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The Great Outdoors with GIS’ Jungle School: Why learning in nature matters and what parents can do

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Generations of children before have had the opportunity to spend most of their time exploring the wonders of nature- gaining experiences and life skills by playing among the jungles, rivers, and mountains. 

It’s time to get back to basics! The revival of interest in lessons within nature has resulted in the Forest School concept which first began in Scandinavian countries, and has since been making its way around the world in popularity. Experiences within the Forest School encourage inspirational learning by stimulating a child’s innate curiosity and sense of wonder through the Earth’s rich, natural resources.  

Four experts at Garden International School (GIS) –  Ms Manisha Dilip Parmar, Ms Bethany Freeman, Ms Ratna Anil Dalal and Ms Sadiya Kharwa- share how and why the GIS curriculum includes a regular Jungle School program (for 4 to 8 year olds) that is inspired by Forest School principles, and tips on what parents can do to enrich their children’s’ excursions out in nature. 

Bringing the classroom out to nature

“It’s not a trip; it’s our school, just at a different location. The only difference is that we are wearing different clothing, and boarding a bus to get to our classroom,” shares Ms Ratna excitedly.  

And that’s how the Jungle School program works at GIS. Unlike what one might imagine, a GIS Jungle School excursion is not a one-off school trip. It’s not about going with the goal of expanding on a specific subject matter that’s currently being taught in the classroom. It’s about repeatedly providing a natural environment for inquiry, personal development, confidence building, and collaboration to take place. 

Being nurtured by nature

It’s a given that getting our kids to be active outdoors will benefit their physical health. But there’s so much more to it than just physical benefits! Did you know that children’s use of language is five times greater when outdoors as compared to indoors?

Research shows that being active outside provides our children with valuable experiences which directly impact their social skills, creativity, and cognitive development. More importantly, young learners become confident and independent, while also developing an appreciation for the environment.

The teachers who run GIS’s Jungle School can vouch for these positive effects. “The results speak for themselves,” said Ms Bethany. “When children are on site, we consistently see what we would call a Level 5 engagement. Children are concentrating, being creative, energetic and showing persistence for sustained periods of time.”

Research in neuroscience shows that when children are engaged in this way, true learning is taking place. And as new research in Neurobiophilia (a subdiscipline that explores how the dynamics of the brain respond to nature) is being published, their findings continually back up the same anecdotal evidence that the Jungle School teachers at GIS experience. 

Creating an authentic learning experience

At GIS, young children are brought deep into nature multiple times a term for authentic, uninterrupted learning-through-play experience. Children learn through exciting and varied activities, including climbing trees, den building, bug hunting, water play, mud exploration and nature walks.

Along the way, these are some of the skills that young learners have the opportunity to pick up: 

1. Problem solving skills 

Rich in natural resources, our local woodlands provide a wonderful environment for child-directed, play-based learning to take place. The role of adults? Simply to respond accordingly. Oftentimes, this could just be a simple prompt or rhetorical question. Ms Sadiya shares how this is done by the GIS teachers. “We know when to step in, and when to stay out. And if we do step in, we step in minimally to join in the children’s play. They are taking the lead, and we are going through it with them.”

She recalls a time when she noticed a child crying, because her bottle was covered in sand. Instead of rushing to fix the problem for her to stop the tears, or directing her and showing her how to wash the sand off, Ms Sadiya gently asked questions to help her solve the issue herself. “What can be done to make you feel better?” “What do we need to wash away the sand?” The child was guided to come up with a solution herself, and eventually headed over to the stream to rinse the sand off.

2. Risk-taking and confidence

As much as some of us would like to keep our kids safely bubble-wrapped away from any danger, we know that doing so will often backfire. A more practical (and fun) way of keeping them safe? Head out into nature. 

As counterintuitive as this might sound, it’s necessary to equip our children with the skills to safely assess risks, so that they can learn to trust themselves.  Experiences, such as the Jungle School programme, introduce elements of risk – with protective features in place, so that exploration can be carried out within a safer, semi-controlled setting. 

Recces are carried out by teachers right before the children arrive on site, a high teacher-to-student ratio is in place, and adults are strategically located at various spots to observe the children without interfering with their play and exploration; much like a safety net.

The teachers at GIS explain that something as simple as the process of climbing a tree can build confidence – with the right scaffolding in place. It’s not just the ability to climb a tree that will bring about confidence; it goes well beyond that. Questions can be asked to encourage children to access safety. “How do the trunk and branches feel when you push on it? Is it sturdy?” “Are there any red ants or insects on the tree you want to climb?” This helps them to think carefully about what could go wrong, and to develop strategies to minimise risk.

When children repeatedly get the opportunity to assess the safety of potentially risky situations, they develop the skills to make sound decisions, and learn to feel confident in trusting their own judgment. This confidence will then translate into all aspects of their lives.

Tips for parents 

Some parents may shy (or run!) away from the idea of heading into the forest for a day of outdoor activities. Others still  may enjoy such excursions, but find it difficult to carve out time to integrate nature into our busy schedules. The GIS teachers reassure us however, that a full-blown forest trip isn’t required to reap the benefits of nature. Simply focusing on taking small steps to incorporate nature into our children’s’ daily routines is a great way forward.

1. The little steps you can take:

  • Encourage the use of natural resources as toys: Allow your kids to incorporate natural resources into their play. Tree stumps can be used for jumping off. Logs can be used as a climbing structure or a balancing beam. Smaller items such as sticks, stones, pebbles, and leaves are wonderful materials that can be used in many ways, sparking imagination and creativity.
  • Organise outdoor play dates: We love our indoor playgrounds. But if that’s the only place you head to for play dates, try swapping this out sometimes with play dates in the many beautiful parks we have around our city.
  • Plan your holidays with nature in mind: For your next holiday, include some time out in nature with your children. Make it a point to visit interesting geographical areas, like the ocean, mountains, or desert. You don’t even have to go far; there are in fact many hidden nature getaways that are less than an hour away from Kuala Lumpur!
  • Create fun, family weekend missions: Explore new areas of the city together with your family.  Make it a mission to visit as many different parks and playgrounds as possible and go on a hunt to find a family favourite.
  • Activities in nature: Get out! Get your kids to play outside, even if it’s just for 20 minutes. Cultivate a family habit of going for regular walks, runs, or bike rides in natural settings together. 

2. The little things you can prepare:

Without a doubt, nature is our best resource. Children can simply use what is available from the area around them for imaginative and creative learning to take place. Ms Sadiya shared how she observed a group of children creating stick people using sticks, stones, and leaves during Jungle School, which eventually set the stage for stories and storytelling to unfold for the rest of the excursion.

If, however, you would like to bring along some materials that would be helpful, here are some suggestions from Ms Ratna on what you can pack for your next trip out in nature:

  • Books: For example, books about bugs and nature that can be used as reference.
  • Materials for recording: Paper and pen, cameras, devices, sketching pencils, crayons.
  • Construction items: Nets, ropes, string, and any basic materials that can be used for construction.
  • Tools that encourage exploration: Fishing nets, magnifying glass, bug containers, measuring cups. 

But mamas, remember: you can relax on your packing list! As a reiteration, children do not need much for creative learning to take place in the great outdoors. Less is often more. What is crucial to recreate a rich outdoor learning experience similar to that of GIS’s Jungle School, is to remember to take a step back and follow your children’s interests.

As Ms Sadiya helpfully reminds us, “Trust the children and let go! We know children learn best when they are engaged, that they are most engaged when they are following their interests. Unless there is a real reason to say no (for example, because of safety), let your children have a go, explore and lead their own learning.”

Here’s to getting back to basics together, #makchicmumsquad!

[*The contents of this interview have been edited for clarity and brevity.]

This is a sponsored post by Garden International School (GIS).

If you would like to find out more about EYC, or learn more about how GIS is inspiring children to become Ambassadors of Nature, join their EYC Open Day on the 15/2/2023, or WhatsApp them for Admissions Enquiries at (+6011) 6359 6889.

Elaine is a mummy of two who moved from the financial world to become an early childhood educator. She loves travelling, books and her cup of tea to unwind after a long day of diapers, school runs and pretend play.