Gone unplugged in Japan: reflections from our summer outdoors

When the idea of holding an outdoor summer camp near the Japanese alps for kids from Singapore first floated around the team in Dec 2018, we were very excited, and at the same time, a little nervous.

At Saturday Kids, we’re all about inspiring kids to be curious, self-directed learners; and while coding is the medium we currently use to achieve that, we all know that learning goes beyond one medium, one platform. Many of us in the team are parents who also enjoy the great outdoors and appreciate that nature provides an excellent learning environment, where with very little intervention, kids can learn a lot.

And so we said yes, let’s do this.

Fast forward to the present – the camp is now over, and here are some of my reflections on what it means for kids to go unplugged in an outdoor classroom without walls, from my vantage point as a parent, organiser, and facilitator.

Everything is interesting.

A contrast to tightly spun lesson plans and curricula, the kids’ time was only lightly structured with broad stroke anchor activities for each day (e.g. trekking to the waterfall, a high ropes course, scavenging for materials for the bridge building projects). What this meant is that kids had the leeway to run wild and free at the campsite and to just play and be – whether that was catching butterflies, playing football and catching, or going on adventures in imaginary new worlds at a natural playground. 

What we found kids loved the most was getting wet during a trek to the waterfall, wading in a stream, and catching tadpoles. It’s not rocket science, but the simple things that being in nature (and a little bit of encouragement) allowed them to do that made it to their highlight reel. One of my favourite moments is finding some of the girls using foraged twigs, leaves and flowers to build a little home for bugs – one of them even successfully bugged her parents to return to the campsite the day after camp ended to check if any bugs ended up nesting there!

With Japan the home of many of the world’s engineering marvels, our camp was themed around building bridges – physically, socially and culturally. This saw kids scavenging for logs in the forest to prototype their own designs, and learning to use saws, drills and the like along the way. We watched kids eagerly approach this project with enthusiasm under the watch of trained facilitators who very clearly set the ground rules, because you know, as one instructor bluntly put it: “I don’t want any of you putting a hole through your hands!”. As a parent of 2 young girls, I particularly enjoyed seeing the older girls undertaking this activity – who says tools are just for boys? 

Care and friendship come naturally.

We were glad to have a batch of diverse kids from the age of 4, to pre-teens, join us for this camp, and for a good part of camp the kids were split into groups for age-appropriate activities, before reuniting for activities where everyone was involved – such as the afternoon treks to the river and to the waterfall. On many occasions, we saw how the kids organically took on the responsibility of looking out for each other – giving each other a hand when they needed to cross the river, encouraging each other during the high rope course, and more. It made our day to see a kid as young as 7 volunteer herself to look after a 4 year old, and to find the experience delightful.

Do what scares you.

Away from their parents and in a foreign country, kids had been signed up to venture beyond their comfort zone, and as adults we were awed by the many, many instances where we saw how the kids challenged themselves to do things that initially scared them (think high ropes, and getting their socks and shoes wet in a shallow stream) – and turned out to like it so much they asked to go again and again. Speaking of victories: even the sheer fact that none of the kids really kicked up a big fuss of being with a group of strangers after getting dropped off by their parents is commendable.

When we took a moment to step in the kids’ shoes, we’re humbled by the kids’ courage.

Nature is all around us!

Yes, it is quite special to be able to do this in Karuizawa, and we and the kids were very privileged with the cool summer weather and the change in environment that made it an especially pleasant experience for everyone on the ground.

But it does not have to stop there! We are very lucky in Singapore to have access to an abundance of nature (albeit in hot and humid weather conditions), and whether your child is 4or 12 years old, there’s nothing stopping you from recreating similar experiences (thanks NParks!). A hike up Bukit Timah Hill, an early morning walk at Sungei Buloh Nature Reserve (try spotting some interesting birds and crocodiles), looking out for monitor lizards at MacRitchie Reservoir, and many, many more – the point is, we have a lot at our doorstep to explore, not just for your kids, but for yourself too. 

. . .

My 4-year old twins had a blast and were flat out every day (camp activities ended at 3pm daily). They speak fondly of time spent catching butterflies, playing catching, dipping their feet at the chilly waterfalls, finding twigs in the forest, AND they absolutely loved sweeping the campsite (!).

As an organiser, parent and facilitator, I personally find it quite touching to observe how over the span of just 1 week, all these kids who were strangers prior, came together, formed friendships, proactively helped each other out, took it upon them to challenge themselves and overcome their own fears, and really got into spending time together in the beautiful surroundings of Karuizawa. The Japanese call it “forest bathing” – they believe that it’s good for health, it’s not hard to see why. 

. . .

This is just the beginning of #SaturdayKidsUnplugged, and for the parents who joined us on this first trip, we are very thankful for your support and trust. We’d love to continue doing this and to continue to curate learning experiences for kids from Singapore, and to that end, will be sharing more details about our plans for 2020, so keep a look out for that. Special thanks to Anli from EtonHouse International Preschool in Tokyo, and his team – we couldn’t have asked for a better partner who shares a similar philosophy with us to do this together. 

Questions or comments, and just wish to chit chat over coffee? Email us at [email protected] or reach me directly at [email protected]

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