Despite the common consensus that outdoor living is hugely beneficial to young people’s development, Hong Kong’s combination of extreme humidity, high population density, and inconsistent air quality means kids often find themselves staying inside for days on end.
The pioneering forest school learning initiative has become an increasingly popular antidote to the dystopian aspects of modern education. Originally a Scandinavian approach to learning, forest schools were introduced in the United Kingdom in the mid-1990s. Since then, the movement has flourished in the UK as an alternative to the conformity of national curricula.
This year, Malvern College became the first school in Hong Kong to introduce the forest school programme with a Level 3 certified Leader by the Forest School Association (FSA), Yvette Cheevers. Ms Cheevers believes that outdoor education provides benefits that will not be possible in the confines of classroom walls. “Our Forest School allows enormous scope for active and hands-on learning where activities are shaped to fit children’s differing needs: physical, emotional or cultural. Children learn how to take responsibility for their actions, and are allowed to take small risks in a safe environment. Parents recognise that being outdoors has a positive impact on well-being and helps all aspects of children’s development.”
Roughly 70% of Hong Kong is made up of countryside, so the ease of access to wilderness areas makes the city a prime locale for forest school initiatives to flourish. Ho Mei Chau, Forest School Leader at International College Hong Kong, says, “We are passionate about this [forest school] approach because the learning is real. It helps students to develop a deep appreciation for nature, encourage them to become independent, solve problems, and initiate learning for themselves.”
Parents have long suspected that excessive screen time has a detrimental effect on children’s imaginations. The forest school method provides the perfect solution for this problem. Mrs Jacqueline McNalty, Founding Principal of Malvern College Pre-School Hong Kong, explained, “The Forest School provides enormous opportunities for children to engage in quality fantasy or imaginative play with peers in an outdoor environment. It also provides endless opportunities to explore and discover mysteries of the natural world. Repeated sessions allow for the practice and consolidation of new skills, which is deal for kinaesthetic learners. Children’s critical thinking and inquiry skills are developed through the Forest School as 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.”
Hong Kong parents can be notoriously overprotective, but part of the forest school’s philosophy is to encourage supervised risk-taking as a way of fostering personal growth.
“Children really need to use their own arms and legs to climb, and fall, and get back up again,” says Yvette Cheevers. “Sometimes parents can be overprotective, stories practitioners can share with regards to the resilience of children can go some way to allaying parental fears. We organise Forest School Workshops for parents to understand more about it, and are working to develop trust with our parents, we are glad to say that parents are beginning to move back and observe.”
Ho Mei Chau agrees that local attitudes towards being outdoors and risk-taking can be difficult to change, but given enough encouragement, children will often change their minds more easily than adults.
In the lingering wake of catastrophes like avian flu, Yvette Cheevers also cites a mission to overcome the city’s perception of nature being ‘dirty’. “In the early stages, I’ve devoted a lot of time alleviating concerns and answering parental queries, says Ms Cheevers. “Kids come here with a preconception of what dirt is but we’re resetting the word ‘dirt’ with ‘earth’. We explain how that’s where your food comes from. And that’s where trees grow from – actually, it’s where everything comes from. Quite a few children have reset already. We can distract and set a task – like collecting items – and that helps overcome any worries.”
There is also a misconception that Hong Kong weather is generally either too hot or too wet. “We are using one motto, which has been attributed to the forest school ethos: ‘no bad weather, only inappropriate clothing’,” says Ms Cheevers. “This is within reason and in no way are we disrespectful of the extreme weather conditions which can be experienced in Hong Kong; just, when it rains, our sessions definitely go ahead. In fact, one group has already had, as we like to recall, a ‘baptism of fire – or rain, rather’ on our first session. Initially everyone ran for the cover of trees and as the well-prepared children ran about, everyone soon started to see the enjoyment of the moment. Some people like to feel the rain, others get wet. We know what way we are leaning.”