Outdoor education has now become a compulsory component in many Singapore schools. It makes up at least 10 per cent to 20 per cent of curriculum time in primary and secondary schools.
The range of outdoor education activities is broad, from obstacle courses and adventure trips to rock climbing and nature trails.
And the Ministry of Education also committed to more outdoor education to build ruggedness and resilience in its Addendum to the President’s Address in Parliament on Jan 15, 2016.
“In a merit-oriented society like Singapore, it is difficult for parents to accept that much learning occurs outdoors,” says Professor Marjory Ebbeck, who leads the Centre for Research and Best Practices at the National Trades Union Congress’ (NTUC) Seed Institute.
“Many children are involved in academic enrichment programmes, which limits the amount of time children have to explore the outdoor environment.”
She suggests that involving parents in excursions or sharing documentation of these trips will increase their understanding of them.
OUT OF THEIR COMFORT ZONE
In addition to having well- trained teachers, parents have a role to play in pushing each child outside her comfort zone, according to Carmen Leong, 38, a former primary school teacher who is pursuing her psychology doctorate at Massey University in New Zealand.
“Children unconsciously adopt many of their parents’ values and attitudes,” she says. “Parents need to get first-hand experience of what it means to be curious about and inspired by nature in order to be role models for them.”
In particular, she believes it is important for children to actively engage with the natural environment when one is outdoors.
HELPS CREATIVE THINKING
After surveying more than 300 secondary school students in Singapore, she found that feeling connected to nature is linked to their holistic and creative thinking.
Those who says yes to statements such as “Even in the middle of the city, I notice nature around me” were more likely to think in an innovative manner, such as by solving problems intuitively rather than analysing each step in a structured way.
“Outdoor education cannot just be limited to doing challenge courses, even though they do strengthen children’s resilience,” says Carmen.
“When you climb an artificial rock wall, the problems you solve are man-made. But when you scale a natural rock wall, that’s when you have to be creative, and understand the environment and how it works.”
Research has also shown that adults who spend time with their parents outdoors build positive relationships with them, says Dr Susanna Ho, a senior specialist in outdoor education at the MOE.
“Enjoyment in and cultivating a love for the outdoors still appear to be low on the priority list of many in a highly urbanised city-state such as Singapore,” she adds.
To deepen connections with nature, outdoor activities should not merely be one-off experiences.
Carmen Leong says that simple activities which take place frequently, such as gardening in the backyard or observing different types of plants in the parks, can go a long way in piquing curiosity about the natural environment.
“It doesn’t have to be about scaling mountains. Instead of just passing through a nature park, slow down, smell the flowers and look at the birds around you,” she says.
If executed well, outdoor education can have a positive impact on long-term memory due to the memorable nature of the field work settings, added Prof Ebbeck.
It can also increase attention spans, develop cooperation, creativity and independence, as well as build resilience in all ages of children.
In the light of the haze that enveloped Singapore for months last year, outdoor education also “provides an opportunity for students to understand the challenges we face in protecting the environment”, she adds.
TIPS FOR PARENTS
- Start simple by planning short trips, such as venturing to the neighbourhood park to look for butterflies, or differences among a range of leaves.
- Be a role model to your child by getting a first-hand experience of nature – show an interest in the environment, and draw inspiration from it. Children adopt many of their parents’ beliefs and attitudes.
- Develop your child’s sense of/attachment to a place by frequently revisiting the same location, such as Pulau Ubin or a neighbourhood nature park. Embark on a project that has high interest level which will be sustained, such as planting something together at home. Or buy a plant with your child and get him or her to help choose it.
- Work on a reflection journal or photo scrapbook together after completing outdoor activities.
- Do environmental art such as drawing in the sand, or collecting fallen leaves or flowers to form a collage.
- Put photos of trips in small albums and at different times sit with your child and talk about them – children love to do this.
A version of this article first appeared in The Straits Times.