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June 1999 - Issue No. #35 (p.12 - 13)
The Yang Ming Shan Mountain Program in Taiwan started in 1994 with a jeep and some knotted ropes: the jeep was the administrative office and the ropes (tied to trees) were the classrooms. Diana Hou, the program's founder, felt it was important for Chinese students, traditionally classroom-bound, to focus on the outdoors environment - both for its benefit as well as their own.
In five years the program has grown into a fully functional nature school. A log cabin complex houses the administration, a large common room, an aviary, a snake room, a classroom, a wall-climbing room (with basket-ball hoop), a supply room for camping equipment, and a staff sleeping room. Outside, the program now runs up and down the flank of the mountain. The ropes are still there, allowing children as young as five to experience scaling steep slopes. There are also slack rope-walking courses, balance beams, and an outdoor climbing wall and cargo net. The Monkey Jump allows older students to jump off a high platform and seize a horizontal rope hanging over a clearing. A safety line then lowers them to the ground. The Vertical Playpen is an assembly of ropes, tires, and planks which the students climb up and walk across until they can reach a painted carousel horse mounted high in the tree.
Teachers take groups for nature walks through the lush bamboo and pine forest, or down Boulder Creek. The oldest students go across the valley to cliffs where they practice rappelling, rock climbing and belaying. The younger children can ride horses and visit the animal pens where Duncan the pig rules over a tiny kingdom of rabbits, goats, chickens, ducks and exotic fowl. There's a green house for the hydroponics classes for selected students from the high school. On the weekends, high school students learn camping skills such as tent assembly and fire building (to cook their own spaghetti dinners), and then go on night walks or play Night Flight -- a hide and seek game not for the timid.
From the night-time camouflaging and hunting to the daytime walks in the forest, everything the students do at the Mountain Program is a novel experience. Students in Taiwan are kept busy with school and private lessons every day until 9 pm at night - from the age of six on up. They rarely have a chance to do anything other than study. Diana Hou says that "Asian kids in general study too much" and Chinese kids learn only from books. She wanted them to have a chance to learn in and about the outdoor environment.
A new generation of outdoor-minded Taiwanese could be the solution to Taiwan's problems. Auto and factory pollution darken the skies around every major city, and litter lines the country roads and mountain sides. People dump their home garbage in the forest and off the sides of mountain roads, and the waters outside the ports are now so toxic that people are warned not to eat the fish or to swim there. Even where the water is warm, clean and populated by schools of colorful fish and the occasional manta ray, there are few swimmers - most Taiwanese don't know how to swim. Most city dwellers (the majority of Taiwanese) are afraid to go out "in nature," preferring the adventure of TV and Karaoke. The best intentions can go astray. A few months ago we hiked up a local mountain and looked down into the lovely valley where picnickers had set up food, umbrellas, chairs - and an amplified sound system that could have powered Tiger Stadium.
While we're waiting for Karaoke to go the way of Tiger Stadium, a host of young Taiwanese are taking to nature like a cat to water. They don't like it at first, but they're not drowning. Joe Hefner, Safety Director at the Mountain Program, says that he's seen a change in the two years he's been there. Students used to be terrified of the tall grass, refused to gather firewood, and even smuggled junk food in so they wouldn't have to cook on the fires. Now, the students who have been up 3 or 4 times are beginning to enjoy and perform well on the activities. The media is helping also, according to David Cirrani, Curriculum Coordinator. Sports programs are flourishing on TV, promoting the glamour of outdoor activities such as rock climbing, scuba diving and hang gliding.
It hasn't been glamorous or easy, though, getting this far. In the beginning, not only the students, but the parents were uncomfortable with the program. Parents telephoned Diana daily complaining that their child had come home from school with a dirty uniform, or worse -- mosquito bites. Now Diana holds an open meeting every year to discuss the program's goals and structures with the parents. The complaints dropped off, but other problems remain, even today.
Overnight students - 7th to 11th graders -- still smuggle food in, often abetted by their parents, who drive their Mercedes the half-hour up the mountain to deliver fresh hot hamburgers under cover of darkness. Program staff regularly perform searches and confiscate the junk food that inevitably sneaks into tents and sleeping bags. More than once, they've found stashes of goodies by the road side, waiting for their owners to come in the dead of night, long after the burned pasta had been dumped and the fires put out. More serious is the littering - a habit learned at the knees of fond parents. David lectured the campers every week about the importance of not leaving anything behind after a visit, hike or overnight stay. Still, he found litter in the morning on the camp grounds - junk food wrappers, wads of kleenex (children are taught to dry themselves and their tennis shoes off with paper tissues), and other discarded items. The lectures became sterner and longer, and David was pleased to see the campgrounds cleaner in the mornings. Until he found on closer inspection that the litter had not been taken away to the trash barrels - it had merely been tossed over the edge of a cliff into the forest below.
Children still cry for their mothers before climbing the ropes and teenagers still cry for their mothers before doing the Monkey Jump. But more and more students are beginning to love the program, the staff, the activities, and most importantly, the outdoors.
The Mountain Program is taught in Chinese and English. One of the staff is Japanese, so children also get a Japanese lesson in the outdoor classroom. The welcome speech is in Chinese, but most of the activities are run by staff from the United States. They speak English mostly, giving instructions and pointers. Some classes, such as orienteering and CPR, also include paperwork: the students read literature and do written exercises and quizzes in English. Opinions vary about the success of this aspect of the program. David feels that students don't benefit from having English. "The staff could be Chinese," he says, "but we can't find Chinese people to do the job, and they'd do it differently anyway." There are few Taiwanese who are outdoorsy and knowledgeable about animals and plants.
Diana says the success of English depends on the class. "Some kids already know English, but some don't speak English yet. We don't teach English, we just reinforce what they know. They can learn by the teacher's body language. There isn't a focus on language, just on Western teachers. Each teacher has a different character." She goes on to say that "the students are greatly influenced by the westerners. They emphasize teamwork more than Chinese do. They have a natural sense and understand the environment."
As much to help students practice English as to spread information, David started a newsletter about the Mountain program. It has articles, environmental tips, safety information, photos of kids doing activities, and coloring and puzzle pages to practice vocabulary. Some articles are printed in English and Chinese; some have selected vocabulary in Chinese foot notes. The newsletter has proved popular with the students, the parents (who understand more about what their children are doing) and the administration, who pass out copies to visitors and colleagues across the island. Contact David for a sample copy.
This type of program could be set up in any type of environment, capitalizing on local resources. Activities vary according to available space, materials and funding, as well as the staff's background and knowledge. David is modeling his curriculum on Project Adventure, a popular program in the United States which promotes group activities and trust and initiative building games. He also has a military background to draw from, which is why he added orienteering lessons. His advice to anyone hoping to set up a similar program is to have good staff and training. "Look for people who offer longevity and aren't money-oriented. You won't make money at this job. You want always to improve, so be flexible, not stuck in a box. Get connections [in the community], have a good understanding [of the local culture] and have good start-up capital."
If you're planning something like this and the money/resource requirements
seem intimidating, remember where the Mountain Program started: in a jeep.
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