Parents, especially in the age of tablets and smartphones, are anxious for their children to “go outside and play.” But beyond its many physical and social benefits, play also provides a means through which kids can establish meaningful relationships with the world around them.
According to the book Young Children and Nature: Outdoor Play and Development, Experiences Fostering Environmental Consciousness, and the Implications on Playground Design (2011) by Ashley Parsons, a child’s environmental identity is largely shaped during the “developmental window of opportunity” between the ages of 3 and 12. The book, which is based on the author’s thesis paper in landscape architecture for Virginia Polytechnic Institute and State University, posits that meaningful contact with natural (as opposed to constructed) “playscapes” can inform a child’s morals and values, and influence their environmental actions later in life.
A Guardian piece entitled “Why our children need to get outside and engage with nature” echoes Parsons’ research, revealing that the greatest benefits of “green exercise” are experienced by the very young. “Children set their own challenges, assess their own risks, take their own responsibility, have their own adventures, and learn from them. And what they learn can’t be taught,” says one interviewee.
At the end of April, Beanstalk International Bilingual School (BIBS) invited Primatologist and Conservationist Dr. Chia Tan of the San Diego Institute for Conservation Research to give a presentation about endangered monkey species in China. “If we want to conserve species of endangered animals, we need to gain an appreciation for them,” she said during the talk.
Dr. Tan, who is considered the world’s leading expert on snub-nosed monkeys and bamboo lemurs, told the students about Little Green Guards (LGG), the conservation and outreach program she started in 2011 to increase awareness of nature and wildlife in the rural, often impoverished communities bordering high biodiversity areas in China.
LGG operates on a simple premise: that fostering an appreciation for nature and wildlife in children has the potential to create the next generation of custodians and conservationists. The pilot program was introduced at two elementary schools in Guizhou, with activities like art projects and trips to nature reserves. Since then, LGG has expanded to other parts of China, Vietnam, Madagascar, and Nepal.
Karen Lee of Beijing World Youth Academy (BWYA) and Jeff Zhang of Yew Chung International School of Beijing (YCIS Beijing) are two teens who have decided to take an active approach to conservation. Through their respective schools, both Lee and Zhang are members of Roots and Shoots, the youth branch of the Jane Goodall Institute.
Sixteen-year-old Karen Lee has lived in Beijing for over ten years. Her love of nature was shaped early on when her family was based in the rural Korean town of Anseong. “I visited my grandmother’s house often because both of my parents worked and I was too young to be sent to a kindergarten,” she writes in an email. “She had a little family garden at the back of the house. I loved to lie down on the ground and smell the crisp air, and breathe in the fragrance of plants and flowers.”
After Lee moved to Beijing, a friend introduced her to Roots and Shoots in Grade 7. She “fell in love” with the club and continues to attend meetings three years on.
One of the longest-running Roots and Shoots campaigns is No Shark Fin, a project that aims to educate the public about the destructive effects of shark fin consumption. BWYA students solicited pledges from their peers and teachers to avoid shark fin soup and produced awareness videos for school-wide viewing.
“Especially in China, many people misunderstand shark fin soup as a symbol of wealth and sophistication,” explains Lee. “However, when fishermen catch sharks, they just snatch the fins off and abandon the sharks in the ocean. Without fins, sharks can hardly survive. Since they cannot make babies quickly, this kind of rapid poaching will very likely lead to their extinction.”
Lee says she was surprised to learn that a widely-held belief that shark fin soup is good for one’s health was completely unfounded. “In fact, shark has very high levels of mercury and the United States Environmental Protection Agency advises women and young children to avoid it. Plus, shark fins are often treated with hydrogen peroxide in order to make their color more appealing to consumers.”
“We have to preserve nature and care for animals, not only for their beauty and biodiversity but also for ourselves,” she continues. “After joining Roots and Shoots, my view of animals and nature changed from seeing them as pretty elements of Earth to vital organs of Earth.”
At YCIS Beijing, the Roots and Shoots chapter includes 16 students in Year 12 and is currently led by Jeff Zhang, who oversees weekly meetings, puts together minutes, and coordinates school-wide events.
In December 2014, the club organized a fundraiser to “adopt” two endangered species – the red panda and the toucan – through the World Wildlife Fund. The students had a stall selling animal-themed merchandise and hosted a “pop the balloon” game.
The YCIS group also participated in the No Shark Fin campaign with a Green Couture fashion show, a blue-themed bake sale, and a photobooth where students and teachers could take pictures with a shark mascot. At the 2014 Roots and Shoots Summit, the club was presented with the Roots and Shoots Achievement Award by Dr. Jane Goodall herself, who flew to Beijing for the summit.
When asked how Roots and Shoots has influenced his views, Zhang says it has made him feel more integrated with nature. “People after all cannot be separated or rather have to rely on nature, even though many are deeply hidden within cities.”
Both students believe that their peers should get involved in conservation efforts however they can. One easy way is to help spread the word. “On days such as Earth Day and World Wildlife Day, teenagers can easily put an awareness video or a short text on social media,” says Lee.
Zhang urges people to make changes to their small, day-to-day choices such as switching off the lights when they’re not in use or rejecting animal fur.
“If there isn’t a Roots and Shoots [chapter]available, why not start one?” he says. “There isn’t much of a barrier and it’s beneficial to the community. It’s a place to express one’s passion, but also encourages others to join the movement.”
Here are a few ways to make the natural world a bigger part of your family’s everyday life.
Toddlers and Preschoolers (Ages 1-4)
• Do nature activities as a family. A Google search turns up over 200 million hits for nature activities to do with kids. Organizations like Project Learning Tree (www.plt.org) specialize in youth outreach and education through hands-on activities and have excellent websites with free printable activity sheets.
• Read picture books. Titles like The Very Hungry Caterpillar, Winnie the Pooh, and If I Ran the Zoo provide a fun and colorful introduction to animals both real and imagined.
• Plant a garden. Around age 4, kids can be introduced to the life cycle of plants. Have them plant a seed into a pot, help water the seedling, and observe its growth over the next few weeks.
School-Age Kids (Ages 5-12)
• Engage with conservation issues. Classics such as The Lorax by Dr. Seuss (ages 6-9), in which a nature sprite called the Lorax tries to save his beloved Bar-ba-Loots and Truffula trees from encroaching factories, provide an opportunity to discuss issues of greed and environmental degradation.
• Spend lots of quality time outdoors. Beijing has lots of great parks. Outside the city, there are also a variety of nature experiences such as hiking at the wild Great Wall to camping in Baihe Valley. If you’re unsure of where to go, join a group like Beijing Hikers or China Hiking.
• Join a nature-centric group or activity. Beijing has chapters for Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, and Cub Scouts, which focus on developing survival skills in wilderness settings. There are also annual summer camps like the Waldorf Camp at the Great Wall or Imagine’s new Survival Summer Camps.
• Help care for a pet. School-age kids can take on responsibilities when it comes to pets, from doing simple chores like refilling the water bowl to walking the dog. With older children, parents can broach the ethics of animal ownership such as the implications of adopting versus buying. For more on this, turn to p63.
Teens (Ages 13-18)
• Volunteer for a good cause. Youth organizations like Roots and Shoots are well-established in Beijing, with chapters at various international schools and frequent awareness campaigns. Animal lovers can volunteer at a dog shelter or, if possible, foster an animal while they wait for adoption.
• Start a fundraising or awareness campaign. If time constraints prevent your teen from volunteering, they can also start a campaign. Fundraisers should have realistic and measurable goals, such as raising enough money to install recycling bins at school or cover a month’s worth of dog food at a shelter. They can also start an awareness campaign to educate their peers about a specific issue, such as animal cruelty or pet adoption. High school students may be able to integrate these efforts with academic goals in IB or A-Levels.
• Take up an adventure sport. According to a nation-wide survey of youth conducted by the David Suzuki Foundation, a Canadian environmental non-profit, most respondents said they looked for “fun, adventure, and excitement” when spending time outdoors. Activities like sailing, rafting, rock climbing, and scuba diving are not only fun, but also serve as a bridge to greater awareness. When environmental destruction directly impacts the activities that teens enjoy, they’re much more likely to do something about it.
Animals of Beijing
A fun way to introduce children to the great outdoors is to familiarize them with local fauna and flora. Here are five local animals illustrated by Helena Yu and Susan Xie, two students from the art school Blue Bridge International Education.
About the Illustrators
Helena Yu (age 14) is enrolled in the Art Lab Program at Blue Bridge International Education. She is in Grade 9 at Tsinghua International School (THIS). Helena is very interested in fashion design and wants to design clothes that represent her personal style. The watercolor illustration of the azure-winged magpie aims to represent the beauty of the bird’s natural colors. The grey gecko is drawn to show playful movement and the hog badger image is a high-contrast, stylized representation.
Hog Badger 猪獾 (zhūhuān)
The hog badger (Arctonyx collaris) is native to southeast Asia and southern China, but can also be spotted around Beijing. Smaller in size than a European badger, the hog badger is
active during the day and omnivorous, relying on a diet of fruits, roots, and small animals.
Azure-Winged Magpie 灰喜鹊 (huīxǐquè)
This bird can be spotted year-round by the bright blue of its wings and tail. Native to China, Korea, and Japan, Cyanopica cyanus looks for food in family groups or flocks of up to 70 birds. They subsist on acorns, pine nuts, insects, larvae, fruits, and berries. According to Wikipedia, their call consists of a metallic “kwink-kwink-kwink” preceded by a single “krarrah.”
Grey Gecko 壁虎 (bìhǔ)
“Grey gecko” is a generic term for any number of common gecko species found in China. In Chinese, the name literally means “wall tiger.” Grey geckos thrive in cities and can be spotted hanging out in gardens, on walls, and in houses. They generally feed on insects, worms, and crickets.
Yellow Weasel 黄鼠狼 (huángshǔláng)
Beijing residents are well-acquainted with this svelte little creature, which can be seen scurrying along siheyuan walls at night. Also known as the Siberian weasel, Mustela sibirica hunts birds, mice, rats, voles, and other small mammals. Local superstition warns against looking a yellow weasel straight in the eyes lest it steal your soul, but we think it’s quite cute as far as evil wandering spirits go.
Père David’s Deer 麋鹿 (mílù)
Elaphurus davidianus is unusual in that it’s extinct in the wild; all specimens can be found only in captivity. In the late 19th century, the only herd in the world belonged to the Tongzhi Emperor. The last of the deer were shot and eaten by troops during the Boxer Rebellion of 1900. The species was reintroduced in China in 1985 with a herd of 20 deer, followed in 1987 by a second herd of 18 deer; both groups were sourced from Woburn Abbey in the UK and sponsored by the World Wildlife Fund. These herds became the basis for the present-day Beijing Milu Park in Daxing District, which is open to the public.
This article originally appeared on page 68-71 of the beijingkids June 2015 issue. Click here to read the issue for free on Issuu.com. To find out how you can get your own copy, email firstname.lastname@example.org.