Important lessons in the great outdoors
Nature offers children an exciting playground and an excellent classroom. And recognising that has prompted an increasing number of schools in Hong Kong to introduce programmes which take students into the great outdoors, so they can experience the wonders of the natural world.
For instance, Malvern College Hong Kong, which will open in late August 2018 for primary and secondary students from Year 1 to Year 9, is rolling out a special programme for pupils to learn from and about the woodland environment, which is more or less on the doorstep.
“Put simply, the Forest School programme incorporates regular outdoor learning experiences into normal school life,” says founding headmaster Dr Robin Lister. “Children will spend a morning or afternoon per week or fortnight in a woodland setting near to the school, and will do that over a significant amount of time.”
The basic aim is to give children the freedom to learn in an exciting environment, which they may have little previous exposure to, particularly in a dense city landscape like Hong Kong.
Lister explained that doing this also encourages child-led learning, giving younger pupils the time and opportunity to develop at their own pace and in their own way.
In addition, the outdoor setting provides the chance to play within safe but less restrictive boundaries, which has been shown to spur imagination and encourage a sense of exploration. Being closer to nature also helps to develop critical thinking and curiosity, as well as an interest in understanding how the world works and being hands on in solving problems with unfamiliar materials and resources.
And for those who are identified as kinaesthetic learners, these sessions allow them to practise and consolidate all kinds of new skills.
“Most studies agree that kids who play outside are smarter, happier, more attentive and less anxious than kids who spend more time indoors,” Lister said. “While it is unclear exactly how the cognitive functioning and mood improvements occur, we do know a few things about why nature is good for kids’ minds.”
The benefits include building children’s confidence, promoting creativity and imagination, teaching responsibility, and providing different types of stimulation. Being outdoors also gets kids moving, makes them think about new challenges and - of particular relevance in Hong Kong - helps to reduce stress and fatigue.
Academic research also confirms that learning through nature supports multiple development domains. It enhances cognitive abilities, improves academic performance, boosts concentration, and can even improve eyesight and appetite.
It should therefore be no surprise that Malvern College Hong Kong is adopting the programme as a way of furthering the school’s overall mission.
“What makes a Malvern education so special is the emphasis we place on educating each child as an individual,” Lister says. “Forest School will allow children to learn beyond the framework of the curriculum. Pupils will be encouraged to explore the natural elements of wood, sand, soil and water. They will make things with leaves, sticks and all kinds of natural materials, catch and release bugs, build swings and hammocks, and generally explore the great outdoors.”
Doing this will also help younger students gain a deeper understanding of size, shape, colour, measurement and the basis of many key scientific concepts.
“We believe access to an outdoor environment contributes significantly to a child’s emotional well-being, level of confidence and self-esteem, all of which lay the foundations for academic success,” Lister says.
The Forest School approach started in Scandinavia in the 1950s before being introduced in Britain in the mid-1990s. Since then, it has spread to other parts of the world including Australia, Singapore, South Korea, and the Caribbean. In Hong Kong too, a growing number of pre-schools have been adopting this approach to learning.
The beauty of the programme, Lister says, is that it can be incorporated into any curriculum or any school. It prepares children for each stage of their education by fostering resilience and independence plus an interest in sustainability and a better understanding of the natural world.
For Malvern College Hong Kong, this is an extension of a pattern established at their sister school in Britain, which pioneered Nuffield Science, an approach which promotes the study of science subjects through experimentation and discovery.
“Our approach to the teaching and learning of STEM (science, technology, engineering and maths) is focused on practical work, inspiring a spirit of inquiry, critical thinking and problem solving,” Lister says. “This emphasises the relevance of the work to environmental, social, technical and economic issues.”