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Children and the great outdoors

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 20 June, 2017, 4:18pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 21 June, 2017, 10:00am

Running, jumping and skipping outdoors while making plenty of high-spirited noise might, at first glance, seem incompatible with academic learning and good test scores. But all the evidence suggests that children, especially those in the pre-school and kindergarten years, perform better in class if the unstructured outdoor play is an integral part of the curriculum. 

Educators, doctors and sociologists have long understood that play contributes to physical well-being by helping the development of muscle group and motor skills. But it also assists in the development of language skills, creativity and problem-solving abilities, and an understanding of different emotions. As a result, Hong Kong’s Department of Health recommends at least three hours of physical activity a day for pre-school children and at least an hour a day for those at primary school and above. 

However, a combination of factors including inadequate space, busy school timetables and an increase in structured activities mean that doesn’t always happen. Many children in Hong Kong have limited opportunities to play at home and at school. Indeed, a study conducted by the Physical Fitness Association of Hong Kong (PFA) of nearly 15,000 children at 89 local kindergartens found that almost none have the recommended time for play and exercise during the school day. In fact, in most half-day and full-day kindergartens, children get, respectively, less than 60 or 120 minutes a day to play outdoors. 

That said, a growing number of pre-schools and kindergartens are taking steps to correct that situation. They include Malvern College Pre-school, Garden House in Sai Kung, English Schools Foundation (ESF) Tsing Yi International Kindergarten, and Wilderness Preschool. All are making sure there is plenty of time in their early-years learning programmes for outdoor activities and games.  

“We think of children playing outdoors as being in a classroom without walls,” says Vicky Bewsey, principal of the ESF International Kindergarten at Tsing Yi who endorses the view that play is a child’s work. “Our children love playing outdoors where they are free to run around, shout and sometimes even get dirty or wet.”

Bewsey subscribes to the principle that early childhood education needs to nurture the whole child and see everything as a chance to learn. “Even if they are not playing games, they find sticks, stones, grass and whatever is available to make all sorts of imaginative things.” She believes the creative skills learned through play are crucial for healthy development and for future academic success. “When playing, children’s minds are free to explore without interference from teachers or parents. They often end up with some very creative results.” 

Jacqueline McNalty, founding principal of Malvern College Pre-school Hong Kong, believes access to an outdoor environment is as important to children’s well-being and education as a conventional kindergarten classroom. “Through learning in the great outdoors, children have opportunities for hands-on, physical learning, which engages and stimulates all the senses,” says McNalty, who outlined Malvern’s upcoming Forest School programme for parents attending the recent Education Post Kindergarten Festival. 

Scheduled to start in September, its basic philosophy centres on child-led learning. Originally developed in Scandinavia in the 1950s, Forest School programmes are now popular in Canada, the United States and Britain. There is an emphasis on active, play-based enquiry using all the senses. Research shows this helps to develop skills, knowledge, concepts and confidence in ways not always possible in
a more formal classroom setting. 

The programme will see children spending a morning or afternoon every week or so in a woodland setting in Sai Kung. Playing outdoors also helps to develop critical thinking skills.

“It provides great scope for problem solving with new materials and resources, encouraging children to be inventive and allowing for better understanding and ways of doing things,” McNalty says. 

Although Forest programmes can be used for all age groups, they have proved especially popular with pre-school children. In Hong Kong, in particular, it takes kids out of the usual urban environment and gives them a new sense of freedom.

Separately, the American Academy of Pediatrics also emphasises that play is essential for children’s social, emotional, cognitive and physical well-being. They state that social and emotional learning should not be seen as distinct from academic learning. Proper integration of the various aspects only enhances the child’s ability to learn.

In noting Albert Einstein’s observation about it being a miracle curiosity survives formal education, Connie Kenny, director of Wilderness Kindergarten, emphasises that children learn best through doing, not as passive, inactive receivers of information. 

“We create an environment where children can be constantly thinking and making sense of their world and their environment,” Kenny says. “Our curriculum is certainly rich in literacy and numeracy. But it is in our garden that they can engage, experiment, and touch sand, soil and plants. They observe caterpillars, make friends, explore, invent, socialise and enjoy life to the fullest.” 

She adds that children need what the school refers to as “vitamin G”, for garden, to promote intellectual growth and a healthy lifestyle. This concept is understood and appreciated by parents who see how outdoor activity improves physical health and encourages a sense of inquiry. 

Cannie Bennett, founder of Garden House Pre-school and Kindergarten in Sai Kung, says children connect with the world through first-hand experiences. Therefore, early learning should not be all about acquiring information from books, but should include exploring nature, growing plants, and getting your hands dirty. 

“Our children have an interest in outdoor activities, and this is part of our curriculum,” Bennett says. “This approach is very relevant to our times. Practical work is essential for healthy development. Through outdoor activities such as gardening, children can become fully engaged with their surrounding by using their senses.” 

Bennett believes this is a key step to becoming resilient, intelligent individuals, something parents may impede by being too protective. 

“Children need to climb, jump, run outdoors, pick up leaves and, occasionally, fall and get hurt,” she says. “These are all natural and necessary experiences that will help develop a healthy sensory system which is fundamental to learning and accomplishing many of life’s goals.”  

Children need to climb, jump, run outdoors, pick up leaves and, occasionally, fall and get hurt

As vice principal at Fairchild Kindergarten, which follows the Reggio Emilia approach, Betty Yau says that inquiry-based, play-focused learning allows children to be knowledge maker, collaborator and communicator. Using a water-play area and one for creative arts, teachers at Fairchild have the space and materials needed to “bring the outdoors in”. 

“Children take ownership of their learning activities, for example by counting pebbles or pine-cones, but in an authentic and developmentally appropriate way,” Yau says. Encouraging youngsters to interact with natural elements creates endless possibilities for discovery. “Play is a crucial vehicle for exploring and learning, developing new skills, building relationships, and connecting with others,” Yau says.

Gynis Lo, whose daughter attends Fairchild Junior Academy (FJA), notes that many children in Hong Kong have too few opportunities to explore nature. She, though, addresses this by taking her daughter to parks at the weekend to reinforce lessons learned at school. 

Heather Lin, whose son also attends FJA, has noticed clear benefits from the approach of bringing the outdoors in. “My child’s days are filled with examining seashell specimens, cataloguing exotic stuffed animals, discovering the laws of physics, and studying the behaviour of his fellow adventurers,” she says.