Experts hail more focus on outdoor education

But such activities require proper planning, instruction and effective follow-ups, they say

Education experts here welcomed the Ministry of Education's (MOE) announcements in an Addendum to President Tony Tan Keng Yam's Address in Parliament two weeks ago that a stronger emphasis will be placed on outdoor education in the coming years.

However, they stressed that these activities need to be properly conceived, well taught and effectively followed up on in order to produce the best learning experiences.

Outdoor education has become a compulsory component in many Singapore schools.


Children at The Garden House Preschool playing in a sand pit during their daily session of outdoor play. Outdoor education makes up at least 10 per cent to 20 per cent of curriculum time in primary and secondary schools here. ST PHOTO: SEAH KWANG PENG

 
 
 

Under a physical education syllabus introduced in 2014, 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.

Professor Marjory Ebbeck, who leads the Centre for Research and Best Practices at the National Trades Union Congress' (NTUC) Seed Institute, said activities need to match the age and developmental level of the child. Risk-taking, in particular, is necessary "within the limits of each child's capabilities".

TOO MUCH EMPHASIS ON GRADES

In a merit-oriented society like Singapore, it is difficult for parents to accept that much learning occurs outdoors. Many children are involved in academic enrichment programmes, which limits the amount of time children have to explore the outdoor environment.

PROFESSOR MARJORY EBBECK, who leads the Centre for Research and Best Practices at NTUC's Seed Institute, on getting parents to understand how outdoor education benefits their children

Experts agree that parents need to work with schools to ensure that the objectives are met.

REAL-WORLD CHALLENGES

Outdoor education cannot just be limited to doing challenge courses, even though they do strengthen children's resilience. 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.

MS CARMEN LEONG, a former primary school teacher who is pursuing her psychology doctorate

Just last year, outdoor learning was thrust into the spotlight when seven Primary 6 pupils from Tanjong Katong Primary School died when an earthquake occurred while they were trekking up Mount Kinabalu in Sabah. Two teachers and a Singaporean adventure guide were also killed in the incident.

Some questioned the safety of overseas expeditions, even calling for a ban on them.

"In a merit-oriented society like Singapore, it is difficult for parents to accept that much learning occurs outdoors," said Prof Ebbeck.

"Many children are involved in academic enrichment programmes, which limits the amount of time children have to explore the outdoor environment."

She suggested that involving parents in excursions or sharing documentation of these trips will increase their understanding of them.

Then Education Minister Heng Swee Keat announced last July that the MOE would set up an advisory panel, consisting of local and international experts, to help enhance the quality and safety of outdoor adventure and learning programmes.

Details of when it will be created have not yet been announced.

In addition to having well- trained teachers, parents have a role to play in pushing each child outside his or her comfort zone, according to Ms 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 said. "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.

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 said 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," said Ms Leong. "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, said 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 added.

To deepen connections with nature, outdoor activities should not merely be one-off experiences.

Ms Leong said 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 said.

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 added.

Parents such as IT manager Sofia Lee, 50, support more outdoor education programmes for students.

"My daughter has visited places like the Botanic Gardens with her school and the time spent in nature incites her curiosity and stimulates her desire to learn," said Madam Lee, whose daughter is in Primary 4. "As long as there are enough teachers to look after the pupils and ensure their safety, I wouldn't mind sending her on more trips, and even on overseas trips."

But sales manager Jake Tay, 42, who has a daughter in Primary 6, feels outdoor programmes should be improved and be led by trained teachers who know the pupils better. "Most of outdoor activities she attends are provided by third-party vendors, and not all of them are of high quality, or cater to the pupils' interests."


Tips for parents on outdoor education for children:

•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.

•Responses: Ms Carmen Leong, Prof Marjory Ebbeck

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on February 01, 2016, with the headline 'Experts hail more focus on outdoor education'. Print Edition | Subscribe