The “school without walls,” or “nature school,” is being built by Yuan Jun, an adventurer and entrepreneur, and it will be based in Hangzhou, Zhejiang Province, which is on the east coast of China.
Yuan began raising money online in mid-February, with the expectation of collecting a total of 3 million yuan. In less than a week, however, more than 9 million yuan (about $1.3 million) had flooded in. Donors included individuals, enterprises, media organizations, and even other schools, according to Peng Pai, a Shanghai-based semi-official media.
His pitch to donors is compelling, and runs counter to the exam-oriented education system that China currently prizes.
“We used to bundle Chinese milkvetch [a plant] into flower balls, and throw Siberian cocklebur [a kind of daisy] into the hair of our girls. We used to cry from being bitten by bees and spotting caterpillars, and we could tell a scarab from a cicada—but what about our children? With their heads lowered, they can’t let go of their iPads. Endless mathematics and extra study classes. The only way they learn about animals is from behind bars at the zoo. They are far smarter than we are, they know more than us, but they’re not as happy as we were.”
Yuan Jun is a seasoned traveller, a construction designer, and a nature lover, according to his personal profile online. He has taken his son on trips to grasslands, forests, deserts, and oceans since the child was three years old.
But the idea for a “nature school” came to Yuan in 2013, when he and his son were traveling through Xitou Forest Park in Taiwan, and came across a most unusual scene: a group of Japanese school children had surrounded a large tree and were listening to it intently using stethoscopes.
“About every two hours, the trees take in underground water. It sounds like the sea,” he recalls the teacher explaining at the time.
The process is able to hone the ability of children to concentrate, calm down, and increase their respect for life.
“He told me that the degree of a nation being civilized is related to how many nature schools it has,” Yuan says in an interview with Peng Pai. “After I came back, I felt that not only my own child, but also China’s children, need a natural education.”
Trial classes are scheduled to open in May, and the school will formally open in July. Children from three to nine years old are eligible, and classes are typically on weekends and during school vacations. The school aims to allow children to express their emotions, socialize, and learn independence when faced with adversity.
“I hope the school will have a smooth future and, through the program, that education on nature can occupy the important place in China that it deserves,” Yuan said.
His concept appears to draw heavily from the Fuji Kindergarten designed by Tezuka Architects, and located outside of Tokyo.
But mostly, he’s looking forward to getting his son away from technology. Earlier, his son was reluctant to catch tadpoles and was afraid of dogs. But now, Yuan says, “he knows every dog in the village.”