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Out of the Ordinary: TTKC Learning in Nature

Updated: Aug 27, 2022

by Kar-men Cheng

Was there someone you talked to on the trip that you don't talk to in your everyday life?


- H, TTKC's boisterous eleven-year-old chess and boxing champ

At Tak Takut Kids’ Club (TTKC), it’s not uncommon to hear the words “change the environment to change the person”, with a contented smile between facilitators, usually after the recounting of a fruitful intervention. Far from asserting that anyone needs to be someone they are not, those words make sense in the context of Boon Lay Drive, home to 500 families with young children on social assistance, where a sense of belonging is experienced alongside a set of unique struggles. One of the goals of the practice and centre operations is building the conditions for a safe and nurturing community, a place children can explore and express themselves, day in day out.

In the child-led world of TTKC, MahJong games in the kitchen inspire a podcast. A large donation of oversized clothes gets ripped up and sewn into dolls. And the resulting puppet show morphs into a weekly Getai performance. The spaces that makeup TTKC– as of now, a multi-purpose art studio, kitchen, playground, and garden– continue to expand and evolve, breathing alongside the children’s growth, curiosities, antics, and sometimes, boredom.

During the school holidays, boredom stems from prolonged idleness. This is the case, especially for those who don't have much parental supervision– these are individuals that have all the time on their hands. Some kids take it upon themselves to organise their own cycling trips. Those who are old enough get summer jobs. At the same time, when school is out, reports of mischief and misdemeanours go up– stolen bikes that appear in the rubbish bin, a kid wandering off into a worrying situation.

One way the team responds to kids’ boredom is by taking them out of the neighbourhood. Field trips became a regular part of TTKC programming in 2021 after the easing of pandemic restrictions. Programme Manager Cheryl Gan organised a wide range of outings from theatre shows to off-trail hikes. The children visited attractions all over the country, including Sentosa, Arab Street, Esplanade, Gillman Barracks and all the necessary pit stops in between. We could sense their excitement to get out of Boon Lay and connect to a wider public. A lot of the younger kids don’t get to leave the neighbourhood often so it wasn’t so much a particular activity that brought them joy but getting to compare different 7/11s or giggling at funny swimsuits on Siloso Beach.

An outing to Jurong Lake Garden in October 2021

Forest or sea: an easy ritual to remember.

This June, the team set out to fill the long-holiday void. This time with a month-long programme of eight excursions in the wilderness– an ideal setting for 40 restless children and youth. Each week the kids are presented with two options: beach on Tuesday or forest on Thursday. Forest or sea: an easy ritual to remember.

“This kind of shift is very good for them, especially in the middle of the week. You get pent up, you release, you come back, you’re more relaxed”, TTKC executive director Lin Shiyun says. And the benefits of playing in nature are not only for those who cannot sit still. During the planning phase, Shiyun also considered the kids at the centre who are less active, those that generally move within the confines of their phone screens or wake up just in time for dinner– how do we get them to be more mobile? She decided that at least one hour of free play was necessary for children who could not follow the rigours of a set excursion itinerary.

To fund the eight Learning in Nature excursions, TTKC raised $8000 from private donors and donations collected on the Ray of Hope platform. The support enabled the team to enlist external vendors to provide programming. Curated by Darren Quek, a creative facilitator at TTKC, the trips had themes like “Intertidal Walk” or “Searching for Bukit Timah Monkey Man”, with corresponding activities that brought to life various aspects of the sites. Besides introducing assorted subject matter like trash identification or how to swim safely in open waters, the diversity of vendors gave the kids an opportunity to interact with different leadership styles. Some were teachers, others were coaches, and some called themselves coaches but were really drill sergeants.

During the free play hour, Forest School coaches observe what interests the kids

and gently offer up activities.

The kids diligently fetch buckets of water in preparation for a sandcastle building activity.

“Most memorable thing was choosing right or left.”

“Most memorable thing was choosing right or left.” 8-year-old HN fondly recollects the forest outings helmed by coaches from Forest School Singapore. “Choosing right or left” refers to a strange dilemma that confronted the kids in the first few minutes of the walk. As the group congregated at the foothill of Dairy Farm Nature Park, coaches Leo and Jen gave eighteen children the choice to either go right– up the hill to the quarry, or left– into some trees bearing jackfruit and curious monkeys. The catch was no one could move until everyone was convinced to make the same choice. On the first trip, the activity dragged on for about fifteen minutes, with three children sitting on the right and the rest of the group grumbling at them. Occasionally, a few approached Team “right” to reason with them. It was a consensus-building strategy HN and many others had not known before, one where an individual opinion mattered as much as the majority’s. By the third trip, the kids were pros at reaching exasperated, but satisfactory, harmony– “come on, y’all want to go fishing but who says there’s fish to catch”, “better we go to a place that we know, we can play more on the soccer field”, “it’s going to rain anyway, let’s be in the shade”.

On another excursion, children were introduced to Changi marine life through a tactile learning session run by Untamed Paths. Split into groups of five, they got to handle shells and bones, and guess the creature they once belonged to. Each time Teacher Nikki pulled out an alien-like structure from her bag, she’d ask, “Who can tell me what this is?” AM searched Google for every single answer. MM recognised the fish shapes from images on a beloved jigsaw puzzle we had completed last year. Sisters AL and AU were engrossed in feeling every jagged edge of the relics. Though the session might have lasted longer than some of them would have wanted– “can we go into the ocean now?” was a constant refrain in all of the trips– the stimulating educational activity was a chance for each of them to add meaning to their personal memories, a kind of learning that puts heartbeats into stale facts.

AM feels the texture of a fish bone.

The kids peer into Dairy Farm Quarry– “what’s hiding inside the water?” Image credit: Han Xuemei

Exploring with abandon, yet feeling secure

Free play in the sea: everyone’s favourite time of day

The field trip is a tender respite from everyday concerns. “They were kids again”, says TTKC facilitator Kelvin. “During these moments they are able to be free of issues at home or their usual spaces, so they can find themselves once more.” Emerging from this breathing space are new connections with one’s surroundings, and with one another.

Before every trip, Cheryl places children into different groups, each chaperoned by a TTKC adult. As TTKC’s research assistant, I try to go on as many field trips as I can. The individualised focus afforded by these outings allows me to get to know the children in my group more deeply.

A unique kind of trust grows from kids exploring with abandon, yet feeling secure in the company of a watchful adult. Arriving at an unfamiliar venue, they dash around excitedly but always turn back to make sure they are in sight. This atmosphere of adventure and trust teases out rarely seen aspects of ourselves, and creates a special bonding experience.

An open-ended moment between activities.

Journeys to and from the venue are part of the experience; meandering discussions on the bus or non-stop laughter as the kids swing on MRT handles. The kids sometimes look out the window and engage with local cultural and ecological ecosystems, and try to situate themselves in the moving scenery. Questions continue after we reach our destination: “people live next to the forest?!” “Is it illegal to pluck flowers?” “There are more plastic bottles here than people!” These conversations are a portal to stories, childhood memories, and far-flung knowledge.