Outdoor education gains traction in Hong Kong

Many of today’s kids have adopted sedentary lifestyles filled with television, video games and computer screens. Studies have shown that a number of health and cognitive difficulties, such as attention deficit hyperactivity disorder (ADHD), emotion regulation, sensory processing issues and aggressiveness seen in children, derive to some degree from their lack of movement.

Increasingly, the literature and research on outdoor education suggests that it can play a role in supporting the development of student learning and growth. In a recent book, “Balanced and Barefoot”, pediatric occupational therapist, Angela Hanscom, talks about nature as the ultimate sensory experience, and that psychological and physical health improves for children when they spend time outside on a regular basis.

However, lifestyles and traditional attitudes to education in Hong Kong – and in much of Asia – can limit kids’ exposure to the outdoors. This is especially true for a child at a local school, as opposed international schools where both school and parents may take a very different approach.

THE STATE OF PLAY

Shane Early is the manager of outdoors store, Lantau Base Camp, but used to teach at a local school in Hong Kong. He says, “We all know the Hong Kong curriculum for students is very

intense. Many don’t get out much. The challenges range from knowing where to go, the heat and humidity in Hong Kong and the hills and mountains. They can be intimidating. Many students show interest but time and opportunities are limited.”

Ryan Blair is Group Director of APA, an outdoor skills training academy that offers a variety of youth adventure programmes. He says: “Local schools seldom use APA for programmes for two reasons. They don’t value the educational experience outside classroom enough, and they also don’t have budget or don’t want to ask the parents to pay for such experiences.”

Early lamented that during his time as a teacher a few years ago, many of his coworkers were not interested in the outdoors and so few related activities were organised. But he added that things were improving: “I have heard that some schools have hiking clubs and some organise with the PTA committees . . . The key is to have leadership at the school and teachers who are interested in the outdoors.”

MAKING A DIFFERENCE

When schools do use outdoor programmes, the feedback is often impressive.

“One of the questions we ask,” says Blair, “is, ‘How relevant was the program to developing life skills for students?’ and almost 90% of

respondents replied that our programmes were either very relevant or extremely relevant to developing life skills.”

Jake Taylor, a training coordinator at Outward Bound Hong Kong, describes how problem-solving brings a range of rewards, immediate and long-lasting: “A simple problem would be, ‘When and where do we have lunch while kayaking?’ If students wait too long they may get very hungry and not have the energy required to kayak. If they choose a poor site, i.e. very sunny and lots of bugs, there lunch will not be enjoyable. They also cannot just ignore the problem because lunch will not just appear. The direct and immediate feedback to the students provides reinforcement and retention of the skills and knowledge.”

Taylor noted that skilled instructors can sometimes turn even negative educative experiences, where the students shut down or explode with emotion, into a positive. But ultimately, he said, it is important that it is up to the students to determine this.

“When students are able to have ownership of their decisions and actions, then they are able to accept and own the outcome whether positive, negative, or neutral. If the outdoor instructor gives or enforces the decision or action, then even if the outcome is positive, the student will not have full ownership,” he said. “Student confidence is built not only through success, but learning how to deal with failure and neutrality, meaning nothing gained or lost.”

Besides a better awareness of how to work in a team to develop greater interpersonal skills and a sense of group and personal responsibility, being in the outdoors also enables students to develop empathy for others and for the natural environment around them.

In the feedback after an APA programme in Thailand (a similar programme is shown left), one Year 9 student commented: “During our hike on the Thai-Burma Railway, there was one place where the railway was in a horseshoe shape. There was a little lookout with a bench, and our group sat down for a moment in silence to listen to the birds and appreciate nature. That moment will stick in my mind: the sky was clear and we could see the mountains that marked the border of Thailand and Burma. We later learned that the POWs that built that section of the railway found hope and happiness by looking out at that same view.”