Plants are our most accessible doorways into the natural world. They don't move, for one, and even for urban dwellers like ourselves, chances are that we have a few plants around us.

Ask any adult about plants, and they are likely to list out the economical, religious, cultural, medicinal, or ornamental uses of plants. Our attitude towards plants also reflects in what we teach our children at school – chlorophyll, photosynthesis, oxygen, water, timber, food, and pests. But children create knowledge outside of classrooms too, particularly during play, a crucial childhood activity, of which plants are very much a part of. Children are quite capable of learning about plants through their own observations, given that they spend time with them. We decided to find out how children interact with plants during play.

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Students from a school in Arasur, who love to climb a Banyan tree near their school. Photograph: P Jeganathan

But before we asked children, we looked back at our own experiences from childhood. To begin with, we were unsure if we would remember anything, memory being such an unreliable thing. But as we started writing them down, we were surprised to remember a lot more than we had anticipated. It seemed possible that the time we had spent with plants had left an indelible mark on our memory. From a long list, we have tried to compile our play activities with plants under a few common themes below.

Whistles: Making whistles out of leaves was a very common activity. We would take leaves of the Portia tree, Thespesia populnea, tear it along the mid-rib and then roll each half into a whistle. We also used leaves from the Peepal tree, Ficus religiosa, to make whistles.

Sunglasses: We would take two leaves of the Peepal tree, Ficus religiosa, tie their long petioles together, and make the leaf stalks sit over our ears. Sunglasses ready. Sometimes, we cut small holes in the middle of the leaves to see through.

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Students from Villupuram use Alstonia scholaris tree sap to create near-invisible tattoos on their skin. Photograph: P Jeganathan

Coins and Earrings: We plucked the flat green pods of the Sheesham tree, Dalbergia sissoo, in pairs, and made them sit on top of our ears, the two pods lightly dangling on either side of our ears as we shook our heads this way and that. We also collected its leaves as coins.

Top: We played with the woody fruits of Eucalyptus trees. We would hold a fruit with its stalk between our thumb and index finger, rotate and release it to make it spin like a top.

Colour-My-Tongue: We ate the bluish-black fruits of the Jamun tree, Syzygium cumini, and the reddish fruits of the Shahtoot, Morus sp, not just for their sweet taste, but also for the joy of having our tongues coloured blue and red. We would stick out our tongues at one another and compare to check who among us had managed a darker shade.

Satheesh A, a class 10 student from Cinchona, Valparai, rolls up a tea leaf to make a whistle. Video: Selvaganesh K

Rollers: After eating the edible portions of the fruit from Palmyra palm, Borrassus flablifer, we would join two empty shells of the fruit with a small stick and roll it like a vandi (vehicle, in Tamil).

Cricket Bat: We used to shape cricket bats out of the stalky base of Coconut leaves.

Sticky Grass: We plucked the inflorescence of Napier grass, Pennisetum purpureum, and when a friend was facing away from us, we would throw it and make it stick to their clothing. Only when the prickly flowers irritated them would they realise what had happened. Often a game of chase followed, once they figured out who did it.

Students from a school in Arasur create nail art from the sepals of Gulmohar flowers. Video: Krishnaveni G

We were curious to find out how children use plants in their play these days. We had the opportunity to visit schools participating in the SeasonWatch project in Tamil Nadu and interact with the children. Here are some of the interesting things we found out.

  • Nithya from Coimbatore named a tree as 'The Walk' because the tree has an almost horizontal branch which she loves to climb and regularly walk on.
  • Students from a school in Arasur love to climb a Banyan tree, Ficus benghalensis, close to their school, and swing and sway holding its aerial roots. They also collect the fallen flowers of Gulmohar, Delonix regia, remove the sepals and place them on their nails. They show off their new pointy green nails to their friends and also try to threaten them. 
  • Sasi from Velliangadu School uses a Jatropha curcas leaf to make bubbles! After carefully breaking the petiole in the middle and by blowing on the mucilage that oozes out, you can make tiny mucilage bubbles.
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Students from Cinchona, Valparai, use Croton leaves to make tiny handbags. Photograph: Selvaganesh K
  • Students from a school in Villupuram use the leaves of Devil’s tree, Alstonia scholaris, to make a sort-of-tattoo on their skin. They pluck a leaf and using the clear sap that runs out, they write on their skin, usually on the arm. Since this is not visible, they dust some soil on top of what they have written. The soil sticks to the sap and by shaking off the remaining soil, a temporary tattoo is revealed.
  • Students from a school in Valparai do various things with the plants around them. Valparai is clothed in tea plantations and therefore, instead of using Peepal or Portia tree leaves, children here use tea leaves to make whistles! They also use fern leaves to make intricate tattoo patterns on their bodies. They pluck a fern leaf containing silvery spores on the underside and press the leaf against the skin of their arm. Doing this deposits the spores on their skin, creating a nice fern-shaped pattern. Unlike students of Villupuram who use the Devil’s tree to write on their skin, the children here use a Croton sp. (ornamental plant) to make an invisible tattoo on their hand and dust it with soil to make it visible. They use the same leaves to make a cute little hand-bag as well!
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Students from Cinchona, Valparai, use the spores of ferns to make intricate tattoos. Photograph: Selvaganesh K

As children, we explored plants by looking at their different parts, by touching them, playing with them, creating stories around them, and giving them meaning in our lives. Sometimes, we got pricked by thorns or even nettle and learnt about these plants through our experiences. Plants gave us a place or a prop to play and learn, but most of all they gave us memories that we continue to cherish after years.

Here, we have listed some of our own experiences, as well as of children we were fortunate to meet. Do you have a list of childhood plant buddies? Do you remember how you played with them? If you have children or know children, ask them how they play with plants and show them how you used to play with different plants. Plants are portals that connect us to the natural world and to the child within.

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SeasonWatch September Tree Quest

WHEN: September 13-16, 2019

WHAT: A countrywide bioblitz event where anyone interested in trees can observe and upload data on leafing, flowering and fruiting patterns.

HOW: Participating is really easy. Download and register yourself on the SeasonWatch (app in Google Play). Go outdoors and find a tree you would like to observe, and record simple observations about its leaves, flowers and fruits. Login to the app, click on the 'Casual' tab and then click on the 'Eye' button to add an observation. Choose a tree species (list), add its location and then add your observation. Press 'Save' to upload.

RESOURCES: Visit the SeasonWatch events page for more details.

CONTACT: sw@seasonwatch.in (email) | +91 7349567602 (WhatsApp)

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Disclaimer: We have been granted permission by the parents and teachers of all the children to use their photos and videos here. 

Acknowledgements: We thank all the students for sharing their experiences. We thank the teachers, Mrs. Ganga, Mrs. Krishnaveni and Mr. Selvaganesh for their cooperation and help.