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Little green shoots: How local schools are taking the classroom outside

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In a world where children are often confined to small flats, familiarity with nature can fall by the way side. Fortunately local schools are making it their mission to give students a hands-on outdoor upbringing. Sam Agars reports.

For city kids the opportunities to play in creeks, climb trees and generally just get dirty often aren’t there. Some parts of Lantau, even DB to an extent, are the exception, but still many children are more inclined to sit glued to their iPads than get out amongst nature. It is for this reason that schools play a crucial role in getting the youngsters of today in touch with the environment, especially when they first start their learning from the ages of three to five.

Discovery Bay International School (DBIS), Discovery College (DC) and Lantau International School (LIS) are three such schools that make a point of getting kids comfortable with nature, with all three running dedicated outdoor programmes.

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Into the forest 

DBIS is leading the way in Discovery Bay when it comes to getting really young children outdoors, with the school adopting the Forest School programme at its Early Years campus last September. Heavily used in the UK, the programme offers children the opportunity to develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland environment. To provide this, DBIS has created its very own garden based around typhoon- salvaged wood and a range of other recycled natural materials.

“We want the children’s learning to be evident, rather than the teaching resources,” says Eleanor Loran, the head of Early Years at DBIS. “So rather than having a plastic car which only allows you to play cars, we’ve got sticks, we’ve got logs, we’ve got pebbles, so that children can make all sorts of things.

“Our curriculum is based on communication and language, the children are part of a group situation. They speak to one another, they learn how to cooperate, how to be more flexible and adaptable and there is also the physical development side,” Eleanor adds. “They are having to lift; they are having to roll. It’s not flat terrain, so they have to consider where they place their feet.”

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While the Forest School programme is aimed at reception-aged kids (four- and five-year-olds), the three- and four-year-olds in the DBIS nursery follow a similar programme called Eco Explorers. They all get a chance to explore the purpose built garden, which is run by Denzel the Dragon and can only be entered by those who have found the dragon’s breath.

“It’s all about this story about the dragon who guards the forest and he leaves dragon’s breath,” explains Helen McLean, reception year group leader at DBIS. “To kick it off with a story is great because they really buy into it. They all hang up their little totem sticks and you have to have that to be welcome in the forest. The wool wrapped around the totem stick, that’s dragon’s breath.”

Children learn to tie knots, make tents, create mud masks and build bridges as their skills progress, while developing confidence in the outdoors along the way. Helen is soon to receive accreditation as a level-three Forest School leader and will eventually expand the programme to include the use of fire and other tools.

“I want the children to learn to risk themselves sensibly and be able to manage tools themselves,” she says. “You never learn those rules until you try. It is building independence because in a world where there are a lot of helpers, everyone gets help to do everything.”

Down the track DBIS hopes to take students to the beach, into actual parks and woodlands and eventually up to the DB rock pools near the pagoda. “It is really about exploring, getting involved and getting mucky and messy, which is proven with young children in particular to support their learning,” Eleanor says.

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A natural connection

Over at DC, there is an equal emphasis on outdoor activities for kids at reception level. Four- and five-year-olds are exposed to outdoor learning experiences based around sustainability, such as gardening and composting.

“Getting students involved in such learning activities not only nurtures core skills such as collaboration and communication, but can also foster a sense of responsibility to our community and our natural environment,” says Peter Muir, DC’s community engagement coordinator.

“It can also take steps to address what some have labelled the nature-deficit disorder, where a lack of connection with our natural environment can lead to its unsustainable use,” Paul adds.

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Hong Kong’s greenest 

Being considered the greenest school in Hong Kong is something that LIS fully embraces. Given its location, the title comes as no surprise, with campuses dotted down the southern coast of Lantau. While the Tong Fuk and Pui O campuses cater to older children, the Cheung Sha campus is tailored especially for reception level, so those aged four and five.

According to vice principal James Lambert, one of the school’s missions is to get children outside as much as possible, with music and art lessons often held outside. Explaining that the Cheung Sha campus is literally surrounded by trees, he says: “The space and the location is beautiful and it just brings another dimension to the whole learning experience. It might not always be linked to the environment, just to get them out  as much as we can.

“The big debate in the school is how much screen time is too much,” James adds. “We have got the laptops and everything which are very valuable resources, but there is always discussion within the staff about how much is too much.”

Reception kids are taken on hikes and to the beach to foster their appreciation of nature, teaching them about the many different dynamics that make up their surrounds. “With the little ones, it is more about learning about nature and about the seasons and that sort of thing,” James says. “We have lots of weird and wonderful animals around the school and we show the kids and teach the kids how to respect animals. Of course, the kids on South Lantau are very knowledgeable already.”

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