised how their actions in cities have far-reaching consequences on the climate.
Our choices impact even the most remote and pristine places where people lead simple, nature-connected lives. Being in the mountains gave them an opportunity to learn about climate change first-hand.
More on Outdoor Leadership Program
Beyond the classroom
Shishukunj and Indiahikes recognise the transformative value of being outdoors. Traditional education systems seldom have spaces where children can face their fears head-on, learn to collaborate instead of compete, or understand that actions have direct consequences.
One of the best ways to prepare children for the world is by taking them out into that very world, specifically into the mountains.
At Indiahikes, we believe everyone must trek - including children. Trekking gives invaluable life lessons that extend beyond the mountains. We hope the experience will empower children to navigate the complexities of the world with confidence and compassion.