Why China? Why nature play? These questions popped up frequently as I told people (with much excitement) about my upcoming trip.
A few weeks ago, I traveled 6000 miles to share what I know about the art of nature play with education professionals in China. Representing the Children & Nature Network, my trip was a key part of the work to give presentations on nature play in Hong Kong, Shenzhen and Beijing, and to conduct Family Nature Club-training workshops. (See link below to learn how about the Family Nature Club toolkit, available in Chinese.)
While I could certainly offer up dozens of reasons for the trip, typically — soon after they posed the questions— most people would answer the questions for themselves.
High population densities. Unfavorable climate conditions during much of the year. Limited access to open space. A school system that emphasizes rote learning and conforms to traditional roles of teachers as deliverers of knowledge versus students as receivers of information. Enormous societal pressure on parents to enroll their children in every possible extra-curricular activity to help them gain an academic advantage, leaving virtually no time for unstructured outdoor play. If ever there was a need for teaching the what/why/how of nature play, it was for China’s educators.
While there are distinct cultural differences between the United States and China, there is also a lot of similarity in how children in both countries suffer from a lack of connection to nature.
Family Nature Clubs reduce many of the barriers to nature play and, as a result of the Children & Nature Network training workshops, we expect to see more Family Nature Clubs — with an appropriate cultural twist— being established in China.
My nature play workshop audience would primarily be made up of education professionals working in zoos, aquariums and eco-parks. Some formal classroom teachers and leaders from environmental organizations would also join the group. I had never been to China before. So I didn’t know the full extent of barriers to nature play that these professionals were grappling with every day. I did know that I would learn from my audience as much as they would from me.
In fact, these dedicated and insightful individuals did something I never expected. They not only confirmed the expectations I had regarding the obstacles they faced to implementing unstructured nature play experiences, they introduced me to additional barriers that I had not anticipated.
Consider, for example, the struggle by an eco-park manager in Shenzhen to prevent park visitors from picking the native plants for use in traditional medicine. Or the observation by a teacher in Beijing that schools are not permitted to take children outside on high-smog days. The educators in Hong Kong worried that advocating for nature play in an urban park would lead to parks that are overrun and therefore no longer good places to connect with nature. And everyone puzzled over how to facilitate a Family Nature Club outing when the number of adults outstrips the number of children, due to China’s long-standing policy of one-child families.
Like American families, Chinese families are restricted in some ways from connecting to nature on a daily basis. They’re also eager to reverse this trend and to apply the principles behind research that demonstrates how nature play can help their children become happier, healthier and smarter.
Chinese parents place high value on their children’s success, and presenting nature play as an activity that will lead to greater creativity and problem-solving skills strikes a chord. Green spaces are actually quite ubiquitous in urban areas around China and are utilized by its citizens for daily exercise, bird-watching, and children’s playgrounds. The Beijing Zoo, for example, invites people to enjoy its 220 acres of landscaped gardens free of charge in early morning and late evening, before and after the zoo is officially open.
On my second day at the Beijing Zoo, a workshop attendee expressed some frustration about the concept of unstructured nature play. He, like most of his colleagues, was a seasoned educator — trained to deliver a specific set of learning objectives for each program he conducted.
The concept of allowing children to explore their surroundings without a particular outcome in mind, and for the teacher to respond to children’s questions not with a fact-based answer but with encouragement to keep searching and observing, made him uncomfortable.
He feared not meeting the expectations of parents who are accustomed to the more traditional approach of imparting knowledge in a didactic manner. And he was quite concerned about the potential safety risks of letting children engage with the natural world.
At the end of the day, while we enjoyed a meal together, this young man hesitantly raised an idea with me. Through an interpreter, he shared this thought: “I believe that what you are describing when you talk about nature play is similar to the Chinese idea of Tao.” He went on to explain that part of Tao is a strong sense of connection to the universe. Allowing children to experience unstructured play in nature, he felt, could lead to them feeling connected to the earth and, if properly facilitated by the adults, a sense of Tao.
While I am admittedly not well-versed in the doctrine of Tao and could not speak directly to his ideas, I was nonetheless heartened by his attempt to fit a new and difficult concept into a cultural construct more familiar to him. Hearing this interpretation of the ideas we had explored together showed me that, despite all of the obstacles and challenges that China faces in this movement, there is a willingness and ability among educators who I worked with to overcome the institutional and societal barriers to nature play and to use creative strategies to integrate the practice of nature play in culturally relevant ways.
Having established the need and desire for more unstructured nature play for families in China, the Children & Nature Network is now working to provide tools and resources to support the movement in tha country. The 233 education professionals in China who participated in multi-day trainings to learn how to structure and facilitate Family Nature Clubs through their institutions will continue to receive web-based training and tools to stimulate more opportunities for unstructured play in nature.
About our FNC/China Partners
Additional Reading & Resources
SMALL STEPS, BIG FUTURE: the Profound Experience of Starting a Tiny Family Nature Club
10 Reasons Children, Adults & Communities Need Vitamin N
5 Ways to Get Kids into Nature — Outside Magazine
10 Vitamin N Strategies for Families, Organizations and Communities
Vitamin N Book Excerpt: San Diego Magazine
Nature Clubs for Families Tool Kit provides worksheets, templates, examples, and more resources for getting your club up and running. In addition to English, it is available in several languages, including Traditional Chinese and Simple Chinese.
Nature Clubs Directory connects you with existing clubs and leaders around the world for support in starting your own club.
C&NN’s Family Nature Club Leaders Facebook group provides ongoing support and inspiration.
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Photo(s) credit: Nette Pletcher