What’s going unplugged got to do with solving the world’s problems? A perspective on outdoor education from John

In June, we wrapped up our first Saturday Kids Unplugged Summer Camp – comprising 3 days of immersion in nature at a national park in Karuizawa, Japan – with our friends from EtonHouse Japan. Why’s a digital literacy school like Saturday Kids going unplugged? What has play got to do with anything? Our founder, John, explains more here.


Walking through the woods of Karuizawa is a great way to slow down, take a step back from moving from task to task, and think about stuff.

What came to my mind when I was walking in the forest behind Hoshinoya is this question – the purpose of education. Schools were invented at the turn of the 20th century to churn out young adults with sufficient knowledge to work in factories. This knowledge-based education model survived more than a hundred years and even today, a large part of mainstream education is about knowledge. In the last decade, there has been a growing emphasis on skill-based education – equipping students with the skills to be successful. Perhaps why there are so many coding schools for kids popping up everywhere. Even adults are being told to upskill and reskill. The Singapore government’s SkillsFuture initiative is exhibit #1.

While skills are important, I believe the next evolution of education will shift focus from skills to mindset.

More precisely, the mindset of being curious, asking questions, and being a lifelong learner. The world is evolving too fast for any education system to keep up. That is why a skill-based education model will not work. Nobody knows what skills our kids will need in 2050. The only way to prepare for an unknown future is to stay curious, be resilient, and keep learning. As Noah Yuval Harari puts it, “To stay relevant   you will need the ability to constantly learn and to reinvent yourself. To keep up with the world of 2050, you will need to do more than merely invent new ideas and products, but above all, reinvent yourself again and again.”

The job of educators in a world where learning is about mindset rather than skills or knowledge is to first and foremost inspire curiosity. We should encourage kids to learn through play and to become self-directed learners. Second, we need to get kids to see the world with a wider lens. Help them understand they live a sheltered life and that there’s a whole world out there for them to discover, that humanity is running out of time to solve some of the biggest issues we are facing. Climate change for example. Third, educators need to give kids the creative confidence to be able to solve any problem they set their heart on.

Singapore – or the world, for that matter – doesn’t need more lawyers and bankers. We need our kids to be mavericks, to be original thinkers. The world has many problems we need our kids to solve, and equipping them with the mindset and confidence to solve those problems is key. 

What we’re trying to do through Saturday Kids Unplugged is give kids the space to develop that sensitivity and awareness to the world beyond themselves, and to cultivate the innate curiosity that they’ll need to tackle the world’s wicked problems.

My kids had a great time going unplugged in Karuizawa during the camp – catching (and releasing) tadpoles, making new friends, and learning about their place in the great outdoors – and I believe the other kids who joined us did too.

If what I’ve shared resonates, here are a few things you can do. Embrace our philosophy of getting your child curious, give your child the time and space to learn through play. Second, tell your friends about us – who we are, and more importantly, what we stand for. Third, get your friends to sign up for the same camp next year. We want to bring hundreds of kids from Singapore to Karuizawa, not just because they’ll have a great time but also because they’ll benefit so much from the experience of being outdoors and learning through nature.

Ralph Waldo Emerson has this great quote. Trust thyself. Every heart vibrates to that iron string. For Emerson, the task of every human being was to find his or her voice and give expression to it. He believed in the importance of authenticity and unique thinking. Let’s help our kids work towards higher order ambitions than simply better grades. Let’s help them become mavericks and original thinkers. The world needs it.


John originally delivered this as a closing speech at our very first Saturday Kids Unplugged Summer Camp in Japan in June 2019. Keen to join us at the next one, or just curious about what this looks like? Find out more here

Check out more of our #postcardsfromKaruizawa:

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