IN a cozy kindergarten nestled in a shoplot in the heart of Johor Baru, Syaza Soraya Sauli posed a seemingly simple question to a group of preschoolers: "Murid-murid tahu tak apakah warna buah epal?" ("Pupils, do you know the colour of an apple?") Their collective response echoed through the room,
Syaza probed further, "Ada warna lain tak?" ("Are there other colours?"). To her surprise, the children hesitated, unable to fathom apples in colours beyond red.
The issues Syaza, a passionate advocate of nature-based learning, stood before these young minds with a mission in her heart. "That's the problem I have with most preschoolers. Much of their learning comes from screens — phones, tablets, computers. This has affected their ability to think and study."
Her concerns extend beyond the limited knowledge of apple colours. The preschoolers' aspirations reflected another pressing issue.
When asked about their future ambitions, their responses centred on becoming YouTubers, TikTokers and influencers.
Syaza's bewilderment was palpable as she emphasised, "I'm not saying that becoming YouTubers, TikTokers, and influencers is wrong, but too much time looking at screens has taken away the natural-based learning that children should experience.
"What I'm worried about is that the children, due to the absence of 'green time', where they connect with nature to learn, may not have the resilience during the process of growing and learning."
That's why she is embarking on an initiative that aims to cultivate a love for nature and environmental sustainability in preschool children.
She wants these children to go through the basic process of learning involving nature.
The mother of two girls (ages 8 and 5) with a deep respect for the environment has led her to pursue her PhD in Educational Psychology at Universiti Teknologi Malaysia.
Her focus is on an ambitious subject — "Empowering environmental sustainability values in preschoolers in Malaysia through comprehensive nature-based learning modules."
Her goal is to develop a educational modules that integrate nature-based learning into preschool curricula, fostering a connection between children and the natural world.
Just recently, she was selected as one of the recipients of the 2023 Merdeka Award Grant for International Attachment, where she will be doing an attachment at the Centre for Environmental Education, University of Minnesota, Duluth, in the US.
"This international experience is not merely an academic endeavour; it's a quest to bridge the gap in environmental education for young learners in Malaysia," she said.
Syaza, originally from Pasir Putih, Kelantan, has several years of experience teaching in international schools and tertiary education institutions. She holds degrees in Bahasa Melayu and professional communication and a Master's in Psychology and Education.
Explaining her research, she said it is about creating interest in nature among children.
"From my observation, a lot of students do not have an interest in STEM education. One of the reasons is that they don't feel connected with science itself. We have to start from the basics, and one of my approaches is to start with nature-based learning.
"Why is this so? When I was small, I had wonderful experiences with nature, and secondly, I see a lot of problems faced by children nowadays like pseudo-autism.
"These children don't suffer from autism, but they develop symptoms of autism because of too much screen time. And because of this excessive screen time, they don't mix with people and have reduced focus," she said.
The importance of nature-based learning
Nature-based learning, Syaza said, is the foundation of human character development. "Remember when we were small, we played outside, we fell and got back up by ourselves, right? Today's children, however, seldom venture outdoors, making them less resilient."
She emphasised the importance of exposing children to nature to boost their learning experiences.
"Our sensory system needs to mature before we can learn," Syaza said.
"Based on psychology, children who are slow in learning often have sensory system issues. To address this, I call on the government to create more free open green spaces for our children," she said.
Syaza elaborated on the critical window for learning — the golden age of 0 to 8 years old — during which the brain develops rapidly.
She likened the brain to a sponge, absorbing and releasing what it learns. Unfortunately, many children skip this crucial phase due to excessive screen time.
This approach, she said, has never been studied or used before in Malaysia, so she had to contact many experts from overseas who have been using this style of learning.
"I connected with a professor from the University of Minnesota, who is also an environmentalist in child education. From there, I saw an urgent need for this to be implemented in the Malaysian education system," she said.
For the learning module to be successfully implemented, parents, stakeholders, teachers and policy changes will be involved.
"Policy-wise, we need to have a safe and conducive environment for children to learn. Also, as a member of the Dewan Muda Johor for the Education sector, I have suggested this initiative — on the importance of open green space for children. When I did a survey on why parents didn't allow their children to go out, it was because they were afraid of their children being abducted or kidnapped," said Syaza.
Another reason is that most parents don't have much time, and green areas are normally far from where they live. "Another challenge is the lack of knowledge among parents in the importance of nature-based learning. They are more focused on academic excellence. They lack understanding of the importance of children's right to learn while playing," she added.
Training the teachers
Through workshops and training sessions, she aspires to equip teachers with the tools they need to integrate these modules into their classrooms.
By instilling environmental sustainability values in early childhood, she envisions a future where children grow up as stewards of the planet.
In a world grappling with environmental challenges, these preschool children have the potential to be the change-makers, innovators, and leaders that Malaysia — and the world — needs.
The insight and knowledge gained during her attachment with the University of Minnesota are not just academic accolades.
They are the keys that will unlock a brighter, more sustainable future for Malaysia. Armed with newfound perspectives and experiences, Syaza envisions a Malaysia where nature-based learning becomes a cornerstone of early education, and where children graduate with not only academic knowledge but also a sense of duty towards their environment.
As Syaza's journey unfolds, one thing is clear — she is sowing the seeds of change, tending to them with dedication.
With nature-based learning modules as her tools, she is nurturing a generation that will not only learn from nature but will also learn to protect and cherish it.