In Thailand, forests and oceans become classrooms for children

Alex Rendell
photo by: Khaosod

In today’s modern world, many of our experiences are already mediated by screens, often leaving us feeling detached from our natural environment. But a social enterprise in Thailand aims to change that, by bringing young people to new learning opportunities outdoors. 

Guided by a central ethos, “let nature be our classroom,” the Environmental Education Centre (EEC) opens the eyes and hearts of children from Bangkok, Thailand, and beyond to the beauty of their environment and the need to protect their country’s rich biodiversity.

Since 2015, EEC has promoted environmental education through immersive camps and conservation projects, as well as corporate collaborations. Today, it has led some 240 environmental education camps, bringing children as young as 3 years old out to the wild and allowing them to witness wonder firsthand.

The enterprise was co-founded by actors Alex Rendell and Toey Jarinporn Joonkiat, and veteran conservationist Alongkot Chukaew.

Rendell, a National Goodwill Ambassador of the UN Environment Programme, is also lending his voice to the #WeAreASEANBiodiversity campaign of the ASEAN Centre for Biodiversity. The three-year campaign aims to raise public awareness and mobilise support for biodiversity conservation across different sectors.

“We really do believe that education is the long-term way of solving [our environmental problems],” he said of EEC’s primary goal. “We believe in aligning with the model that if you’re educated, you will have that sentimental value, and that will then lead to protecting whatever you’re learning about–in this case, nature.”

Moulding minds

Rendell’s passion for biodiversity conservation began at a young age when he learned about the need to protect elephants, the gentle giants that are icons in his home country. After earning his Master’s degree in environmental social science from Mahidol University, the young actor immediately put his passion and knowledge into good use by starting EEC. 

The centre’s founders believed it was best to work with children, whose minds and hearts can be moulded towards caring for the natural world. Many of their participants, Rendell noted, already show signs of becoming budding environmentalists themselves, even before they start the programme.

Environmental education connects individuals, organizations, and communities to nature by increasing their awareness on the state of the natural environment and exploring solutions to the most pressing environmental challenges. 

With EEC, education goes beyond the four walls of a classroom. Instead, participants join a variety of camps that bring them to the great outdoors, such as amid forest wildlife in Doi Inthanon National Park in northern Thailand, or among colorful marine life in picturesque Krabi in the southwest part of the country.

The camps, often stretching for three days and two nights, have a range of levels that depend on the age and experiences of the participants and are designed to not only be informative, but also entertaining and exciting. 

Their wildlife camps, for instance, offer immersive courses on elephant, bird, and reptile conservation, pre-wildlife veterinary classes, and fossil studies. Marine life camps involve scuba diving and learning about sea turtles, dugong, and other sea creatures, while indigenous camps allow young people to explore local knowledge and culture with indigenous communities.

As one of the most biodiverse countries in the ASEAN, Thailand is a perfect laboratory to commune with and learn from nature. It is home to approximately 15,000 plant species, representing eight per cent of the global total. It also hosts over 300 mammal species, 980 bird species, and 320 reptile species. Located at the center of the mainland Southeast Asia, it also boasts of rich aquatic biodiversity, with a wide expanse of coral reefs that support thousands of marine life.

Planting seeds of change

When children participate in the camps, said the 32-year-old Rendell, they don’t only learn about the ecosystems. More importantly, they see firsthand what needs protection, and what they can do in their small ways.

“If our biodiversity slowly dies down, the first people that will be affected are the people within the area, and a lot of those decisions [that affect them] come from people making decisions in the city,” he said. “We’re teaching city kids, so if we educate them, my end goal is hopefully these kids will be sitting in chairs of management or as CEOs or directors, and [will be] making decisions that are helping people.”

The young actor said many of their camp participants often come back every year, bearing stories of how they joined green clubs in their schools or that they started their initiatives to save animals. Some have gone to university influenced by their takeaways from the camps, choosing careers in sustainability and environmental science.

“If they’re that small and they could do that much, it can only grow bigger,” he said. “It’s more like planting a seed… It’s nice to know that sometimes, three or four years after, we see that same kid has come back and has transformed into a different person.”

“To know that we played a part–a small part in that–it’s very, very nice to hear.”

Making an impact

For Rendell, these stories of change, big and small, are fuel to his desire to continue with the camps, even as he juggles them with his busy life on the silver screen and the eventual blow of the COVID-19 pandemic.

Pre-pandemic, his main role during camps is to lead scuba diving sessions, introduce children to the underwater world for the first time, and teach them to identify fish species that swim by.

The several waves of coronavirus lockdowns in Thailand have forced EEC to rethink and reimagine its strategy. The biggest lesson? Online and remote learning can never replace their interactions outdoors. (They tried, and it was not much of a success, Rendell notes.)

Late last year, when it was safer to venture outside, EEC began its “bubble camps,” ensuring that all participants, educators, and crew are healthy and negative from the virus. And so far, it has worked, and given a lot of joy, especially to children (and their parents) who have not stepped outside their homes for nearly two years.

“We teach a lot of kids about resilience, and now our resilience is tested for real in many ways,” said Rendell. “During a pandemic, [they also see] how important biodiversity is.”

As the world will sooner than later recover from the blow of the global pandemic, the actor-slash-conservationist only hopes that they could continue with their mission to influence younger generations to care for the planet and all that thrive on it.

The main takeaway that he wishes every child would have after each camp is that humans and nature are intricately intertwined.

“We always try to make sure that everything we teach… you have to link it back to the person,” he said. “You really have to understand how these are linked, like the forest up north with the whale sharks down south… I think that’s the mentality we’re trying to get to.”