The great outdoors is not only a place for adventures and exploring what Mother Nature has to offer, it also provides many other benefits to our youth for their holistic development. In this issue’s Big Idea, we speak to SingTeach Guest Editor Professor John Wang from the Physical Education and Sports Science Academic Group at NIE and a group of outdoor educators and enthusiasts. They discuss the importance of helping youth cultivate the love of nature and how to encourage them to get outdoors more often.
The National Push for Outdoor Education
In 2016, Minister for Education (Schools) Mr Ng Chee Meng announced that stronger emphasis will be placed on outdoor education in the coming years through the National Outdoor Adventure Education Master Plan. The plan will make outdoor education compulsory in every Singapore school.
“Outdoor Education is another platform that provides rich learning experiences outside the classroom for building resilience, tenacity and ruggedness in our youth,” said Minister Ng in Parliament during the Committee of Supply debate in April 2016 (Ng, 2016).
For many of the outdoor educators we spoke to, this announcement was a welcome one.
Benefits of Being in Nature
“I have always been a strong believer in outdoor education and also in the need to be close to nature,” says Professor Wang. “Nature allows us to rediscover and recharge ourselves, and promotes overall well-being.”
Besides building physical fitness and promoting well-being, outdoor educators agree that meaningful interactions with nature can help students develop the values and competencies crucial for their personal, social and professional development in today’s VUCA (volatile, uncertain, complex, ambiguous) world.
Dr Saravana Pillai, a teaching fellow from NIE who challenged himself to scale Everest this year, shares an example of how outdoor experience can develop our ability to cope with difficulties in life.
“Outdoor education mimics life at large. If you experience a problem, there may not always be people around to help, so you need to learn how to pick yourself up,” he says. From the expedition, he learned the importance of educating youth about determination and perseverance, and how these are crucial for success in an ever-changing world. (Read about his expedition in “Equipped for Everests“)
“I have always been a strong believer in outdoor education and also in the need to be close to nature. Nature allows us to rediscover and recharge ourselves, and promotes overall well-being.”
– Professor John Wang, Physical Education and Sports Science Academic Group, NIE
Nurturing Cultured Citizens
Indeed, many schools today are pursuing character development through outdoor education. Instead of emphasizing the acquisition of outdoor skills, schools like Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School (AISS) and Zhenghua Secondary School focus more on inculcating values and leadership through their outdoor programmes.
Mr Tan Boon Seng, Subject Head of Physical Education (PE) at AISS, shares: “My school started out with adventure-based programmes that focused on the outdoor experience and skills. Gradually, we progressed to character-building through outdoor education and environmental education has today also become an important component of AISS’s outdoor programme.”
“It is important to connect students to place, community and nature, so we should not overly focus on adventure activities,” explains MOE Senior Specialist in Outdoor Education, Mr Tay Kim Seng. “There are many other aspects to outdoor education such as education for sustainability and nature-based education.”
As schools embrace the richness of outdoor experiences, what is emerging is an effort to connect students to nature and the environment, to cultivate in them an appreciation for different places, or what is also termed “sense of place”. (Read “Fostering a Sense of Place Through the Outdoors” in this issue.)
“The idea is to encourage students to start caring about the environment and the world around them through environmental education,” says Mr Loh Kee Seng, Head of Department (Physical Education & CCA) at Bedok Green Secondary School. “It is about nurturing cultured citizens. Sense of place is a tool to facilitate learning as we embark on this journey.”
“It is important to connect students to place, community and nature, so we should not overly focus on adventure activities. There are many other aspects to outdoor education such as education for sustainability and nature-based education.”
– Tay Kim Seng, Ministry of Education, Singapore
Being Comfortable with Discomfort
However, getting youth to be actively involved in outdoor activities is not easy, many educators say. From video game consoles to smartphones, a plethora of reasons exist as to why today’s youth may prefer to stay indoors.
To encourage participation in outdoor pursuits, educators must first help students overcome their reservations and get comfortable with the idea of being outdoors. “For kids to get comfortable, they must enjoy the experience,” says Kim Seng.
He notes that while many tend to perceive outdoor learning as largely adventurous and thus carrying a certain degree of risk, outdoor education does not necessarily entail physically strenuous activities. It can also include nature-related activities such as bird-watching in the park. Such activities are not physically demanding and offer equally beneficial learning experiences.
“So when we say we want students to ‘experience discomfort’, we don’t mean for them to be completely out of their comfort zone,” says Kim Seng. Instead, outdoor education aims to help individuals become comfortable enough to want to embark on an outdoor activity despite knowing that there might be potential discomfort.
Encouraging Student Participation in Outdoor Activities
Educators say it is a challenge to get students to actively participate in outdoor activities, and they have had to come up with creative strategies to encourage participation.
“My school’s approach is to emphasize the ‘feel good factor’ of outdoor education,” shares Boon Seng. This includes simple gestures such as giving students constant encouragement and talking to their parents to allay their concerns. “We also ensure that the outdoor experiences, while challenging, are also fun and provide opportunities for positive learning experiences through achievement.”
Another method used by Zhenghua Secondary School is to involve students in the planning of the activity itself. “The time and effort invested in organizing a camp gives students a sense of ownership and responsibility, and in turn encourages them to participate,” says Head of the PE Department, Ms Sherlyn Goh. (Read “Nurturing Young and Confident Learners” in this issue.)
“We also ensure that the outdoor experiences, while challenging, are also fun and provide opportunities for positive learning experiences through achievement.”
– Tan Boon Seng, Ahmad Ibrahim Secondary School
Making Outdoor Education a Part of Life
With these efforts to encourage students to get outdoors more often, educators hope to see students being comfortable outdoors and adopting a healthy lifestyle over the weekends.
“If we observe many people cycling and camping outdoors, we know we have done a good job,” says Boon Seng. “But more than just that, we should also encourage our students to influence their parents to spend time outdoors.” Free and unstructured outdoor play as a family can strengthen bonds, whether it is gardening, having a picnic, or simply relaxing in the backyard.
Ultimately, the value of outdoor education lies not only in promoting physical fitness but also preparing students for life. “Outdoor education can build resilience and help kids learn to deal with failure, an essential trait for future success,” says Professor Wang. He therefore hopes that more outdoor programmes can look beyond teaching outdoor skills to focus more on character development, and challenge students in a variety of ways to bring about meaningful learning.
Ng, C. M. (2016, April 8). MOE FY 2016 Committee of Supply Debate – Speech by Acting Minister for Education (Schools) Ng Chee Meng. Retrieved from https://www.moe.gov.sg/news/speeches/moe-fy-2016-committee-of-supply-debate—speech-by-acting-minister-for-education-schools-ng-chee-meng