How to help Hong Kong’s cocooned kids lose their fear of nature and start enjoying the great outdoors

School excursions can be a nightmare for youngsters afraid of what nature can dish up, but parents should encourage their children to join family outings and embrace the fun and benefits of a walk on the wild side

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 6:46am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 07 June, 2017, 10:07am

My Year Four son recently went on a school trip walking in the hills, tree planting and gardening. He hated it. He dislikes walking, especially in the heat, and is not confident going up and down steep hills. He also hates insects, especially mosquitoes, and is frightened of snakes. It’s difficult to get him out at the weekends and I don’t know how I can encourage him to enjoy the outdoors.

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Life for some children has become very sanitised and city-based. This is a travesty for several reasons. There is strong evidence that being in and around nature helps to ease stress and increase happiness levels. Walking in nature has huge benefits for mental and physical health, not to mention mood and brain function. Research shows that it can improve concentration and lead to positive brain activity, particularly creative thinking.

When spending most of our time in artificial environments such as cities, our brains are constantly bombarded with sights and sounds, and become over-stimulated. Our senses become overloaded.

With the addition of technology this can lead to a pretty manic existence. Just one daily contact with nature, as simple as tending and watering a plant, can improve our quality of life and peace of mind.

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Even if schools are creative in ensuring that their students gain these opportunities using the curriculum they teach, this type of learning can still be very classroom-based. School excursions to places of natural interest are an ideal opportunity for students to interact meaningfully with nature.

Children who are not exposed to activities such as hill walking and being out in the countryside may initially find these trips hard. The Hong Kong heat, humidity and mosquitoes can be challenging.

However, there are few places better for exciting hill walking with great views and accessible beaches.

A parent can be a crucial role model. You can help your son lead a more active, outdoor life where interactions with nature are a common family activity. Over time this will help him overcome some of his fears and build confidence in tackling steep hills and, most importantly, gain enjoyment from being in the great outdoors.

As your son is starting from a negative mindset, careful preparation is vital. Start with shorter walks so he can steadily build up his fitness level – autumn and winter are ideal to walk but otherwise choose early morning or evening when it’s cooler. Make sure he has light, loose clothing and a sun hat, and take insect repellent. He should take a comfortable backpack with plenty of water and some energy snacks.

Do your best to make it fun. Take one of his friends or walk with another family; this should help to distract him from the things he dislikes. Have an ice cream stop, visit a beach along the way or take a picnic. Give him a sense of responsibility by asking him to help plan the route or check a ferry timetable. Encourage hands-on, tactile contact with nature.

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I remember being dragged on walks by my parents, which at times I was reluctant to do, but it gave me a knowledge and love of nature that I’ve carried into later life and have continued with my own daughter. Such potentially life-changing experiences should be encouraged.

School camps are another ideal opportunity for pupils to do all sorts of physical activities and appreciate the world around them. These residential trips encourage resilience and independence as students are expected to manage themselves and their belongings in a new context.

Some students discover passions for things they have never attempted before, and it’s a great opportunity to get dirty and revel in being in the heart of the countryside. Even pupils who find the whole experience challenging usually learn a great deal about themselves and how to cooperate with others.

Unfortunately, some parents try their hardest to keep their children away from germs and dirt. They are cooped up in a sterile environment that makes them more prone to catching germs – they don’t come into contact with bacteria, therefore building up fewer antibodies to protect them.

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As few families in Hong Kong have gardens, and school trips are rare, parents need to be proactive in their children’s outdoor education, giving them opportunities to play and walk in the countryside and observe nature.

As an aside – I have been hill walking for more than 20 years and on the rare occasion I have seen a snake it has been a lot keener to avoid me than vice versa.

Julie McGuire is a former Hong Kong primary school teacher