Outdoor Education: Not Just Nature, But Culture Too

WildChina > Destinations > Songyang > Outdoor Education: Not Just Nature, But Culture Too

by Kendra Tombolato

The concept of outdoor education isn’t a novelty. The goal is simple: get people outside, teach them about nature, hope they enjoy it and, voilà, a new generation of outdoor enthusiasts is born.

A whole medley of organizations have been built around this concept, from NGOs to wilderness survival programs to exclusive private schools. In China, where love for the outdoors is concerned, the whole nation is on board, both the general populace and the government. On a nation-wide level, a government-led push for “rural revitalization” is in the works.

The mission is clear: inspire a yearning for the countryside to rival the glittery allure of city hubs. The reasoning is sound: to resolve issues like rural-urban inequality, ensure food stability and alleviate poverty. Implementation, however, is still in the early stages.

Outdoor Education: Not Just Nature, But Culture Too
Songyang County

One of the nation’s pilot locations for the rural revitalization push is Lishui, Zhejiang, where the bucolic county of Songyang is located. In 2020 the local government asked WildChina to assist with a cultural and architectural conservation of the town. Fast forward to today, and Songyang sits in stark contrast to many of China’s other “old towns”.

Instead of mass-made tourist trinkets sold in row-after-row of seemingly identical shops, paved and painted in unison to further to bolster the symmetry, Songyang’s cobbled streets remain home to hand-shingled rooves where the wrinkle-creased faces of smiling artisans wait, doors open, to share their trade secrets with inquisitive passers-by. In sum, the town pushes away from China’s usual ideals of renovation and instead embodies sustainable conservation done right.

On the outskirts of the town, a network of old trails take local commuters and visiting hikers through towering bamboo groves, wending brooks, spluttering waterfalls, and general mountainscape bliss. So, when the Songyang Culture and Tourism Board reached out about creating an outdoor education program for the area’s elementary school students, it made perfect sense.

However, to follow the well-trodden path of what “outdoor education” traditionally includes seemed unrounded. The people who live amidst this natural setting, and the culture they live by, is surely equally important. How can students learn about nature if the people who have been living in this exact nature for centuries aren’t part of that education?

Outdoor Education: Not Just Nature, But Culture Too
Local traditional painting technique involving tea-infused paints

With this goal in mind – to do right by the local people and by nature – WildChina created the Songyang Story booklet designed to immerse and educate students in Songyang’s outdoor heritage, both natural and cultural.

The booklet is bilingual, written as a diary where students can follow along in the writer’s footsteps and is broken up into five categories: nature, culture, intangible cultural heritage, history and agriculture. Activities range from plant identification to traditional weaving to tea picking, each led by a local community member, and centered around the importance of natural and cultural preservation.

The booklet is already in use as the core material for visiting student groups to Songyang. Plus, 5,000 of the booklets are being distributed to local elementary schools, with plans in place to make the program part of the overall curriculum in the local public education system.

Outdoor Education: Not Just Nature, But Culture Too
Songyang Story booklet

Making the Wild more accessible isn’t only in our name, it’s in our hearts. As such, it’s a great joy to see our vision for what outdoor education should encompass come to fruition. We hope it blazes a path toward further cultural and natural conservation, for both the students and for future rural revitalization projects across the country.

Outdoor Education: Not Just Nature, But Culture Too
Students following the Songyang Story booklet, hiking in Songyang