Updated: Mar 21
Essay and Photography by Marc Nair
It is Friday evening in Boon Lay. People are hurrying home for dinner, tired after another week at work. Most pass by the common corridor with barely a glance into the two units that are occupied by Tak Takut Kids Club (TTKC).
This evening is particularly busy. In the maker space, lovingly called Big TTKC, a table filled with youth of various ages are carefully cutting out paper masks from a template. The masks are roughly feline in nature. They’ll start colouring and painting on them when they’re done.
The makerspace takes on the layout of an old 2-bedroom flat. The TTKC community uses the space like a large family would in a small space, always making space for the individual while co-existing. Separated by a tall storage shelf, the ‘costume department’ is rattling away at the sewing machine. Tonight, it’s about making adjustments to a cosplay costume.
A few doors away, past a clinic and a laundromat, is the community kitchen. Amanda, a volunteer, is showing youth how to cut slabs of cheese to coat with breadcrumbs before dipping them in a frying pan to make cheese balls. The youth suggest food that they would like to cook weekly with Amanda when she comes on a Friday.
Just outside, Ziv is on a ladder, tacking up a large cloth to create a makeshift projector screen. He has just finished a dance mentoring session with a youth and is setting up for ‘Just Dance!’, a Nintendo Switch game. Since 2019, the game console has been the first ‘facilitator’ to have brought dance to TTKC.
Walk a little further past the playground and Jimmy, TTKC’s beloved community artist, is pulling a sheet taut between two trees and back-lighting it with a small spotlight that’s been rigged from multiple extension cords.
This evening’s entertainment is shadow puppets. A small crowd gathers to watch when it gets dark. The players move the hand-cut puppets about. There’s no script, so everything is improvised. But it isn’t about putting on a show with a story, it’s about the experience of watching shapes come alive in the dark, of capturing a kind of magic, something only fleetingly felt in camping trips or other in-between spaces. It is about possibilities.
Tak Takut Kids Club (TTKC) is a community building and development programme by 3Pumpkins. Located at the foot of a rental block in Boon Lay, it is a safe and attractive environment to engage with youth and children, facilitating a space where they can express themselves and feel accepted. With better understanding of the individual and their communities, TTKC designs participatory programmes to benefit one or more areas of the mentee’s development. Because of the trusting relationships that develop over time, TTKC finds itself to be in the unique position of supporting casework and group work in times of crisis.
Currently, TTKC engages with about 110 youth on a regular basis and works with Comlink@Jurong West, social service agencies, schools, community and corporate organisations and various programme partners. While membership to the centre is open to all children and youth residing in the vicinity, the key objective is to identify and deliver support to children and youth who, for various reasons, fall through the cracks of adequate guidance and care.
This space, for TTKC, is both in-person and online. The latter emerged as another space over the course of the COVID-19 pandemic, necessitating a platform to carry on connecting with youth and volunteers when physical spaces were not able to be accessed.
Safe spaces allow people to feel supported and respected. They offer a refuge from unsolicited opinions and engender a site of physical, mental and emotional safety. This is important for minorities and other marginalised groups. And in the case of TTKC, youth are drawn to the space because it is not just a place to escape to, but also a site of growth, which embodies the English translation of ‘Tak Takut’, a Malay phrase that means ‘not afraid.’
Here are two examples of why TTKC is so important for the youth:
M, an 11-year old boy, would continually pick on another TTKC child, J, putting her down and belittling her due to her inability to read. This carried on for a while and resulted in J having a breakdown. Coupled with several incidents where M had caused hurt to other children either physically or emotionally, he was deemed to have violated the ethics of a safe space. As an intervention, he was spoken to privately and asked to recall a list of aggressions displayed to others and to make amends. He was not allowed to have access to TTKC as a social space until he displayed better self-regulation, however, he was allowed to continue attending a workshop as he performed well in it. His mentor in another youth agency was also contacted to understand the cause of his behaviour so that personalised counselling could be provided as well.
When L, 14, one of the more gregarious kids at TTKC, first came to the community, he displayed wonderful people skills and the aptitude to learn. As he began to drop in more often to cook meals, it was discovered that he wasn’t attending school regularly and found comfort working at MacDonald’s three days a week. With more understanding about his personal and relational strengths and difficulties, TTKC facilitates conversations with the school disciplinary team, industry partners and especially L himself, with the hope to connect him to an arrangement that will further develop his potential.
The time and energy set aside for such personalised outreach and developmental work is something that would not be conceivable, or possible, in the mainstream school system. TTKC provides a flexible space to engage youth who come with a whole spectrum of needs.
Numerous practical and artistic programmes run by TTKC staff and a small, dedicated group of volunteers help to keep the youth engaged Tuesdays through Saturday afternoons and evenings. In every intervention that is made, the governing question is: what do the youth need? There is never any one answer, as each child presents various needs and these often change on a raft of circumstances, some unplanned for.
The element of play is written into many of the programmes at TTKC. “Play is a biological, psychological and social necessity, and is fundamental to the healthy development and well-being of individuals and communities” (Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group, 2005, online). For TTKC youth, play is “an opportunity for youth to resist pre-determined goals and ends, learn to tolerate uncertainty, and welcome diversity” (Chung & Nitecki, 2016, p. 26). A safe space such as TTKC nurtures and protects the youth’s right to imagine, to play and to learn, where “new meanings can be tested and new relationships tried out before they are applied in the real world’ (Lumsden, 2000, p. 263). The kind of learning that takes place at TTKC can best be described as organic. It manifests in the various programmes that have been developed by Lin Shiyun, the executive director of TTKC, and her team. Here is the current roster of outreach and developmental programmes that TTKC offers to youth:
- Holding open space for socialisation and youth-led activities
- Community Composting
- Various performative explorations to put together "The Ting!" Getai Show (working title)
- Townhall Meetings, Podcast Community Kitchen (working title)
- Outdoor play to engage younger children
Visual Arts Play
- Playing with various visual art mediums
- Street dance/movement work outdoors
- Curated movies to increase attention-span and literacy
- Open space
Fig 1. TTKC Outreach and developmental Programmes
Not all programmes are developed simultaneously. Some, like composting, reflect the desire of the centre to inculcate an awareness and love for the environment as well as the value of recycling, while others arise as a result of meeting youth at the negotiating point of existing needs and their mutable circumstances.
The centre programme is further concretised, especially on Wednesdays and Thursdays where fantasy and socially-engaged play are confirmed as tools for longitudinal arts-based engagement. The teams helming these sessions are confirmed as well, and the challenges henceforth are to 1) develop the teams to include a few children and youth as regular participants 2) develop a weekly programme that builds the participants’ literacy and skills in the art forms. Both programmes aim for presentations to a wider community, namely ’The Ting! Getai Show” and “Podcast Community kitchen” (working titles). While the formation of the getai is a result of a 3-month co-creation process, the podcast community kitchen kicked off with a town hall meeting on 16 September in response to multiple theft issues in the community.
– TTKC Project Monthly Report (September, 2021)
When it comes to artmaking, the centre’s activities have settled on a balance between what youth are interested in and are able to accomplish with the availability of long-term artist facilitators who are able to commit to building intangible relational outcomes in addition to tangible works within a safe space. Mary Hunter defines the generative qualities of safe spaces when it comes to making art together:
Cultivating safe space is therefore less about prescribing conditions and more about generating questions such as: how are the participants invited to collaborate in the production of safe creative space that allows them to manage their own level of risk? And how are moments of presence collectively experienced, acknowledged, and reflected upon such that participants’ imaginative mediative capacity is developed? (Hunter, 2008, p. 19)
Because the youth feel comfortable in TTKC, they are able to engage in creative work without judgment and, more importantly, are given agency to decide what they want to do.
Wider Spaces: Messy Negotiations, Changing Perceptions
The two spaces in TTKC are continually being reconstituted based on the nature of the activities. This also spills over into the liminal space of the playground and the common corridor. Codified ways of how a community functions in these spaces become overlaid by the alternative spatial practices that TTKC activities bring. This results in the immediate vicinity becoming a layered site of creative imagining, a constantly constructed space of play. This view opens avenues for further conversations on developing intersections between the youth of TTKC and the community. The safe space that TTKC affords the youth is a container for them to try new ideas without judgment, a space of messy negotiation, but it is also a space to reflect on what they have learned. It is a collective environment, loosely structured, free of the structures of school, where they are empowered to encounter risk and reward, to change their perception of themselves and of others within the terms of the community they are in. The safe space of TTKC allows the youth to “negotiate their positions in social space” (Hunter, p. 11) within the community. It does not carry the same stakes as the real world but nevertheless contains its own tensions and conflicts.
The idea of a safe space also goes beyond the physical units that TTKC occupies. TTKC is located within a community that has active, evolving needs. Numerous low-income families live in the vicinity. There are also foreign workers and a large number of elderly. Adults work in blue-collar jobs that often necessitate shift-work and so youth are left to their own devices for a large part of the day. TTKC helps to bridge that gap between home and school. But it has also become an inadvertent safe space for other members of the community. For example, a grandmother of one of the youth wanted to bring her beer into TTKC to drink. She was gently dissuaded from doing so but in acquiescence, volunteers put up some chairs and a table in the common corridor close to TTKC. This then evolved into an informal gathering point, a liminal space that allowed for interactions between the youth and other members of the community.
This porousness in negotiating space but also ensuring safety for the youth has become a wider manifestation of the desire to create a safe space that encompasses the community around TTKC, and remains one of the greatest challenges in youth work; to balance safe spaces against potentially overpowering negative environmental influences, such as gangsterism, that continue to persist. The volunteers, the artistic practitioners, the community artists and the full-time staff who run TTKC thus become more than facilitators in this space. They become functionaries of the community, being seen as ‘neighbourhood teachers’ or ‘community elders,’ offering wisdom, support and systemic knowledge to a wider community.
The work that has begun at TTKC is “a process, a never-finished gesture towards a potentially better future” (Dolan 2006, 164). As Lin notes:
Adults often forget that growing up is a never-ending process that happens every day, every hour, every second. We peg children's development to milestones, exams, and presentations, but some of the most important mistakes, discoveries and relationships that lead to personal growth actually happen in daily life. So whatever we are doing at TTCK - playing, making, chatting - the key is in the '-ing', a continuous presence that can create a much happier and safer environment for our children and youth.
What does TTKC require to carry on operating? The need for funding to bring much needed positive influences to the community is definitely a constant. Manpower in the shape of dedicated volunteers and artists who understand and align with the vision of TTKC is another. But there should also be a wider, communal recognition of TTKC as a safe space for the youth, one which helps to realise an affective vision of what TTKC can become, even as it is becoming.
Chung, M-H & Nitecki, E. (2016). Play as Place: A Safe Space for Young Children to Learn about the World. The International Journal of Early Childhood Environmental Education, 4:1, 26-32.
Dolan, J. (2006). Utopia in performance. Theatre Research International, 3:2, 163-173
Hunter, M. A. (2008) Cultivating the art of safe space. Research in Drama Education: The Journal of Applied Theatre and Performance, 13:1, 5-21
Lumsden, M. (2000). Engendering peace: creative arts approaches to transforming domestic and communal violence. In Male roles, masculinities and violence: a culture of peace perspective, ed. Ingeborg Breines, Robert Connell and Ingrid Eide, 257-270. UNESCO.
Macmillan Dictionary. (2021). Safe Space. Retrieved October 2021 at: https://www.macmillandictionary.com/dictionary/british/safe-space
Playwork Principles Scrutiny Group. (2005). Playwork Principles. Play Wales, Cardiff. Retrieved November 2021 at: http://resource.download.wjec.co.uk.s3.amazonaws.com/vtc/2018-19/hsc18-19_3-2/_multi-lang/unit03/01-what-is-meant-by-playwork-principles.html
TTKC Project Monthly Report, September 2021.