Singapore has a been a strong advocate for outdoor education since the 1960s, starting with camping trips and moving to trips overseas. In 2004, the Ministry of Education started developing outdoor adventure centres for its students, and the Ministry for Youth is prioritising investment in outdoor education for the generations of tomorrow.
It is hardly surprising to see many international schools in Singapore use the outdoors to bring learning to life. As well as offering a mix of different curriculum choices, these schools have the freedom to introduce cutting-edge educational best practices from around the world – and this includes learning beyond the classroom walls. They also have the benefit of location – Singapore has the tropical (if not rainy) climate, nature reserves, jungle and coastline to support a wealth of different outdoor experiences.
Outdoor learning is not simply about building dens, climbing trees and getting muddy knees (although there is plenty of that going on!). And it’s not only focused on trips and excursions. As Martin Foakes (Head of Outdoor Education at Tanglin Trust School) explains, outdoor learning has become part of the daily timetable.
“Outdoor Education happens across several different levels in our formal curriculum, and we are working hard to integrate it better into the whole school experience. We have definitely moved away from seeing it as a bolt on enrichment activity – so it isn’t just about the trips – although that is perhaps still the most iconic and visible part of what we do.
“At Tanglin you will also see Outdoor Education taking place in some of the senior school science lessons, where students head out into the local neighbourhood to identify local wildlife such as birds and butterflies. Geography field trips to our neighbourhood study local land use for exam classes, and the art department regularly organises excursions to exciting exhibitions and events
"In PE lessons, we include rock climbing and life-saving lessons, and there are a lot of student groups across different age groups who are actively involved in caring for the environment through clubs and CCAs.”
Outdoor learning isn’t a subject or topic; it’s a way of teaching. This means that schools of all shapes, sizes and curricula can get on board with it. As Mr Foakes highlights, British schools such as Tanglin are using outdoor education to teach core and specialist subjects across the UK curriculum. Rather than having to change their curriculum, schools like are developing a culture where teachers frequently use outdoor spaces to support their everyday teaching – and that can be on or off campus.
Similarly, the IB programme, which is followed by the vast majority of international schools in Singapore, has a very hands-on, inquiry-based learning approach that lends itself well to outdoor education. A through-train IB school like Canadian International School (CIS), for example, will send IB students to the beaches of Tioman to study environmental factors for their geography or biology modules. Similarly, as part of a Grade 9 IB biodiversity project at GESS, students planted a butterfly garden on the school's rooftop.
In particular, the Creativity, Activity, Service (CAS) part of the IB Diploma Programme encourages students to discover their strengths and explore their talents outside of the classroom. UK curriculum schools worldwide also recognise the benefits of the CAS' focus on art, sport and community service activities – and are introducing similar bolt-on programmes to their A Levels.
In Singapore, Tanglin requires students on both its IB and A Level pathways to complete the CAS programme because it is enjoyable, challenging and “offers a balance to academic study”.
Outdoor learning has been a way of teaching at UWCSEA since it was founded in 1971. UWCSEA is almost as rigorous in pushing activities outside the classroom as it is academic success, and its mission is to link five elements: academics, activities, outdoor education, personal and social education, and service. This focus has grown from its origins as a United World College (UWC), a school group founded by one of the world's most influential educationalists, Kurt Hahn; he believed that learning should be through doing things and lived experiences.
UWCSEA’s outdoor education curriculum is most visible through its expedition programme (it runs more than 35 trips in a ‘normal’ year), and it has a full-time outdoor education team – a rare model in international schools.
Other schools are creating outdoor learning programmes that have become as embedded within their curriculum as the annual school play. At CIS, for example, the Open Minds programme sees primary students spending up to a week investigating topics in real world settings such as Sungei Buloh, Gardens by the Bay and Chinatown.
Most recently, students walked around the Jurong neighbourhood to identify different forms of advertisements as part of a ‘Unit of Inquiry’ class on media and advertising, while Grade 6 students studying urban development walked around campus to ‘investigate’ how well different areas have been designed from a sustainability perspective.
CIS also runs an Excursion Week for Grades 4-11 in Singapore and overseas when students take part in outdoor activities with a biodiversity or community focus – anything from building houses or school buildings in remote areas, to orienteering, white water rafting and wilderness cooking. (While this is cancelled for the current academic year due to Covid-19, it remains firmly in the school’s plans for the future.
Next: Classrooms without walls: Where does it happen?