In touch with nature

What’s your go-to stress buster? Some exercise or pig out, while others choose to sleep in or keep a diary to record their thoughts. For Tracy Wong, it has always been nature.

As a nature lover who participated in Asia’s first middle school student Antarctic expedition in 2010, Wong has since been inspired to promote environmental protection. She recalled climbing up to the peak of a glacier and witnessing an avalanche. “It was 10 degrees Celsius, which was quite hot for the Antarctic,” Wong said. “People always think global warming is a distant thing, but that experience made me realize it is happening.”

Yet after graduating from the University of Hong Kong with a degree in ecology and biodiversity, she did not pursue a career in it, as she felt what she learned in school was not popular enough to be applied to mass education.

Her watershed moment came three years ago, when her friend introduced her to William Tsang’s presentation on Nature Bathing during a course on social enterprise management. The presentation discussed how nature bathing helps reduce urban residents’ stress and guides them to an understanding of the city’s ecology through in-depth natural tours.

“Hong Kong people are under a lot of pressure,” Wong noted, “especially since last year’s social unrest and this year’s Covid-19 pandemic.”

According to a study published in Frontiers in Psychology in 2019, taking at least 20 minutes out of your day to stroll or sit in a place that makes you feel in contact with nature will significantly lower your stress hormone levels. “It has become a popular lifestyle trend in Europe, United States, Australia and New Zealand, but not yet in Hong Kong,” Wong said.

So Wong and Tsang founded Nature Bathing, a social enterprise serving more than 1,500 people in the past three years. Held in Tai Po Kau Nature Reserve, their programs ask participants to walk around the reserve for 20 minutes. They are also invited to “experience” 50 to 100 preserved specimens of nature to stimulate focus on objects that would otherwise be overlooked.

Wong explained that the activities aim to get people to pay more attention to the things around them, instead of just focusing on their unhappiness and stress.

Another activity is sitting alone by a creek and thinking about something unpleasant. Once, Wong recalled, a special-needs student told her that the sounds of river and winds helped him forget his anger.

One of Wong’s favorite games is Tree Friends, in which a blindfolded participant will be led to a tree by a teammate to touch its features. The blindfold is later removed and the person needs to find the tree.

“Our role is to guide them to find inner peace and realize who they are,” said Wong, adding that an ethnic minority student once cried while telling her that the experience was life changing.

Hearing about these experiences encourages the team to continue running the social enterprise, even if their plans have been derailed by the pandemic.

In August, they launched an online program (HK$500) for kids aged three to five. Participants will be sent a Nature Wonder Box containing five to six specimens of nature, which they study and present during Zoom lessons, as well as creating an art piece.

Nature Bathing has also been working on corporate social responsibility projects, including online classes for children from grassroot families. Providing services to the grassroots is also one of the company’s future development goals. The organization believes that access to and understanding nature is a right, not a luxury.

Invited as a speaker at this year’s Social Enterprise Summit, Wong will speak on the topic of Rebuilding City Resilience. The innovation consultant at training center Education For Good will also share her experience of hosting the Social Innovation+ Competition, a six-day online event containing 900 people.

With the theme of “new normal, collective power,” this year’s SES will feature more than 70 leaders and social innovators over the three-day, 20-session event from November 19 to 21. Registration is free for the symposium, which will be hosted online for the first time.

(This article was published at The Standard on October 13, 2020: Education: In touch with nature )

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