There is a Chinese idiom: 钟灵毓秀, to nurture outstanding people, you need a beautiful space.
There is a risk when planning education programmes (or programmes of any kind), that the space is viewed as an empty vessel to be filled with educational activities.
Yet if you can look at spaces with fresh eyes, and observe the way children interact with them, you can see that it is rich with opportunities for discovery and learning.
We see this in action on a near daily basis when our JOE programme is running. By simply bringing the children out to play in the gardens around their kindergartens, the children delight in the interaction with the space and with each other in the space.
The Reggio Emilia approach to education (pioneered in the Italian city of the same name), gives the environment such an important place in the teaching, it names the environment as the third teacher.
Outside their classroom children are challenged to negotiate obstacles like uneven ground and drains that they must step over, they discover a myriad of things that can ignite their curiosity, and enable them to build resilience.
Sometimes this can be a challenging thing for the teachers we work with – concerned for the children’s safety they will lead them around the drain so they don’t have to step over, or they are fearful for hygiene when they touch the dirt (a concern we covered previously – nurturing resilient children).
Perhaps part of our disconnection from space has come from this fear of risk, which makes it easier to simply put students in a standard, “safe” space – 4 walls, enclosed, and completely predictable.
When running programmes, I now find myself actively seeking out challenging terrain – terrain with small hills that children have to get on all fours to climb, terrain with bushes that we have to walk around, terrain that requires us to exercise our physical co-ordination skills and our problem solving skills. If there is a gutter between us and the grass, we will take a little extra time to let the children cross it slowly one by one, building up their ability to confidently cross obstacles, rather than giving them the message that they are not to be trusted with such obstacles by finding routes around them.
The same philosophy is taken in our approach to secondary student’s and even adult education – how can we work with the space to create appropriate challenges that teach resilience, initiative and appropriate risk taking.
So what does the Chinese Idiom mean by beautiful? Clearly we’re not just talking about something that’s nice to look at, landscaping and architecture have been providing students with that for many years. (though having aesthetic beauty is important in giving students a sense of pride in a space).
But, while beautifully landscaped gardens are nice to look at, they perpetuate the idea that nature is for looking and not touching, especially since interaction with such spaces by students is often viewed as “acting up”.
Truly beautiful spaces prompt interactions. My favourite part of our Kampung Kampus is the stream that runs behind the Kampung because of the many beautiful interactions I’ve experienced there. Students of all ages are transformed as they put their feet in the cool water, and simply stand and experience nature from a perspective many of them have never experienced before.
The steep bank up the other side prompts a natural collaboration and kindness between students as they help one another to scale the bank.
This is the philosophy that drives the work we have done at schools like Nanyang Girls High where students have taken ownership of creating a beautiful space. Every step of building this garden saw girls stepping up to take ownership of the space.
3 years later the ownership continues with the girls maintaining the space, and continuing to discover ways to interact as a learning space, a social space, and even a space for quiet reflection.
What are the beautiful spaces in your school that you’d like your students to explore?