Learning in Nature, Learning in the Village

自然教育在乡土自然Guanzhuang Kindergarten bridge-building experiential learning activity, Dali Prefecture, Yunnan Province.

Ma Xiaoling’s vision of an ideal kindergarten is to combine a forest school and children’s home. It now exists! Standing halfway up a mountain by the village entrance, the nature school has no fence, for a true connection with forest and community! Its curriculum aligns with the traditional lunisolar calendar to allow children to experience the transformations of the seasons. 

Xiaoling was so determined by her vision and loved her home village so much, that she moved back to set up the Guanzhuang Longtan Mingde Kindergarten in Dali City, Yunnan Province. She felt a call of love from her parents there. Both of them supported her decision, and care deeply about local culture, ecology and education. 

Xiaoling’s story, which she presented at the ‘Nature Education in Rural Communities’ forum attended by practitioners across Southwest China, exemplifies a central principle of rural nature education – a sense of belonging to place.

Nature education in China, run mostly for children by schools and environmental NGOs, has concentrated in urban communities. Yet, a few nature education organisations and practitioners have recently taken the less trodden path: integrating nature education with rural culture. They promote community-based nature education in villages across Southwest China, an area rich in both natural diversity and in ethnic minority culture, yet also impacted by mainstream economic development priorities.

In 2018, PCD began supporting Zaidi Nature Education Centre (Zaidi) to study nature education practices in rural communities. They have been conducting thorough interviews with organisations and practitioners in the Southwest, documenting findings and experiences, and running discussion forums and workshops – more than 50 practitioners have attended their sessions. The participants’ diverse backgrounds remind us that nature education is not limited to the classroom, nor is it for children only. It can take place in the entire community, and for different groups and ages.

Zaidi has visited and carried out innovative community activities, such as with Ma Xiaoling and her visionary Mingde Kindergarten. Another inspiring case is in a village in Lijiang City, Yunnan Province, where He Jixian of Naxi ethnicity has opened a seed library of seeds, Dongba books and artefacts. He also runs ‘Be a Tree’ summer camps for children. Two stimulating ways of weaving Dongba culture into everyday life! The Dazu Primary School by Lugu Lake in Yunnan Province also integrates local culture into an unique children’s curriculum. Another innovative activity: Chen Yingzhao of the Rare Flora and Fauna Protection Department based in Tengchong City, Yunnan Province, works alongside foresters and villagers in the Gaoligongshan National Reserve to create nature-and-culture learning environments for local children. These cases – of many – impress and inspire both the practitioners, and us. They show us that rural nature education takes different forms. They reveal the importance of passion and a sense of belonging. They embody an attunement with both local community living and nature’s rhythms. They acknowledge the wisdom of cultural knowledge and of nature itself. 

As rural practitioners deepen their understanding of nature education, they are inspired to apply the values and principles to their own practice. Often, they develop face-to-face and online networks that enhance mutual learning and offer camaraderie. Zaidi continues to conduct in-depth interviews with practitioners to fine tune the skills of nature educators, supporting them to transform theory into action. Living and learning – a natural education.