11 Feb 2019
In the skyscraper state of Singapore, five million people live in an area smaller than Noosa. Families live in high-rise apartments, and children grow up often having never left the streets of the city.
With so much development and so few open spaces, teaching outdoor education there has always been a challenge.
That is changing. But instead of bushwalking, school children have started embarking on planned city-wide expeditions, navigating their way across the dense urban environment, exploring a combination of city spaces and green spaces that Singapore has cultivated so well.
To learn more about how outdoor education is taught in this dense island metropolis, USC recently took a group of Recreation and Outdoor Environmental Studies students on a trip over there to experience the culture firsthand.
Getting city kids outside
In the 1960s, the Singaporean Government realised it had a problem – children were becoming more disconnected from nature.
They didn’t go bush walking, they barely swam, and they struggled to climb. Many of them often caught a train to school, entering the grounds via undercover corridors where they remained disconnected from the outside world for virtually the entire journey.
Despite outdoor education being included in the national curriculum for the past eight years – and a governmental push since the 1960s to create a “rugged society” ready to defend itself – schools have been still struggling to teach outdoor skills.
The Government needed to act, so around the time outdoor education was added into the national curriculum, they decided to build high ropes courses and climbing walls at public schools, creatively using existing infrastructure to weave them into already crammed city campuses.
But once students had mastered the challenges, there wasn’t much more room for them to grow.
The Government’s next step was to build specialised outdoor learning centres that students now attend as part of a school camp. Run by the international adventure group Outward Bound, students learn more about teamwork, nature, orientation, and physical education at these camps. It is, in effect, a pathway for them to join the National Service.
And then, when students are ready, they embark on an expedition around Singapore, where they walk, ride, paddle and navigate their way through streets, waterways, urban forests, and cycle paths as they learn about nature and the environment and sustainability principles. Put simply, they explore their urban jungle.
It builds strength, resilience, an understanding of nature, and most importantly for the Singaporean Government - a sense of ruggedness.
Hiking among the skyscrapers
Our group of USC students, many of whom will become outdoor education teachers in Australia, learnt about how Singaporean teachers use limited space and resources wisely.
While Australian citizens cannot teach at public schools in Singapore, they can, and do, teach at international schools there.
Our students also saw how the island nation looks to Australia as a blueprint for good outdoor education, knowing that there are many lessons we can learn in return.
As Australia’s capital cities increase in density, Singapore has proven that quality outdoor education can be taught even amid the tightly-packed urban jungles, while retaining academic outcomes.
We can learn from this by encouraging our own teachers to make the most of the resources they have close at hand.
Brendon Munge and USC students travelled to Singapore on the Australian Government’s New Colombo Plan Scholarship.