Following a two-year stint in Thailand, EMMA DEAN recently joined Malvern College Pre-School (MCPS) here in Hong Kong, where she is Forest-Beach School Leader at Coronation Circle and Island West. We chatted to her about her background and about the wonderful opportunities that Forest-Beach School provides for young learners.
Where are you from?
I grew up in the UK, where I was surrounded by beautiful parks and the sea – that’s how I developed my love of nature and being outdoors. I have four brothers, too, so as a child I played a lot outside, climbing trees and building forts!
What led you to teaching in Forest-Beach school?
I started teaching in 2013 in Central London in an amazing school right next to a park. Taking the children outside always made lessons more creative. There was also a nearby piece of overgrown land that I got permission and funding to turn into an allotment. It was a fantastic learning environment. A few years later, I moved to an urban school where I created a gardening club and a small science garden that the children helped plan.
I then had the opportunity to get my Forest School qualification. After 18 months of training, I obtained Level 3 qualification. An international move followed and I worked for a while at Harrow in Thailand. However, there was no Forest School there, so I started looking for opportunities involving outdoor education. And now I’m here at Forest-Beach School at MCPS; it’s my ideal job and I have to keep pinching myself!
Tell us about the Forest-Beach School environment at MCPS.
It’s great exposing children to the outdoors so they foster a love of nature – a love that lasts a lifetime. In pre-nursery and K1, parents and aunties accompany the younger children to FBS, and, like the children, they also learn about nature and bond with one another. Quite a few dads come too. The parents look forward to FBS as much as the children do!
FBS involves child-led learning, which means we might have an activity planned to go one way, only for the children to go down their own path. We were recently making rattles with shells and sticks, and one boy wanted to change his rattle into a catapult! So I’m working on a catapult this weekend to show the children how to make one next week.
I’m enjoying building relationships and trust with the children and giving them opportunities to ignite their imagination and to learn and experience something new in a safe environment. Each class is different. For water play, one class might love making gutters in the sand, while another just wants to play in the sea! We let them decide where they want to take their learning. It might not be where we anticipated, but that’s OK. I also plan my sessions in conjunction with the class teachers. If one class has been learning about space, we’ll make some rockets on the beach the next week.
We also provide opportunities for scenarios that wouldn’t arise in the classroom. For example, the children were in the sea recently and it was calm, and then suddenly a few waves came and knocked into them. Through this, they learnt about being aware and resilient. Changes in tide can also provide different learning opportunities. When the tide was low in a recent session, we found lots of crabs, which the children were fascinated by. The class teacher then followed up with a discussion on why crabs pinch. This took the learning back into the classroom.
I had one little boy who came for the first time two weeks ago and he really didn’t like the feeling of the sand on his feet. He wouldn’t even leave the concrete. This week, he came onto the beach and went into the sea – quite a turnaround in just two sessions. He showed great courage and risk-taking skills, and it paid off for him.
What are the key benefits for students and how do these link back to the classroom?
Ultimately, it’s about the children’s confidence and self-esteem. Activities at FBS are broken down into small steps, and children achieve goals at different rates – but they always succeed. For example, if there’s a tree-climbing activity, one child might be worried and need more coaching or modelling; but they will climb the tree and get that sense of achievement that the other children get too.
It also helps with emotional intelligence as it shows children that things can go wrong and that the environment does change. Someone might have built a lovely stone mound, for example, only for it to be knocked over by weather or waves.
In reflection time in the classroom, the children look back at photos from FBS and talk about what they learnt from their time. This helps generate oral literacy. If I can see any opportunities, interests and ideas for teachers to follow up with in class, I’ll provide feedback on those too.
The class teachers are amazing and it’s great to have this collaboration. It’s also great for them to be with their pupils in a different environment. In the classroom setting, children behave differently. At FBS, they often play with different children, and grow friendship groups and build relationships with other children who they share common interests with.
As the seasons change, what are you looking forward to at FBS?
As the weather gets cooler, we’ll start using the forest area. At the same time, since it’s child-led learning, if they want to go to the beach, then we can do that instead. Having both a forest and beach environment right next to each other is unbelievable. There’s the sea and sand in one area, and a whole new dimension in the other, with tree climbing, wood work, using tools, making fires and so on. And again, it’s a process of small steps. In the fire circle, for example, we teach the children about fire safety and slowly build their resilience and perseverance. (Lighting a fire can be difficult!)
The environment will also determine what we do. You can’t plan for everything – so, I might have a particular activity ready when a storm changes the course of the session. But that’s another learning opportunity for the children. If it starts to rain, we might even dance in the rain and splash in the puddles! We can also sit under the shelter and have the children ask questions that lead in another learning direction.
Where in HK do you live, and what do you like to do in your downtime?
I live in Sai Kung and love the outdoors life here – stand-up paddleboarding, kayaking, hiking, surfing and snorkelling.
Malvern College Pre-School (Island West): G/F & 1/F, Viking Court, 165-166 Connaught Road West, Sai Ying Pun
Malvern College Pre-School (Coronation Circle): G09-12 Coronation Circle, 1 Yau Cheung Road, West Kowloon
See more in our Living in Hong Kong section.