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Outdoor educator’s quest to impart life lessons from Rifle Range Nature Park ‘classroom’

SINGAPORE — Mud, leaves and twigs are the teaching tools, while canopy-shaded areas serve as the classroom.

Outdoor educator’s quest to impart life lessons from Rifle Range Nature Park ‘classroom’

Two young participants explore a stream during an outdoor education programme held by Forest School Singapore at Rifle Range Nature Park on Sept 13, 2018.

SINGAPORE — Mud, leaves and twigs are the teaching tools, while canopy-shaded areas serve as the classroom.

There is no lesson plan at the Forest School Singapore. The children, aged three to 11, decide what they want to do and where to roam. The adults, coaches from the school, serve as watchful facilitators.

Darren Quek, 28, founder of Forest School Singapore, an outdoor education programme for children, at Rifle Range Nature Park on Sept 7, 2018. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

When former preschool teacher Darren Quek was scouting around for a forested area to conduct an alternative children's outdoor education programme in 2015, he stumbled on the 67-hectare Rifle Range Nature Park and knew it was "meant to be".

"On the day we did our recce for the Green Corridor, we were forced to turn around due to some construction work," said Mr Quek, 28, who has been running his alternative outdoor education programme for children for three years.

The vegetation at Rifle Range Nature Park, on the southern end of Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, was not overly dense. Apart from a few structural foundations and clay jars – remnants of the former Kampong Chantek – there was little sign of human intervention.

The residents of the neighbouring Mayfair Park, where his groups meet, were welcoming of his programme.

"These grandmothers would start telling stories about how they used to live in the kampong inside and the kids loved it," he said.

Darren Quek, 28, founder of Forest School Singapore, talks to young participants during an outdoor education programme held by Forest School Singapore at Rifle Range Nature Park on Sept 7, 2018. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

Mr Quek said about 50 children attend his programme in total and show up regularly every Thursday to Saturday morning, except when there are "intense thunderstorms". The sessions are three hours-long, and some 10 to 20 children show up each time.

The forest school concept, which has other chapters around the world, encourages "child-led" learning in a natural environment, he said. The lesson for the day is dictated by what the children want to do, and learning is organic and done through play.

Any scenario can serve as a lesson and questions are not met with answers. Instead the coaches respond with a series of questions that nudges the young minds to come to their own logical conclusions, he said.

Through the course of their play and interaction with one another, the children also learn social skills such as empathy and being responsible for their actions.

Maia Mok (L), and her friends help each other climb up boulders during an outdoor education programme held by Forest School Singapore at Rifle Range Nature Park on Sept 6, 2018. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

When TODAY attended a session this month, six-year-old Maia Mok immediately took on the role as the big sister on her own initiative, and handheld a shy newcomer through the day.

Explaining her home-schooled daughter's protective and nurturing behaviour, Mrs Mariel Mok, 42, said she picked it up from the older girls in previous sessions.

Another parent, Mr David Thoo, has seen his 8-year-old son Kaeden become more self-assured.

"He used to be scared of heights (and) being alone. Going into the forest gave him the space to explore and grow (and) now he's very comfortable with himself," said Mr Thoo, 42.

The Forest School Singapore will soon have to vacate its woodland haven for two years. Rifle Range Nature Park will close to the public in October for enhancement works slated to be completed in 2020.

The school will relocate to Bukit Timah Nature Reserve, which Mr Quek said is less than ideal because of its denser vegetation, steep inclines and the presence of more man-made structures.

Concerned that redevelopment works will result in Rifle Range Nature Park becoming manicured and losing its rusticity, Mr Quek recently penned a passionate online post opposing its closure.

"Did you know there are fireflies in this forest?" he told TODAY, wondering if the lightning bugs would disappear along with the temporary closure of the park and redevelopment works.

About 11 species of fireflies can be found in Singapore's mangroves and forested areas, and they are regarded as indicators of environmental health.

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Mr Quek is also unsure of the fate of what his school calls the Magic Stream. Also known as Binjai Stream and Mandy's Creek, it is a spot popular with the children as they can slide down from a rock surface made smooth by an endless cascade of water.

Mrs Mok also voiced her concerns about the redevelopment. "I understand they are trying to make it safer … but some of these elements have been here for such a long time," she said.

"What is a forest if it's not really a forest, but a manicured park?"

Responding to queries, the National Parks Board (NParks)' group director of conservation Adrian Loo said the nature park will "remain forested and rustic".

The park serves as a buffer for the Bukit Timah Nature Reserve and NParks will be planting native plant species to enrich the park and provide food and shelter for native fauna, thereby extending their range. The park will help reduce visitorship pressure on the nature reserve by providing an alternative venue for nature-related activities, he said.

The area is home to rich wildlife including the critically endangered Sunda Pangolin, Common Palm Civet, Malayan Coral snake and interesting dragonfly species.

Dr Loo urged visitors to "act responsibly" by staying on designated trails and not entering the streams of nature areas.

"We are aware that there are visitors who have gone off trails and entered the streams in our forests," he said.

"By stepping off the trails, they risk disturbing and trampling on our flora and fauna, and there is also a risk of tripping over fallen branches, uneven terrain and getting lost in the forest. Similarly, entering streams results in siltation and impacts the freshwater life."

Mr Quek is not convinced. He said his programme teaches children to respect their surroundings and added that the redevelopment works are more likely to disturb the animals.

A coach guides a young boy as he steps into a drain during an outdoor education programme held by Forest School Singapore at Rifle Range Nature Park on Sept 7, 2018. Photo: Nuria Ling/TODAY

"All of us who grew up loving nature, we grew up interacting with it. We didn't grow up looking at it. If we keep blocking every child from interacting with their natural surroundings, they are not going to be interested in it anymore by the time they grow up," he said.

But Mr Quek is open to sharing different perspectives with the children.

"It takes a village to raise a child. There are different personalities (and opinions), and it helps them learn about differences and perspective," he said.

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