Outdoor education must be prioritised

It should not be an add-on, but be integrated into the curriculum in an authentic way

I am in agreement with recent Straits Times articles that promote outdoor education for children. But I am also concerned about how we intend to promote a love for nature and physical learning in an education culture which has a long-held assumption that the mind, body and emotion operate separately, and a school curriculum largely adult-structured, didactic and focused on subjects.

Outdoor education must not be an add-on or an item on the checklist. It can be integrated into the curriculum in an authentic, experiential and enjoyable way for children.

Meaningful integration of learning experiences has always been a hallmark of high-quality early-year education. But in Singapore, we tend to schedule the school day according to subjects (English, maths, physical education and so on) and, sometimes, we may lose sight of why we do what we do.

If education is to create citizens for the future, what do we want? Passive consumers of information and followers? Or problem solvers, creators and inventors? People who can fit into existing vocations or those who invent jobs? People who value the present more than the future sustainability of the environment in which humankind thrives?

While I recognise strengths in our current pre-school and primary school systems, we can better match our curricula with children's natural inclinations and nurture them by building on their strengths.

This is not to say we should give in to children's whims and fancies, but to see them as wholly functioning human beings with thoughts, ideas, feelings and the need to move while they learn and the need to use all their senses to understand our very complex world.

Children should be seen as wholly functioning human beings with thoughts, ideas, feelings and the need to move while they learn and use all their senses. There should be more dynamic learning experiences led by young children so that they can play an
Children should be seen as wholly functioning human beings with thoughts, ideas, feelings and the need to move while they learn and use all their senses. There should be more dynamic learning experiences led by young children so that they can play an active role in their own learning, says the writer. ST FILE PHOTO

Before we send six-year-olds to adventure ropes or gym classes, let us consider more mundane activities - walk or bike around the neighbourhood, play hopscotch and invent games in the void deck, set up a treasure hunt and run around the block, or modify the local playground with things such as large boxes, string and fabric to create a makeshift swing or hammock.

As an educator and researcher, I would promote more dynamic learning experiences (indoors and outdoors) that are experiential, in-depth and led by young children so that they can play an active role in their own learning.

To do so, let me simplify recent findings in neuroscience about brain growth in the early years.

EARLY BRAIN DEVELOPMENT

Many traditional ideas about intelligence and child growth are now challenged by new findings.

The brain controls all of our thoughts, movement and feelings. Hence, mind, body and emotion are all linked. While most of the brain's cells are formed before birth, many connections among cells are made only during the first few years of a child's life. Hence, a child's daily experience and interaction with the physical and social environment is very critical to brain development.

We are each born with more than 100 billion brain cells or neurons, all of which require connecting. Genes alone do not shape brain development or a child's ability to cope and learn throughout life.

We also know a three-year-old's brain has about 1,000 trillion connections and is twice as active as an adult's brain. However, early brain development will not thrive with academic hothousing as the brain should develop in a certain sequence that constantly connects mind, body and feelings.

SEQUENTIAL GROWTH: PAY ATTENTION TO FOUNDATION

The brain develops sequentially from the least complex to the most complex - from the brain stem at the base of the skull to the cortex, the top layer of the brain.

The brain stem controls basic life activities such as body temperature and blood pressure. The cortex has 80 per cent of the neurons because it is the executive branch of the brain that regulates decision-making and controls how we use language, think and reason. Hence, the cortex keeps developing until adolescence and beyond.

In between the brain stem and cortex are other equally important elements that need to be established in a child's early years:

•The mid-brain that controls motor activity, appetite and sleep;

•The cerebellum that coordinates movement and balance; and

•The limbic system that controls emotions, attachment and memory.

The construction of the brain in the early years is like the construction of a building.

While the brain's function is more complex and different sections of the brain often work in parallel, we cannot ignore the importance of building connections from the foundation (brain stem) and upwards through the mid-brain, cerebellum, limbic system and cortex.

Once the brain's architecture is in place during the early years, a child continues learning and adding on. But if the foundation is not stable or if you want to move a structural wall later in life, it will be harder.

Take, for example, eating habits. Young children need to be often offered new types of healthy food to broaden their diet as early as possible, as it is harder to educate taste buds when children become teens.

MOVEMENT AND LEARNING

As adults, we may have forgotten that there are many basic life and physical skills to be learnt.

Research has found strong correlations between physical motor development and cognitive development (language, memory, perception and attention).

The same part of the brain that supports learning is also responsible for physical movement. The prime time for motor development is in the first 12 years of life - beginning with large motor skills such as balancing or walking and moving on to fine motor skills such as drawing.

BALANCING ADULT-STRUCTURED AND CHILD-LED EXPERIENCES

Before we send six-year-olds to adventure ropes or gym classes, let us consider more mundane activities - walk or bike around the neighbourhood, play hopscotch and invent games in the void deck, set up a treasure hunt and run around the block, or modify the local playground with things such as large boxes, string and fabric to create a makeshift swing or hammock.

Childcare centres and kindergartens in Housing Board estates could do with greater access to safe outdoor spaces.

Primary schools must continue to let children have pockets of free playtime in school, such as during recess or after school.

•The writer is a senior lecturer at SIM University, and specialises in early childhood education.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 06, 2016, with the headline 'Outdoor education must be prioritised'. Print Edition | Subscribe