Rebecca Simpson escapes Hong Kong’s concrete jungle for a more natural pre-school experience.
This is a good news story for parents concerned by the lack of green spaces in Hong Kong schools. In September, Malvern College Pre-School Hong Kong (MCPSHK) opened its doors (and the great outdoors) to young Hong Kong students.
It’s a school of contrast, offering students the opportunity to learn at both a brand new campus in deepest Kowloon and fortnightly explorations to an outdoor ‘classroom’. Yes, you read that right – an outdoor classroom, with dirt and grass and bugs and just the trees for shelter on rainy days.
MCPSHK is Hong Kong’s first pre-school offering the Forest School programme.
Forest Schools, as they are known in Europe, were introduced into the UK from Denmark in the mid-1990s. They offer a programme of (minimum) fortnightly outdoor learning experiences as well as traditional classroom teaching. At these outdoor learning experiences, children normally spend the morning or afternoon session in a woodland setting near their school.
For MCPSHK students, that means a bus ride out to the green, open spaces of Sai Kung, where the children are encouraged to explore the forest, make crafts, and participate in group challenges. So I got on board to find out more.
After spending a beautiful morning exploring Hong Kong’s outdoors with the kids and parents from MCPSHK, I can’t help but note the contrast. I arrived at the pre-school campus on Coronation Circle in South West Kowloon – a brand new, European-style building which houses a mall and a residential tower.
But a bus trip later and I find myself under a tree examining creepy crawlies and gazing out over some of Hong Kong’s most beautiful waterways. It really captures the ‘chalk and cheese’ moments our city offers up.
As I stand in the clearing watching the young students and parents explore the forest, it’s such a wonderful opportunity for our children to connect with nature during the school week. And one of the best parts is that they need parent volunteers, so it’s the perfect excuse for a morning of mud pie making for parents.
But while it’s nice to connect with nature and mess around in the dirt, many parents may wonder what exactly is the educational value of the Forest School Programme. Yvette Cheevers, Forest School leader at MCPSHK explains as she unfurls a rope swing for her excited charges.
“They’re going to go off now and look for a tree for this swing,” she says. “Is it high enough? Are the ropes long enough? Will it come too close to the ground? This is a real-time maths question, happening outside.”
Cheevers also explains the value of Forest School sessions beyond curriculum content. “What makes someone succeed?” she asks, “It’s grit. It’s continuing to have a go. It’s facing up to your fears. I realise that not everyone embraces the outdoors. But neither is everyone suited to the indoors, so we get to see where people’s strengths lie. There was a little girl who used to fear water. A week later, she decided she wanted to have a splash and went right up to the water’s edge. Now, we can talk about how she overcame that fear.”
Hong Kong’s unpredictable weather surely throws some curve balls to the Forest School schedule? Cheevers laughs and says they’re not put off that easily. “Rain, hail or shine – yes we still come out in the rain. That’s when you have the most fun.”
And of course dirt is good, too. Often viewed as a negative part of life, this is a mindset that needs resetting, according to Cheevers. “In the early stages, I’ve devoted a lot of time allaying concerns and answering parental queries. Kids come here with a preconception of what dirt is.”
But we’re resetting the word ‘dirt’ with ‘earth’. We explain how that’s where your food comes from. And that’s where trees grow from – actually it’s where everything comes from. Quite a few children have reset already. We can distract and set a task – like collecting items – and that helps overcome any worries.”
At MCPSHK’s Forest School days, even the parents are getting down and dirty. Forest days mean lots of adventuring, craft with natural materials, bug catching (and releasing), water collecting and play, forest tools to learn about, hammock and swing construction and general exploration. It’s a very busy time and it’s a morning embraced by students and parents alike.
“Malvern follows the Reggio Emilia approach which views parents as the number one educator for their children. We want to work as much in partnership with mums and dads as we can,” says MCPSHK’s founding principal Jacqueline McNalty.
“Forest School offers children, young people and adults opportunities to achieve and develop confidence through hands-on learning in a woodland environment. It enhances the richness of the Early Years Forest School curriculum, placing emphasis on active, play-based learning with a balance of child-initiated and adult-led activities.”
Malvern College Hong Kong opens in 2018 and will offer the Forest School programme for primary students, along with an IB curriculum in primary and secondary. MCPSHK attendance is not a guaranteed entrance into the primary school, but all MCPSHK families are considered, malverncollege.org.hk