Institute gives children chance to spend time in the wild, go on stargazing trips
Bat and Moth is a game designed by Joseph Cornell, one of the world's most revered natural educators, for children to understand through role-playing how hearing, instead of eyesight, is used by animals to locate their prey.
When Zhang Xinyu introduced the game in his school, Natural Campus, in East China's Zhejiang province, he soon found it was too simple for his students and replaced it with more complicated games where "kids might learn more than one thing from nature within a session".
Zhang, 42, is one of the first in the country to start a private institution focusing on natural education in 2011. He had spent most of his childhood in rural areas of east China's Anhui province.
"China might be a country that has undergone the fastest rate of urbanization in the past three decades in the world. For people like me, who grew up in countryside and later relocated to big cities for work, there is a disconnection and sense of loss," said Zhang, founder and principal of the Campus.
After an outing to the suburban area of Hangzhou, the capital of Zhejiang province, where he had worked with an international ad agency for years, Zhang quit his job in 2010 and rented a piece of land at Liangzhu, one of the most famous archeological sites in Yangtze River Delta region known as the archetype of China's prehistoric rice agriculture civilization.
"People often ask me how I could give up everything and begin my life in nature. The fact is I don't see it as giving up. None of the possessions I earned from my previous work meant anything to me," said Zhang.
By combining the drawing skills acquired from ad industry and extensive knowledge of flora and fauna gained during childhood, he managed to make a living from teaching while enjoying idyllic life on the campus, surrounded by lush mountains, trickling streams, and a few small animals.
Parents of most of his early students, ranging from 4 to 16 years old, learned about his school through Sina Weibo account run by Zhang. Sina Weibo is one of China's most popular social networks.
Today his school, with 18 fulltime teachers, receives 1,000 or so kids every year. Apart from children from across China, those from countries such as the US, Australia and the UK take advantage of their summer vacations back home to sign up for the programs.
Parents of the kids pay about 4,000 yuan ($582) for a week-long summer trip in the wild or a little more for a ten-session annual package for indoor natural education.
"We are not interested in turning the kids into walking encyclopedia of botany or biology," said Zhang.
The syllabus and extracurricular activities designed by his team are meant to "reopen the five senses of human beings that have been very often shut down by concrete buildings and cement roads".
A report jointly conducted by consultancy firm iResearch and Beijing-headquartered, New-York-listed private education services provider, New Oriental, found that in 2018, Chinese parents spent about 94.6 billion yuan on outdoor camps and trips that are not related to conventional school work or examination-focused content.
Natural education, together with music and art, and military and science, are among the most favorite subjects for parents to pick for their kids to spend their leisure time, according to Wang Yin, an executive with New Oriental, who co-wrote the report, released in early May.
"The new generation of Chinese parents are different from their predecessors. They are highly educated, well-off and sophisticated. When it comes to upbringing of their kids, getting them into a prestigious university is as important as providing comprehensive education," said Wang.
New Oriental, the largest educational services provider in China, started as an English-language tutoring school in the 1990s. It included natural education in its product menu in recent years, by working with biology and botany professors in the country.
Wang Ying, an accountant with a multinational company in Shanghai and the mother of an eight-year-old girl, doesn't see having her daughter exposed to nature once a week as complementary to school education, but as an essential part that has been long missed.
"School work involves the brain, but natural education touches the heart and trains the limbs," said Wang, who has signed up her daughter for Zhang's Natural Campus since 2017.
"My daughter used to be very shy. She would always remain silent for the first 30 minutes in a new environment. But during her first stargazing trip with the Campus, she easily connected with dozens of children and teachers she had never met before and stayed up the whole night to learn about astronomy. I don't know how to explain it scientifically, but I think nature has its unique power to make people open up," she told China Daily.