Editor’s Note: this is Part 2 of a two-part article about schools Susan Fitzell visited during her trip to China in February of 2018. Click here to read Part 1.
According to The Forest School Association, “a Forest School is an inspirational process, that offers ALL learners regular opportunities to achieve and develop confidence and self-esteem through hands-on learning experiences in a woodland or natural environment with trees.”
A Forest School in China
While in China, I also had the opportunity and privilege of visiting Changwai Bilingual School (CBS), formerly, Changzhou Trina International School. CBS has diverged from the traditional Chinese curriculum in their primary center to engage students in a program that places an emphasis on hands-on learning. Although they carry this philosophy through to grade 8, my tour was focused on the primary center. Their primary center educates children from preschool through to kindergarten and follows the model of “Forest Schools” popular in Scandinavia.
The program is led by Alyson Yadlin, headteacher of the CBS foundation program, who is passionate about hands-on and experiential learning. As I walked through the halls of this beautiful facility, I was fascinated by the abundance of student work, both two and three dimensional, covering the walls and areas of the floor. What intrigued and surprised me was the topics that were the focus of these student projects. Now, remember, this is a preschool, yet, the topics included high-level concepts like nature, government, and world geography. Some of the work emphasized student cultures from around the globe, especially their own culture in China. This is a level of work that I would not expect to see in American schools until the upper elementary grade levels.
When I asked Mr. Tao, CBS’ principal, and Ms. Yadlin how they were able to bring this high level of material to a level that would be understandable by preschool children, they explained that they use analogies, discussion, and hands-on visuals to help the students to gain a level of understanding. Clearly, they do not expect children to understand at the same level that older children would. However, they feel the exposure sets the stage for increased student learning in future years. Their goal is to create a solid foundation for their students.
What intrigued me, even more, was that the children participate in Forest School. No matter the weather, students regularly do a Forest day once a month where they go into the forest and learn about plants, animals, and basic survival skills. The children, who are city dwellers, initially had some hesitation when encountering a Forest day in the rain. But once they got outside and started to explore, they thoroughly enjoyed the experience. Teachers and students moved beyond skepticism and realized the value to this natural form of education. I found it to be almost an oxymoron to consider that a Forest School that brought children into the woods to experience nature at its roots while learning survival skills is considered innovative when considering educational paradigms.
I found it’s disconcerting to realize that while I toured a school in China that was focused on hands-on learning, meantime in the United States, schools are trending away from hands-on learning and focusing on test culture, using the passing of a test as a measure of learning. In the United States students get less and less recess time and hands-on learning, while in China, CBS is spending one day a month encouraging their children to learn and play in the woods. CBS’ early childhood program is the most popular primary center in the city of Changzhou.
As I noted in Part 1 of this article, these two schools are the exception rather than the rule in China’s educational system. Both schools have a long waiting list to get in. Parents of children with autism are looking for a school that will educate their child and they have found a treasure in Tian Ai. Tian Ai is one of a few schools that is starting to address a huge unmet need in China.
Historically, children with disabilities are hidden and not acknowledged in China. For many children with disabilities, including children with autism, there is little to no educational support.
Other parents want their children to benefit from experiential learning. CBS provides a solid foundation before entering public Chinese schools where the focus is on passing tests with a very rigid Chinese curriculum. That said, some of the students are fortunate to be able to stay at CBS through to the time that they enter university.
The size of the waiting list for both schools is a testament to how many parents want to get the best education possible for their children. Will China change enough to make programs like this available to many more students?
That’s outside my view. But I found each school’s approach to helping children become more confident in their world and to meet their needs to be inspiring.
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