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Private groups are organizing workshops to give children hands-on experience with nature, and an increasing number of parents are taking advantage of such programs.

Nature activities help build self-confidence in children, supporters of the groups say.

Among such nature experience schools is National Outfitters Training School, a nonprofit organization established in 1983. NOTS is one of the pioneers in the field in Japan.

“Children undergo a dramatic change after experiencing nature for just a few days,” NOTS representative Hatsuo Sato said. “Their eyes take on a distinctive sparkle. Small things, such as climbing a tree or lighting a fire, give them a sense of accomplishment.

“On the other hand, there are always small risks involved,” he said. “Parents lack experience and can’t make judgments on where the risks begin. It’s the task of a nature experience school to teach children what the risks are.”

One day in early July, a group of more than 30 children donned life jackets and lined the banks of the upper reaches of the Tama River in western Tokyo as part of a NOTS program for third- to sixth-graders.

The activity for the day was “playing in the river.” Upon the instructions of the team leader, the children entered the water and found to their horror that it was icy cold and fast-moving at some points. But they soon got the hang of walking in the river.

Their leader then brought them to a rocky outcrop, telling them to raise their hands if they were willing to dive into the river from the rocks.

About half the children volunteered. It was about a 1 meter drop to the river, which was several meters deep.

Despite their bravery, some of the volunteers looked pale and their faces showed apprehension. But after prompting from the leader and their more adventurous peers, more of them took the plunge.

After they managed to get back to the river bank, the general verdict on the task was clear: “It was fun!”

The children were initially apprehensive about the field trip. But after a few hours, they behaved as if they knew everything about the river, and more started to take the plunge.

After that, they started playing games, collecting stones to build a dam, or using driftwood to float in the river.

Sato said the number of kids getting hands-on nature experience is growing every year.

According to Japan Outdoor Network, there were about 30 private organizations offering children nature experiences in 1990, and 200 by 2004. That comes to more than 2,000 if public institutions for nature study are included, JON said.

There are also numerous groups that offer programs promoted by the Education, Culture, Sports, Science and Technology Ministry.

The Tokyo-based nonprofit organization Council for Outdoor & Nature Experiences serves as an umbrella body for groups involved in nature experience activities and offers information on various groups and events.

Sato said most children nowadays lack space, free time and friends of different ages to play with. He said the absence of these contributes to a decline in activity, as well as a drop in academic achievement.

“We want to give them those three things,” he said.

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