As the year brings itself to an end, I look back at journey that brought struggles and bliss for everyone. There was a dense energy surrounding the air and environment at the start of the year. I saw swirling colours of lights among the dark empty backdrop in my vision. They were a representation of beauty and power. The visions continued on with the dark side of a mountain. As the visual move slowly over to the other side of the mountain, a barren land appeared with dried and burnt remains of trees and bones. The sky was burning red. I wonder, if this is what my year will be like, or is this what our world will end up in?
Coming to the end of 2016, the journey brought Forest School Singapore into the mix of the endeavours that is part of the company, Coach Darren LLP. The sessions happens together every week with Bouna Vista Ringers training session (the ex-basketball club of Coach Darren LLP)
In the beginning, home-school and alternative education families were the ones who join Forest School. They believe and see the value of what nature and alternative education brings to the journey of our children. The adults themselves enjoyed the little moments of self-nature therapy as well. We started off with Wednesday, Thursday and Saturday classes, after a trial period of 2 weeks. Administratively, we were learning how to cope with managing an increasing number of interest.
In February, I envision a school site within the woods. I found the abandoned Sin Seng Quarry forest, a hidden pothole space in the woods. It was the ideal site for building the school site. I wanted to create a school site, where animals and plants can live in harmony with beside us. Lime green vines will creep up and envelop our structures. Little rodents will hide within the shades of our shelter. Local snakes would bask in the open space when no one is around. The place will represent the harmonious space we love to have. Permission was asked and given by the forest guardians. We seek advise from a few of our pioneer forest children, regarding what and how we can clear the space to insert the school site. They pointed out a few of the plants, and told me that I can remove them, and leave the rest there. They were in sync. Throughout the whole process of clearing the space, I spoke in lengths with many of the plants when I had to change their spot and energy position. The labourous clearing process was done in the afternoons.
In April, Forest School begin its second term, Friday classes was introduce. The forest school story started to spread. At this moment, we had Darishna, Shirleen, Zi Yun and myself as the small team of Coach and Managers running the show. It was cozy. The families in the communities were also begining to help each other in different ways. There is a fuzzy family feel in the authentic sharing and help within our community. We listened and talk to each other, when things in life are tough. During the month of April, Hampton Pre-School started their 15-weeks forest school session cum research on impact of risk for children. Their session was held on Tuesday mornings.
At the same time, the school site was completed. I brought in a 10-men tent, 1 kitchen set, 3 tables, 6 chairs beds. It was almost like the place was ready to be lived in. There was also a fire place for cooking and campfire. We collected piles of wood and rocks from the forest, and stored them as resources to be used in future. Some of the plants has started to creep up our tents after just two weeks of completion. Animal tracks were observed around the site. There was bustling signs of activity going on at the site. The coaches and some of my Nationa Service buddies helped to create the site.
In May, we begin to plan for Summer Holiday Camp session, for children who are unable to come to us weekly. Germaine, a close comrade of mine, and probably one of the most talented young lady I’ve every met, took over the camp as the Camp Commandant. She planned and laid the foundation for Holiday Camps in Forest School.
In June, we ran the camps and the regular session concurrently. Germaine led the Holiday Camp session together with Rebecca and Mindy. The community living in the Mayfair Park area begin to show strong interest and support to our cause.
But all good times, come to a halt after some time…
On 20th June 2017, sitting on a my sofa at home with the purplish sky shading towards the dark, I received an email. It is from NParks. They were looking to prosecute me for violating some of their Trees and Parks Act regulation with doing forest school in “their” parks and forest area. They also found the school site in the woods, and wanted it to be removed. Though I knew it would come someday, I was still affected by the incident. The following day, We went into the woods together with my Thursday forest families, to remove the tent and materials from the site. It was an emotional day for me, our families, the forest and their elements. On that night, I lost it. I Snap with all the energy in motion around in me. The forest spoke to and through me that night. A few friend and family had a tough time sitting through the episode of anguish and anger. The fear and doubts mankind have, often manifest itself on the very beings who kept us alive, they naturally felt the emotion of being unappreciated and hurt. How much more can they take?
I cancelled and postpone all Forest School programs for 2 months.
On 30 June 2017, I went to NParks HQ for an interview with the officer in charge of my case. The interview lasted 5-hour. After hearing my point of view, and looking through the various documents which we have already prepared and done throughout the journey, she could see that we are serious, and not some fly-by program, looking to earn a buck. We want to carry on the movement, and help more people heal through the woods. We want to protect the forest and their elements, through love and authenticity.
During this turbulent time, many families and sister communities stepped forward to show their support for us. A friend in Medan, invited me over to Indonesia, to explore a forest school set up in Medan. And thats how Forest School begun in Medan. We found an alternative location, a beautiful green space, to continue forest school. It took us a few rounds of assessments and trainings at the location for us to finally begin our sessions there.
But the story took a twist really quickly…
Two days into our new location, an issue was raised by a parent whose daughter joined us in our Forest School session from January till June. Her daughter had swallowed a seed at home. She pointed the finger at us, as it was tough to see your child in the ward, and you cant do anything about it. She carried on the accusation online and with other people she knows. I gave her space, and offered to help even after the barrage came flooding in. I broke down in tears, in one of our meeting so that we can resolve properly, as they were adamant about their perceived view of our lack of knowledge and “rules”. I cried, because it has been tough.
We had issue with our new site because of the newly minted incidence. The program has to be shifted to a new location within 10 hours. I made phone calls to the regular parents in the forest school community, to seek their advise. We decided and moved to Macritchie Reservoir overnight. We stayed there for two weeks. In those two weeks, we realise the energy difference in Macritchie. It doesnt suit us. People and animals in Macritchie are more aggressive than the ones in Rifle Range Forest. In addition, Macritchie was really overcrowded daily. It was a tough few weeks holding space for everyone, while they were getting use to the site. Our forest children, adapted really well to the different locations throughout our tough times. They showed us what adapting and resilience was.
In September, we finally have the blessing from NParks to continue our session. We moved back to our home base in Mayfair Park and Rifle Range Forest. On our returne to the parks, we were greeted by the residences living there with much fanfare. They said they missed us, and was really happy to have us back. The forest was really delighted to have us back as well.
Our program has to restart all over again, this time without dear Darishna, because of her family situation and school work. I had the tough job of re-training the new team after a tough period of hump and bump. Internally there was a lot of changes among the team as well. The adversity forced me to grow and change how the team operates. We recruited our first batch of part time coaches, 8 of them in total. 11 programs was lined up to be launched. It was prepared during those turbulent times, when we couldnt do forest school anywhere. But we were not going to stop because, some man made laws and perspective say so.
In October, we tried to bring in another full-time coach to help increase our capacity to grow forest school. But our recruitment process and understanding of the new personality was not right. She didn’t match our style, so we had to remove her at quite a high cost. She went around putting in words and comments online stating once more on our lack of ability and “professionalism”. We don’t speak to her anymore pertaining to forest school.
At this point, this is like the 5th or more attempt by others to drop us via labelling and malign. As the front line, and constant in this movement, it is never a pleasant process. But our families and communities continue their support even admist all the nay-sayers. This we appreciate a lot, a lot , alot. We even had an amazing forest school session for the Thornbill Thursday on their last FS for the year. Families chipped in with restaurant class home-cooked food, beautiful story telling and a great energy of harmony. The level of involvement is beautiful.
Buona Vista Ringers disbanded in October, coinciding with the end of Hampton Pre-School forest school sessions. As an emotionally attached individual, this spell a greater effect on me than most. The two groups of children and families,vstood with me through the multitude of ups and downs. When we went our separate ways, I felt my heart binding tightly. Tears fall.
I hope the seeds planted in them, will grow =)
In November, we begin preparing for 2018, with our new system and a concrete list of programs and schedule. Lots of preparation work was put in, during the month to create a comprehensive but challenging journey for everyone. Our year end holiday camps, filled up really quickly. And we had a lot of visitors looking to engage us for programs and collaborations. It was a fruitful year-end for us.
The whole year was filled with a few ups in the first half and many downs in the second half. The downs taught us to stand up against others when they get overboard with their issues, but also apologise and change for the better when we make mistakes. The ups shows us the beauty and magic behind our journey in forest school, and what it is worth.
The most rewarding times of forest school, are shown in the faces of children when they are connecting with nature and its elements. Forest School Singapore will not be where it is today without all our communities, families and coaches. It will also not be where it is, if there was no challenges or adversity to overcome.
Forest School will continue regardless of the existence of Forest School Singapore, because our dream is,
For forest school to become a way of learning and living.
For forest school to represent a symbol of truth and sincerity,
so crude, that we are awaken.
For forest school to represent an avenue of realness and authenticity,
so transparent, that we are aware.
For forest school to be the voice for nature, children and their families.
For forest school to be living in our life.
By Darren Quek