Slice of rural life
Children participate in a musical gala in Xuaodi village, Zhejiang province, during the Spring Festival holiday in February. WU JIANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY
An education company partners with a homestay business to offer urban children nature-based workshops during holidays, Zhao Yimeng reports.
Jean-Jacques Rousseau, a Genevan philosopher and writer, suggested in his book On Education that the best thing humans can do for their own education is to participate in, and avoid interfering with, nature's way.
However, children today soak themselves in a digital world, surfing social media and doing homework through computers and smartphones. The disease control measures during this COVID-19 pandemic have exacerbated the situation as most children living in cities have less access to nature and the rural environment.
During the Spring Festival holiday this year, a group of volunteers explored a way for nature-based education in the rural areas of East China's Zhejiang province and planned to replicate it in the future.
Volunteers from Aimkids, an education platform, took their own children to Xuaodi, a village in Wenzhou, Zhejiang, in February, to spend a special Chinese New Year in close contact with nature.
About a dozen children played and learned in the village that is surrounded by bamboo forests and dotted with vegetable farms.
The volunteers, who are college teachers, artists, designers, photographers and film directors, needed to have at least one skill such as children's education or event planning.
Children learn about vocabulary for items they find in a nature-themed scavenger hunt in Xuaodi. WU JIANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY
Terra Retreat, a homestay operator in China, has reconstructed the whole village on the lines of a large homestay to develop rural tourism and benefit the locals by sharing the profit. Collaborating with Aimkids, the homestay gave the volunteers and their children free accommodation during the holiday and tried to build a nature-based classroom and community for the children.
Wu Jianying, manager of Aimkids and one of the families to visit Xuaodi, said the nature-based education project was not carefully planned but eventually had results.
Wu and other volunteers, most of them his friends or colleagues, stayed with their children at the homestay.
"The homestay was constructed on the heritage site of a rural school to accommodate xiucai, a title for entry-level scholars, in ancient China," he said.
From Jan 31 to Feb 15, the families went in batches to experience a three-day working holiday with their children, and some extended it to six days or more.
Children had a rural routine in Xuaodi, wakening to other children's knocking on their doors and eating three meals a day at fixed times as the local cooks required. They needed to help in the kitchen and wash the dishes after meals, too.
Children learn to make pots with clay in Xuaodi. WU JIANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY
Workshops were open for both local children and visiting families to take part in outdoor activities such as painting, rural concerts, and children's drama.
They also learned basic business management skills from making and selling strings of candied haws in the village.
Though from different backgrounds and cities, including Shanghai, Beijing and Xi'an in Shaanxi province, the children established a community without much presence of their parents, Wu said.
The children didn't know each other before checking into the homestay. Some were studying in international schools, some in urban public schools, and some in the village. But they took care of each other and communicated in their own way through hours of activities.
"No background differences or comparisons of family condition were found in this 'equal' community," Wu said.
Children from visiting families appeared to be creative and had an artistic expression when preparing for a children's play.
"But the rural children also showed self-confidence when working with their urban peers," he added.
Changes were taking place for both urban and rural families during the project. Wu said rural children were more influenced by their parents.
"When they painted a fox, they were more likely to imitate the picture provided by their parents rather than explore by themselves," he said.
The project may inspire local parents to care more about their children and encourage them to think creatively, he added.
Finding themselves in nature, urban children ate and lived with each other, and learned how daily life operated, such as who cooked for them, where to find food materials, and how to earn money.
Wu said urban children cannot see the complicated system stashed in their lives because studying is their priority. In the countryside, everyone is thinking of how to finish the housework and make contributions to the village.
Children thank the audience after performing a drama in Xuaodi. WU JIANYING/FOR CHINA DAILY
Ye Maojie, a 12-year-old boy from Shanghai, didn't go out to play until he recited 50 English words in the room on the first day he arrived at the homestay. However, he wasn't exposed to English in the following days as rural life and various workshops filled his time.
His mother said the boy has become extroverted after the nature-based workshop. He used to have a slow response when his parents told him that meal was ready and had a habit of staying in bed. His habits have changed after being with his peers in the countryside.
Believing that the best education should be in a village, Wu said he and other volunteers have "planted a seed" in Xuaodi and will return to the village to launch more projects that involve more children, with the next one starting in May.
"This is not a way to reverse primitive lifestyle because rural areas in China are no longer impoverished and distressed," Wu said.
Children from cities can obtain nature-based education at a well-facilitated homestay in the village, meet rural residents and accomplish tasks in the community, he added.
The future events will focus more on making rules in the community, regarding daily chores and managing property.
Wu said the volunteers believe that nature-based education amid urbanization is like a restart, aiming to tell the next generation that cities and villages are not contradictory, but supplementary.