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Getting dirty in concrete jungle

Children who grew up in a concrete jungle such as Hong Kong hardly experience nature in its unpotted or uncaged form. They have little knowledge of soil, plants and animals. Some of them have even developed bio-phobia, or fear of nature.

Dr Mette Hjort, chair professor and head of the department of visual studies at Lingnan University, believes that bio-phobia can be overcome by learning to appreciate the environment. From October to November last year, she led five Lingnan students on a service-learning project called "Environmental Aesthetics and the Visual Environment" which aims to help urban children overcome bio-phobia.

Claudia Lau, a year two visual studies student at the university, was one of the project participants. Together with four other schoolmates, they planned six lessons for 15 students at a kindergarten in Tuen Mun to educate them about nature.

"Environmental psychologists and evolutionary psychologists have clearly demonstrated that engaging with nature is crucial to health and well-being. If we were to get children to conserve nature, the first step is to teach them how to appreciate it. We tried to stimulate the five senses of children while leading them to appreciate nature," Lau says.

During lessons, children listened to sounds of birds and insects and tried to guess which species they belonged to. They were asked to smell a fruit and identify it. "We provided an alternative learning mode. Children are curious and interested in a lot of things. They learn quickly and absorb new knowledge like sponge," Lau says. 

Lau noticed that some families were conservative about children interacting with nature and said this should be corrected.

"I remember asking the kids to bring leaves to class and draw them. A boy did not bring anything because his mother told him it was dirty to pick up leaves. This is a wrong concept. But overall, the activity was a huge success as children became aware of the various leaves that they could find in their neighbourhood," she says.

Hjort says environmental aesthetics is important to child development. "I believe interaction with nature should begin at a young age. I come from Scandinavia where children are encouraged to touch nature and spend as much time in nature," she says, adding that she believes their students also benefited greatly from the experience of teaching young children.

"The students demonstrated leadership and gained self-confidence. These are important traits for success in all walks of life," she says.

The nature class for kindergarten kids is a pioneer project. In the future, Hjort hopes to take children to organic farms.