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LASSROOM learning has been the key learning method for generations, but with technological gadgets as distractions in today’s society, many from generation Y have become removed from the outdoors and nature in general. Children who grow up in urban cities especially, know only of a world that revolves around the Internet and digital technology, and their definition of school is of nothing but a concrete building. Lest we forget, learning does not merely have to be confined to the classroom. There are many options to be explored, if parents are willing to take the first step, and let children get their hands dirty. For some like American Rick Gregory, who has been residing in Malaysia for about 20 years, exposing his 10-year-old son, Jeren, to the outdoors has become “a natural thing to do”. Gregory, 52, believes that the outdoors is a great learning ground, and to make the outing more interesting, he gives Jeren a camera when they go on hikes. “I let him take pictures of whatever he sees or finds interesting. That way, he gets to be creative, and it makes hiking a fun activity.” Although it is clear that the government is pushing for more physical activities amongst schoolgoing children, many, especially those who live in apartments and condominiums, may find the call rather difficult to comply with, due to the limited amount of “green” space. “Sometimes, building management officials use safety as an excuse to prevent residents from cycling. They are even prohibited from playing with balls in the premises,” laments Gregory, who lives in a condominium in Sri Hartamas, Kuala Lumpur. At the same time, he points out there are many overprotective parents, who would prefer to have their children within the confines of their home, rather than show them the thrill of the outdoors for fear that it may be too wild and rough for them. “Children are much tougher than we think. There really isn’t any harm in your child getting hot and sticky... a few mosquito bites won’t hurt them either,” says Gregory. Realising the need for more outdoor sports and green activities, Gregory decided to start up a website, Nature Escapes, to connect people to the various green holiday destinations in Malaysia. “There are so many places people can go to if they have a car. In fact,





Learning grounds The outdoors can be a classroom for endless learning if some changes are made to our teaching methods in school.

These participants are all engrossed during a briefing on turtles. A green turtle hatchling seems to be at home in the palms of this participant. there is a beautiful rainforest, a mere two-hour drive away from the Klang Valley.”

An outdoor classroom

A facilitator helps a participant as she prepares herself during the abseiling course.

Gregory is quick to share that while there are not as many outdoor nature camps and activities locally compared to those in other countries, they do exist and while a few are run as business entities, most are managed by societies and nongovernmental organisations. Take for instance the Malaysian Nature Society (MNS) which has been actively involved with schools around Malaysia since the early 1990s. It has to date about 420 schools registered under the various zones around the country. A camp is organised once every two years to bring together students who learn about all things connected to nature like plants, animals and even insects. MNS Environmental Education Division head I. S. Shanmugaraj says that there are a range of activities run by the society that are related to what students learn in school. “For example, when we take students out to teach them about larvae, we are showing them the real thing instead of just images of it, and

Children get an ‘upclose-and -personal’ experience with marine wildlife.

Students learning how to pitch a tent.

Jungle-trekking is among the outdoor activities popular with youngsters.

Volunteers observe and count turtle eggs.

at the same time they are learning about ecology. “Students may learn about mangroves, but their knowledge is limited to what is written in their textbooks or even on the Internet. When they actually go into the mangroves and do mangrove replanting, they get to touch and feel it. From there, they will be able to link their book knowledge to the real thing from an experiential point of view.” With other projects such as measuring the pH level of the river waters, Shanmugaraj adds that experiencing nature through their own senses enriches the learning experience as it gives them a better and deeper understanding, which

sometimes cannot be described in words. SMK Convent, Taiping, Nature Lovers Society teacher adviser Norizan Zainal says that apart from being more nature-savvy, students who participate in the MNS activities have also improved their soft-skills. Norizan shares that the students, apart from being well-versed about nature, were equally confident and adept at giving talks and presentations to the public. She adds that their knowledge of the environment also affected their lifestyle and they have become more aware and conscious about preserving the environment. “They don’t even use polystyrene boxes any more because they know

it is non-recyclable, and in school, they set a good example for their peers through recycling activities.”

Starting young It is never too early to start, and that’s the motto adapted by Universiti Malaysia Terengganu’s (UMT) Sea Turtle Research Unit (Seatru). It organises an annual three-day camp for Year Five pupils, where they get to learn about basic sea turtle biology in Pulau Redang. At the camp, the pupils are taught basic sea biology through activities such as drawing, colouring, treasurehunts, and role-playing. They are also given an opportunity to watch turtle nest excavations, and to check on the status of turtle eggs.

Seatru project leader and UMT Marine Science department lecturer Dr Juanita Joseph shares that Seatru first started a camp in 1996, three years after they started conservation works, for the children of turtle egg collectors. “Instead of educating the outside world, we wanted to start educating children at the grassroots first, so we reached out to the children of the egg collectors themselves.” She says that due to a lack of staff and funding, it was difficult for Seatru to run turtle conservation camps for outsiders, however, over the years, they have been approached by various international schools to conduct sessions for them as part of their own marine awareness camps. Former UMT student Felicity Kuek, who was part of the project team, says that based on the questionnaire handed out before and after the programme, it was obvious that the students’ knowledge about

turtles and the marine environment improved by about 90%, and over 80% of them pledged not to eat turtle eggs. Having done a follow-up after the programme, Felicity adds that many students also went back to their homes to share what they had learnt with their friends and family. Dr Juanita adds: “I once bumped into an ex-participant, and she told me her father scolded her because she refused to eat turtle eggs... that’s how committed they are.” “Many of the programme’s earlier participants are now married and it is great to see how they have instilled in their children ‘green habits’. They’ve also made them aware of the many endangered species.’’ Similarly children are also being taught about marine life in Sungai Pulai, Johor. Save Our Seahorses Malaysia (SOS) project leader Choo Chee Kuang, 33, who founded the organi-

sation in 2004, says that the organisation recently started a Parents and Kids programme, aiming to expose primary school children to the marine ecosystem, and to educate them on the importance of the organisation’s conservation plans. “We organise trips for children and their parents during low-tide seasons. This allows them to walk around the seagrass beds to learn about marine vegetation and coral reef.” Low says trips are only organised during low-tide seasons, so that the public can learn about these sea creatures in their natural habitats without them having to get wet. “Low tide is for about two to five days a month, and it varies from month to month according to the tide table.” One of the programme‘s coordinators Foo Fang Meng, 24, says that the half-day programme on Pulau Merambong in Johor, has proven to be a fulfilling exercise for children and their parents as it is the largest seagrass bed in the country. “Children who participate in this programme sometimes cannot contain their excitement and exclaim upon seeing sea creatures

although such loud expressions are not really encouraged.” Run on a small scale, each trip out to the seagrass beds only consists of about 10 to 12 people. Foo added that the programme also brings along volunteers who would look out for seahorses, and other sea creatures which are usually harder to find, and would point them out to the participants. A non-profit organisation, participants pay a small fee to cover the hiring of the boat and use of its apparatus.

Confidence building Experiential learning takes on a different meaning, when the outdoors are used as a tool to build an individual’s soft skills. Wilderness Malaysia Business Development and Corporate Affairs general manager Mariana Halim says that through doing outdoor activities, participants are expected to lead and be responsible for their group. Running camps throughout the year, Wilderness Malaysia offers a variety of activities for participants, both for students, as well as working individuals, to push themselves

physically and mentally. “This means we have to use navigation skills to map out their journey, and whether they realise it or not, they would brush up on their communication skills when they are in charge of a team.” “What we also do is to learn through reflecting on the activities.” At the end of each session, Mariana says that participants will go through a de-briefing session to recall their experience, pinpoint what they have learnt through the experience, and see how they can apply their newly-acquired skills to their daily lives. Soft skills aside, many participants also go through certain programmes and activities to overcome their fear. “For instance, if a participant has a fear of water and is faced with challenges like raft building, he or she would be supported and encouraged by teammates to join in, and with such a positive environment, the individual will definitely conquer his or her fear. Regardless of the activity they do, Mariana says that “at the end of the day, the learning experience they bring back from the outdoors is priceless”.

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