Welcome to Vidya Vanam, a school for rural and tribal children in Anaikatti near Coimbatore in Tamil Nadu.

Vidya Vanam is a school with no prescribed textbooks. The children learn their subjects in themes. Last year, for instance, the theme was' Rice', and their learning included cultivating five micro-plots of paddy themselves. Two teams of first-generation English speakers even had a debate on genetically modified crops: Debating rice in the forest of learning

It is a school where children learn to speak their minds and explore their talents. And they do this at their own pace. Some of the smallest children are clearly born ‘leaders'.

Welcoming faces at Vidya Vanam
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

Welcoming faces at Vidya Vanam

A born ‘leader’. At 12.15 it will be lunch time, so the paatis (older women, grandmothers) and akkas (younger women, sisters) get things ready, while some children enjoy their favourite time of the day: playing games
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

A born ‘leader’. At 12.15 it will be lunch time, so the paatis (older women, grandmothers) and akkas (younger women, sisters) get things ready, while some children enjoy their favourite time of the day: playing games

An aspiring Lionel Messi?
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar
An aspiring Lionel Messi?
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

An aspiring Lionel Messi?

PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

Three-in-one hoop

PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

Another use of the hoop (left); and another ball game (right) 

Left: In the open dining hall, there is silence before the storm. Right: Plates and mats just before the children storm in
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar
Left: In the open dining hall, there is silence before the storm. Right: Plates and mats just before the children storm in
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

Left: In the open dining hall, there is silence before the storm. Right: Plates and mats just before the children storm in

PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

Eager faces above still-empty plates: a short while later the younger children are enjoying their lunch and the sounds of laughter fill up the open air dining area 

PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

After about 10 minutes the laughter is replaced with the chanting of ‘paati, paati’ as the children request a second serving. They are rewarded with that  second helping

Meanwhile, the older students gather on stage for the daily assembly. Today is 'Comedy Day' and whoever has something prepared or wants to improvise is given time to do so. These two boys enact a short skit on ‘The elephant and the tree’
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

Meanwhile, the older students gather on stage for the daily assembly. Today is 'Comedy Day' and whoever has something prepared or wants to improvise is given time to do so. These two boys enact a short skit on ‘The elephant and the tree’ 

PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

Some students conduct a quiz and others tell jokes

PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

The children from the senior classes often steal the show. The day’s comedians are a hit with the audience

PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

After lunch the children have some free time for doing what they like most  – playing with the hula-hoopsAnd soon the lunch break is over and the students walk back to their classes, though some girls want to keep playing right until they reach the classroom. They can’t let go the hoops even while walking back to class

Left: Senior students, Vindhya and Aravali, are preparing the newspaper that will come out on ‘Project Day’ on November 27. During discussions with group members, they are highly focussed, jotting down important points in their neat handwriting
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar
writing down points
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

Left: Senior students, Vindhya and Aravali, are preparing the newspaper that will come out on ‘Project Day’ on November 27. During discussions with group members, they are highly focussed, jotting down important points in their neat handwriting 

Art class and preparing pages for the forthcoming newspaper
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar
Art class and preparing pages for the forthcoming newspaper
PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

Art class and preparing pages for the forthcoming newspaper

PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

Getting the artwork ready

PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

A leaf for a painted eye

PHOTO • Suzanne ter Haar

‘Group photo’ time has them bubbling with smiles again

This photostory is a part of the reporter's 10-week internship with PARI.

Suzanne ter Haar

Suzanne ter Haar is a journalism student from Ku Leuven University, Brussels, and founder of the Gutz Foundation that works on HIV testing among youth in Tanzania.

Other stories by Suzanne ter Haar