Friends of Saturday Kids: Anli of EtonHouse Japan on What Kids Learn from Nature
October 4, 2019
Each child is different, and each child is a genius in their own way.
Meet Anli! Friend of Saturday Kids, director of EtonHouse Japan, outdoor enthusiast and dad to Kaishi (10) and Taisei (4). Also a lead instructor for Saturday Kids Unplugged Summer Camp in Japan (organised in partnership with EtonHouse Tokyo) he spends weeks on end in Japan’s national parks introducing little ones to the great outdoors – an experience that is every bit as meaningful and exhausting as it sounds.
Based in Tokyo, we chat about what prompted his switch from a career in finance to education, why he’s an advocate for outdoor education, and what he wants kids to take away from the experience of going unplugged.
Hi Anli! What’s your story, and what sparked your passion for outdoor education?
“I’ve always enjoyed sports and being outdoors. A friend introduced me to triathlons, and when I moved from Singapore to Japan (I’m half-Japanese!), I started going to different places in Japan to do triathlons and really got to love nature. Going for races all over Japan allowed me to see different parts of Japan, and appreciate different types of nature all over the country.
When my first son was about 3 years old, I started taking him camping. City life and going to malls in Tokyo started getting a bit boring to me, so one day I decided to try camping with my family.
I noticed that he really loved being in nature, and it was like he was a totally different person. He was always so happy there, and wanted me to take him back again and again.
This made me wonder why kids are so fascinated by nature and I began to do more research into it.”
From your inquiry into the pedagogy of nature, as well as your experience with your own kids and with other schoolchildren: what do kids learn from the great outdoors, and why do they love it?
“Kids are fascinated by the fact that nature is always changing. A shopping mall is the same every month – nothing changes. But you could go to the same park or campsite and it’s always different.
There’s changes in the weather – on days after it’s rained you see different things coming out of the ground; on sunny days you see more dragonflies.
Kids get curious about all the science behind nature. For example, observing and learning about bugs, asking how they fly and why they exist. Digging up dirt, looking at rocks. Putting things into fire and watching the natural reaction. Through this, they also learn a lot about the coexistence on which ecosystems thrive.
And then there’s soft skills like confidence and resilience. Climbing a tree or a little hill or crossing a river are challenges to young children, and when they take those risks, they gain confidence in themselves.
In a natural environment, when they go for hikes or a long walk, they tend to forget they’re walking for such a long distance. Or they could be running around a grass patch for hours. Somehow, I don’t think they could do that in a city.
I see this in my own kids who are now 4 and 10. We began taking them out in nature when they were very young, and I think they’re more confident than most kids their age; they dare to challenge themselves and try new things.”
You used to work in finance in Hong Kong and Singapore. What led you to switch paths in your career – from finance to education?
“When we moved to Tokyo, my wife and I did research into preschools and couldn’t find one that we were satisfied with. When we learned about EtonHouse and their approach to education, we decided to set up a school in Tokyo. Their curriculum was child-responsive, child-driven, not top-down and not teacher-directed – I could immediately feel the difference.
EtonHouse was also one of the pioneers in using the Reggio Emilia approach which leverages kids’ natural curiosity to help them reach their potential. Our teachers look deeply into children’s interests and listen to their thoughts, preferences, and character to craft programmes based around their needs. Each child is so different, and so to bring all these children together to run a programme together is not easy. That’s where our teachers’ strengths come in – they’re able to listen and also provide the space for the children to express themselves.”
What do you want kids to take away from the experience of going unplugged?
“Ultimately, for kids to be themselves! For them to embrace the freedom to explore, and to make new friends. They’ll get to do many different activities they’ll enjoy, and I believe that when they enjoy themselves they can learn a lot.
And 5-10 years down the road, I hope they’ll remember the time they spent there and how much fun they had.
I’ll always remember this child who arrived at camp on Day 1 with her mother and refused to separate from her – she told her mother that she was scared of bugs. It was very difficult for her the first few days, she wasn’t used to it. When her mother left, the child was just sitting there by herself.
It took some time – we need to give kids time to adjust to new environments – but on the last day of camp, she was touching and holding bugs and showing them to her Mum! It really shows that nature can deeply change a child’s mindset.”
If you were to write an open letter to other parents, what would it say?
“I would encourage parents not to conform with traditional education or to the system that they’re in.
Academic skills won’t be so important in the future. What’s more important is building children’s character – each child is different, and each child is a genius in their own way.
My wish is for parents to promote their own child according to their strengths, not according to the education system. Because the system presupposes all kids are the same, kids are graded according to their ability to finish the same test. But that’s not right.
My advice to parents is to focus on their own child and shut out what other parents are saying.
Don’t compare children to each other because each child is a genius in their own way. Just focus on their strengths and what they like to do – don’t get hung up about what other kids are doing or what they can do.
And, enjoy the outdoors! I haven’t met a child who doesn’t thrive in the outdoors yet.”
. . .
The Saturday Kids team met Anli through a mutual friend (shout out to Hoi Leong!) and bonded over our shared philosophy in wanting to raise kids to be creative and independent thinkers – and we haven’t looked back since!
While our Summer 2020 run of Saturday Kids Unplugged in Japan has been cancelled due to COVID-19, we’re looking forward to more opportunities to immerse kids in the wonders of the wilderness through outdoor camps in Japan and beyond. Shoot us an email if you’d like to be kept in the loop about future unplugged camps!