Report by Stephanie Tok and Lin Shiyun
Copyediting by Amanda Yeo
On 16 May 2021, Singapore entered Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) due to emerging patterns of local unlinked community Covid-19 cases. Like many other social service and community agencies, 3Pumpkins had to close off public physical engagement at Tak Takut Kids Club (TTKC), a children and youth community centre located in Boon Lay Drive. TTKC was established in 2019 as a happy and safe space for children to express and discover themselves as well as to socialise with others through play and arts-based facilitation.
Despite having to close off the physical centre, TTKC leveraged on the community ties that have been fostered with 80 families and Community Link (ComLink) Partners in Boon Lay to continue engagement through a hybrid of online and offline methods. This report serves to document the processes and outcomes of the actions that TTKC has taken during Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) and some reflections on engagement in a post-pandemic world.
3Pumpkins wishes to thank our volunteers and The Majurity Trust SG Strong Fund for supporting our ground work during this period of great uncertainty.
Tak Takut Kids Club
ONLINE OR OFFLINE?
It was clear to us that there were two groups of children and youth among TTKC members:
Children and youth whom we could reach out to digitally. This group would have been connected via TTKC WhatsApp chat group or whose caregivers we could contact via text messages.
Children and youth whom we could not reach digitally. They were either too young, had IT difficulties, or whose caregivers are not within our reach.
With limited manpower (3Pumpkins currently does not have full-time staff), we decided that it was impossible to reach out to everyone. We chose to focus on ‘tweens’ who are between the age of 9 to 13 with the following directions:
To engage children who have IT access and understand their digital footprints.
While conducting (1), reach out to those without access, and find ways to transit them onto the digital platform used
Reach out to parents to ask about caregiving needs and bridge any existing gaps.
Our concern for the children’s learning needs and their families’ caregiving needs is informed by Emerging Stronger Conversation which we had conducted in February this year. The conversation with the residents then resulted in a collaboration with Engineering Good (EG) to conduct a laptop repair clinic (https://www.imda.gov.sg/digitalforlife/stories-listing/engineering-good) for some of the residents.
As we aimed for a seamless shift from physical centre activities to ‘Virtual TTKC’,, we wanted to keep our online engagement timing similar to centre opening hours. Activities spread across the week included online games, various forms of interactive and collaborative drawing, dramatised reading, cooking, chit chat, music and dance sessions conducted over Zoom platform. Due to the urgency of the situation and in line with 3Pumpkins’ community-building ethos, the programmes were conceived ground-up instead of organisation-led. Facilitators and volunteers were encouraged to suggest activities that they would like to lead based on their existing interaction and understanding of the members. The organisation, however, did introduce a new programme - Homework Cafe - in consideration of home-based learning and upcoming major exams for the older children.
Via WhatsApp group chat, there were daily check-ins and conversations where the members would share good morning GIFs, their daily ups and downs, and findings on the internet. When necessary, a befriender would reach out to a specific individual member to provide support, be it a listening ear or figuring out how to cook rice via video call when the child was left hungry at home. The unique reach for our online engagement included 25 participants who frequently interacted with one another over the four weeks of heightened Phase 2.
Schedule for Virtual TTKC
RECEPTION OF ONLINE PROGRAMMES
Popular online games such as Among Us and Gartic Phone were well-received by the members as they were familiar and easy to understand. On the other hand, the introduction of new games, like Codename and Spyfall, and their rules posed quite a challenge. Another well-attended programme was ‘Drawing with Biddy’ conducted by artist Biddy Low, where the members could pre-vote from a list of options for what they would like to learn to draw during the session. Unlike at the physical centre where children find themselves leading organic processes of discovery in an environment of unstructured programming, that did not translate well online. It was difficult for multiple persons to chat simultaneously on the Zoom platform, and the children lost interest easily. To sustain the members’ interests effectively, online activities needed directives that are extremely simple and clear.
Playing online game 'Codenames’
Drawing and chatting with Biddy: ‘How to Sketch a Realistic Human Eye’
Another programme highlight was ‘Goodnight Radio’ initiated by Farez Najid and Han Xuemei, where song dedications could be sent in and conversations unfolded around everyday exchanges in TTKC Whatsapp chat group. Some of the topics discussed in this radio show-style programme were included ‘Weirdness’ and ‘How do we say Goodbye’. Conducted on a Friday late night, the purpose of ‘Goodnight Radio’ was was to provide a community listening space for members to relieve stress that might have accumulated throughout the week. Although there was not much sharing of personal stories by the youth on this community radio platform, personal struggles related to the nightly themes were more often exchanged on a personal, one-to-one, basis via Whatsapp chats. However, one thing the youth were forthcoming in sharing on this platform was their music preferences, and such a sharing allowed participants to learn much about one another which would otherwise not have happened.
Goodnight Radio with Farez and Han: 'Alamak Phase 2 again?'
Homework Cafe was mostly attended by the upper primary students. On Zoom, participants would be paired up with a volunteer and they would move into a breakout room. While all the participants and volunteers knew one another, we realised that the youth preferred choosing a tutor with whom they felt more familiar. With consent from the youth, we developed a buddy system that allowed the organisation to constantly check in with the tutor and tutee with regards to learning support. One of the biggest challenges for Homework Cafe was that some volunteers lacked the ability to tutor effectively as they are not familiar with the PSLE syllabus and standardised problem-solving methods, especially for Mathematics. To address this issue, we approached Superstar Tutor for in-kind sponsorship so that volunteer tutors were able to learn together with their tutees using Superstar Tutor’sonline learning platform.
All in all, sustaining interest was consistently challenging in our online engagement efforts. Besides having to compete with other sources of distractions native to the Internet which members are already preoccupied with, we also met with technical issues of unstable internet connection and disparities in members’ digital literacy which hampered the process of online communication for mutual understanding/the initial establishment. It was especially hard to retain their interest in the last week of heightened phase 2 as the sense of novelty had fizzled out and what we believed to be screen fatigue took over. On the contrary, as the weeks passed, we gradually observed more engagement at the physical centre where members would often visit, or stop by while on their way to the playground or walking around the neighbourhood to connect with one other.
Online safety was a big concern for us. For the Zoom platform, we were strict about allowing only known volunteers and members into the room. Nevertheless, for the benefit of all participants, we made it mandatory to record all sessions even though this could have hindered the sharing of personal stories during programmes like Good Night Radio show. With increased dependence on online messaging/communication throughout Virtual TTKC, the boundaries of engagement had also blurred and shifted as members would text facilitators late at night or early in the morning. Most of these messages sent in the middle of the night reflected their worries and stresses. While we understand that these behaviours were driven by a need for connection, it was important to safeguard the well-being of facilitators and manage burnout from increasingly frequent and energy-demanding virtual interaction. Managing the parameters and safety of online engagement is a work that we will have to review and examine more thoroughly hereafter.
Towards the third week of heightened phase 2, we began receiving complaints of insults, harassment, and sharing of sexual content among members. We were particularly alarmed that the lower primary students were propagating such behaviour, especially those who were given their own digital devices to use all day long without much adult supervision. Our first step of intervention was to call out and quell any form of harassment by sending out an announcement through our WhatsApp chat group, then following up with individual cases to better understand the underlying causes of inappropriate behaviour.
Boon Lay Drive neighbourhood
While Virtual TTKC was happening, we were also reaching out to tweens who lacked digital access to be connected with us. The issues faced were varied: some had straightforward hardware problems, some had issues with Internet connection, some had functioning hardware that was incompatible with updated software, and others had the infrastructure but lacked the knowledge to navigate the software. Our team had to reach out to individuals, understand their situations, and work with relevant agencies and organisations when necessary. The work was manpower intensive, often requiring us to go to the members physically and gather resources from other partners to render support.
For instance, there was a member who wanted to join us online but could not set up and download the Zoom application on her Huawei tablet. First, we had to work with her school and School Welfare Officer (SWO) to create a personal email account and password for her. After the account was set up, we had to visit her to help her install the Zoom application. However, after many failed attempts, we realised that the tablet was outdated to run the software. Her parent informed us that the school would deliver a tablet for loaning, but we had waited for a few days and were still uncertain when it would arrive. Eventually, we offered to lend her a tablet under the organisation’s account so that she could join us for the online programmes.
Younger children whose parents were unable to supervise them in school work and resolve technological issues were especially difficult for us to reach out to digitally. For these individuals, we made special arrangements for them to meet volunteers/facilitators in person at the physical centre for one-on-one assistance to complete their home-based learning and other school work. These sessions were attended with much enthusiasm and diligence.
The transitory period of Phase 2 (Heightened Alert) was most challenging for families whose children are not enrolled in Student Care. They did not have any support system that could help them quickly adapt to fleeting changes and had to juggle with their own jobs, and their children’s schooling and caregiving needs. These families did not know how or where they could ask for assistance. The issues faced were varied and support had to be catered to individual family needs for the help to be meaningful. For instance, when a family approached us to share their difficulties in caregiving during home-based learning period, we worked with the school’s Student Welfare Officer and volunteers from Kampung Kakis to create a support system to send two of their children to school every day for the course of two weeks.
Kampung Kaki volunteers bringing a pair of siblings to school
As participation rate decreased on the virtual platforms, we noticed increased physical activities in the neighbourhood. With prolonged social distancing measures in place, we continued communicating closely with members online and heard of personal updates that led us to be concerned about disrupted sleep patterns, anxiety, and social disconnect. In response, we started reactivating (physical space at) the centre, engaging small groups with outdoor activities, and distributing art and craft materials for the children to bring home to work with. The children literally squealed with joy at the resumption of these physical connections.
Apart from working with our community members, 3Pumpkins was able to share some of the resources that we have developed with other organisations as well. We partnered with Belanja a Meal 2.0 to utilise TTKC’s community space as a distribution point for their food aid initiative and encouraged the community youth to participate in the volunteering effort. We were also able to share our dialect radio programme ‘Say Louder Teahouse’ with organisations that wanted to engage seniors, by providing them with over 400 memory cards containing data of the radio programme.
TTKC youths volunteering with Belanja a Meal 2.0
Since the pandemic started, reports have shown increased anxiety and depression in children post-circuit breaker. (https://www.straitstimes.com/lifestyle/6-ways-covid-19-changed-childhood-in-singapore-a-lost-or-more-resilient-generation). In both our online and offline engagement and interventions, we particularly looked out for any signs of emotional and mental distress faced by the community members. While these stress factors have mostly existed before the pandemic, they have definitely been exacerbated during this period. We are heartened that TTKC has become a refuge where some of our members - children, youth, and their family members - could find interpersonal connections and share their personal struggles.
Moving forward, there are a few areas that 3Pumpkins - TTKC will need to work on:
Digital literacy and wellness for children and youth
A sustainable and ethical framework for our system of befriending community members.
More trusting relationships so that families know how and where they can seek help.
The capacity of our facilitators and volunteers to conduct digital engagement.
As the centre re-opens, TTKC will be focusing our engagement efforts on a new programme ‘The Can Do Party’ where hobby clubs that hone life skills in gardening, sewing, and cooking are developed according to our members’ interests and needs. We hope that Singapore will not have to experience another phase of heightened alert measures again, and will better prepare ourselves for this post-pandemic world.