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Hey kids, nature is the best classroom
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The spirit of kids in one community in eastern Beijing will be dampened on Children's Day on June 1. The water in their favorite playground, a big pond with a fountain, has been treated with chemicals to prevent mosquitoes from spawning, at least that's what the notice by the property management office says. The truth could be otherwise. Last summer saw the children swimming and splashing water in the pond. So the management could have treated the water to keep the children away this summer to avoid any accidents.

But by doing so the management has also robbed them of perhaps their only contact with nature. Some scientists call this loss of contact "nature deficiency syndrome". Don't urban kids deserve an outdoor plan to know nature, learn the intricacies of the environment and build their character in the process?

City kids today can easily identify brand names of cars and home appliances. But ask them the names of plants and wild animals, especially when they see one in real life, and most of them will be at a loss. A vast amount of their knowledge about nature is second-hand - from colorful textbooks, TV programs or Internet sites.

Not all Chinese families with children can afford to take a trip to nature, and many of them that can don't bother to because the real attraction for them lies in cities. An urban kid's typical activity list is jammed with piano or English lessons, or some other special class. Some may visit amusement parks but very few get a chance to run bare-foot on grass, walk on mountain paths or step into a pond, river or sea.

The onus to teach kids the charms of nature lies with adults. How would children know there's an exciting world out there on the mountains, beaches and forests if they are not taken there? At best, kids nowadays would fight with their parents to go to an amusement park if they get bored with TV or computer. But few parks offer a natural landscape. And those that do are often so crowded that they become potential hazards for children. That may be one of the reasons why many parents are reluctant to take their kids out. Others don't have the time or money to do so, or are simply ignorant of the importance of nature.

This is where a change of mindset is critical. Why should parents take their kids to the Fragrant Hill only in autumn when maple leaves start turning red and visitors from across the country flock to it like migratory birds? The Fragrant Hill is mesmerizing in other seasons, too. So are most other mountains, forests and other natural sites. One need not necessarily burn a hole in the pocket to take a date with nature. An overnight stay in a suburban farmhouse will give kids enough joy and help them learn enough lessons by just chasing ducks, picking fruits and vegetables and observing nature.

Schools can play a big role in shaping kids' future as nature-lovers. Schools evaluate or rank children on may issues but rarely use nature as a criterion. Good schools boast of big indoor basketball courts and/or outdoor track fields. For them too, nature is confined to the pages of textbooks. All the fuss is over good scores in exams because that paves the way to good schools at the next level. All this has made kids more prone to developing eye problems and putting on weight, and led to depression, lack of concentration and curiosity, and even indifference toward nature.

That does not bode well for future human-nature relationship. Dialogs and communications are much emphasized for solving issues in the human world. The same holds true for human-nature relationship. If our children don't know what nature is, or cannot appreciate its beauty and joy, how can they be expected to love and protect it? Embracing nature would be the first step toward long-term environmental protection, and children should be the focus group of this movement.

There, however, are some positive signs. Outdoor activities seem to be slowly gaining popularity across the country. Mountain climbing, trekking and camping, and horse riding are drawing people's attention. The number of people eager to learn about nature and feel it firsthand is increasing, partly because of greater health awareness and higher incomes and partly because of outdoor gear-makers' or clubs' campaigns. But few events, if any, target children. The invisible hand of the market could give a push in this direction, given the huge potential children hold. Nature-loving parents could put more efforts to pass on their traits to their offspring. And schools could play the role of facilitators in this area, too.

Much has been written on educational reform to ease the burden of homework on kids and to give back to them a more carefree life. Hopefully, nature and outdoor activities will make it high on the reform agenda, for nature is the biggest and best classroom. It's cruel to deny kids the joys of childhood and the natural chance to make friends with nature.

Instead of treating water with chemicals and contaminating it, we should let children know that frogs just don't make eerily funny sounds in the evenings, but also are trustworthy friends that eradicate mosquitoes without using any chemical.

The author is a Beijing-based freelance journalist.

(China Daily May 31, 2009)

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