"We will accept every single child in the world, but We will scrutinize the parents" says the founder of Singapore very first Forest School

20th Dec 2020
This is part 2 of the 3-part series of our conversation with Darren Quek, the founder of the very first Forest School in Singapore. If you missed out part 1, make sure to check out why Darren said "Our goal is for forest school to be obsolete"

In this part 2, Darren shares with us:
1. The biggest flaw of Forest school
2. To whom Forest School might not be applicable (that's where he shares why he scrutinizes parents)
3. A regular practice that parents can do at home without going to Forest School.

What is the biggest flaw of FS?
What is the biggest flaw of forest school?
Ah, I think the biggest flaw of forest school as a system will be the fact that we are unstructured. It is always like that, the double edge sword of things. There are children who need structures/routines to function. And when given such an open concept, some individuals will struggle very, very badly because if you think about it, the family is the first unit of structure. And if your family doesn't have structure, they come to forest school looking for structure. Not that you can't find it here in forest school, but you make your own structure.
Do you have an example to share?
Yeah so, we just had it actually. So usually, most people have family units who are very clear with boundaries and structures. They know when to be fierce with the kids, you know, drawing lines and all that. They may be non-violent, but they still be very clear and firm, you know, go back to your room or things like that.

But then we recently had a family that came to us. So, the family had absolutely absence of structure. The kids were running wild. So, in a sense the kid can have his way every time. There is nobody to put him in his place, to let him know that he's a child. There are some restrictions (at Forest School) though at the end of the day for safety and things like that.

And so, for that particular child, it was very interesting because between me and our coaches and parents even (other parents), we were discussing and said:

"The funny thing is, all our kids need no structure in forest school, but this boy was the reverse. He needs a structure."

When it comes to forest school because we are unstructured, he forms the so-called structure. If you were to observe his formation of structure, it was gangsterism. It was very clear level of bullying. There was very clear level of disregard for other people's welfare. And that's his structure. In a sense, we hypothesized that maybe because in the family there was also lack of regard for welfare.
How do you reconcile this lack of welfare and your earlier point of saying Forest School helps the kids take care of events and others around them?
Typically (at Forest School), we give space to the child. We let them figure themselves out, work themselves out but within a safe boundary lah. But in this case, that child was simply much bigger size and simply overpowering the rest of the children. In a sense, his emotional awareness was not even there. And that was very dangerous, because he was not expressing much, and that particular session end up with many of the children having fear as their source of being themselves. So, a lot of our children were not being themselves anymore. That became a big issue because at the end of the day, we want our children to be able to be themselves. If there's any individual that couldn't be themselves, we have to attend to it. But if there's a lot of them, then, I think it is a big issue that we need to attend to.

We did have to talk to the boy and family and to inform the parents that maybe he needs more intervention outside of Forest School. Well, I mean we only have three hour a week session. We can't have that kind of intervention in the session with so many other kids.
Are you still welcoming the kid then?
We still welcome him at a later stage. Now, we have to step him aside temporarily.
Children are allowed to explore the natural environment freely & safely; a child led approach
Which groups of children is FS not suited for?
Actually, that fits in nicely with my next question. Is there a group of kids, for which forest school is not suitable?
Suitable? I think there is no kids that are not suitable. There are parents who are not suitable.
But just know you mentioned this kid was not suitable?
Because of the parents. We have to understand that the child is the expression of the family. I remember what my Philippines forest school counterpart always Tell me:

"We will accept every single child in the world, but we will scrutinize the parents"

You think about it. How much time the kids spend with us, and how much time they spend at home? Even though we can provide the remedy, the space to help them, support them, but when they step back into their home environment and things do not change there, they will come back with that same toxicity again and again. And they could even come to a point where, you know, that toxicity can hold a lot of people hostages. And that is a whole different ballgame. It is not just Forest School. This is a society issue.
In one line, what kind of parents, you will scrutinize and not able to accept?
I think parents that are not ready to be vulnerable. I think those are really difficult to accept
How do the parents help their kids by being vulnerable?
When they are vulnerable, they are open to changes. We recommend, we will talk to them. They will see changes in their child in the forest school session. They will listen, they will try methods as well. So, we will teach parents as well like little methods that they can do.
So, you're saying for parents who come in with no structure in their household, as long as they are open to be vulnerable, it's something that could be worked out?
I'll probably use the word boundaries rather than structure.
If not for lack of boundary at home, you think Forest school should be applicable to anybody?
Yeah, to any kid. I mean I've kids who are disabled, kids who are hearing impaired, physically disabled. They are special needs. I brought individuals, with schizophrenia, mental illness. Because I think at the end of the day, nature is self-inclusive. May be we, as the Forest School, adults, community may not be that competent in handling everyone but I'm pretty sure that trees are very very competent in handling any individual.
"We will accept every single child in the world, but We will scrutinize the parents"
Tips for parents to practice at home?
Based on the values of Forest school, what is one practice that parents can do at home? Something that's not so difficult but that can be done on a regular basis that you think will be very useful. Something that if you could get all the parents in Singapore to do, you'll be very happy.
I would tell parents choice, giving our young learners the ability to make a choice. It can be between A or B, can be between A,B, and C or it can be between a whole infinite range of options. But just the empowerment that I get to make a choice and make a decision and live with a decision. That, I think, gives the learners straight away a sense of ownership of themselves. That I can take ownership of myself; I'm accountable for myself. That empowerment is so different from being told, every time what to do and just following through everything. So, I will tell parents, maybe simply letting children choose simple thing as: "What do you want to eat?" I know that will be tough for a lot parents. "Oh my god, you don't eat, you only eat like fried chicken and all that kind of stuff." But maybe within certain boundaries, you know, choose between one or the other. Like on particular days, there are choosing days. So then, there's a lot of empowerment.

I would take my own personal experience, as the gauge for this. When I was younger, my mom allowed me to choose which stream, I want to go to. EM 1, EM 2, or EM 3. Singaporeans would all know the streaming of primary school. And though I was qualified for EM1, I chose the EM 2 because I knew EM1 was a pretty stressful environment to be in. And I chose not to be in a stressful environment. I chose the EM2 and be able to enjoy my childhood while learning as well. So, I was given a choice. I had to reflect and think about why I want it. And that reflection allowed me then when I was in PSLE, same thing I chose my own schools. All six schools were chosen by me. Throughout my whole life, everything, I made my own choices. Now, I'm not saying that the choices I make as a child was right all the time. But, because I made my choice, I will face the consequences of it. I'll accept the failure or the success of it as well. And I'll be able to move on with it easier than hopping on it. So, I think that was very impactful for me throughout my life until now where I started forest school.

As much as (my) parents were worried, I told them it's my choice. I know it's gonna be painful and struggle. I know that it's gonna be disappointment. I know there's going to be pitfalls and you know scraping my knees and dealing with authorities and you know issues, challenges. But I choose it because I thought about it before I chose, and I chose it. And I am willing to endure the consequences. So, if you think about it, won't we want all our kids growing up to be able to be like that? To be able to make a choice and endure it? Because we all know, as they get older, there are going to be very tough things, events coming along to their life. As parents/adults, we cannot protect them for the rest of our life. So, we hope to have that resilience, I think, giving our children choices will slowly build them.
Providing the environment for children to feel the sense of freedom
Join the conversation
This is part 2 of a 3-part series conversation with Darren. Part 3 will touch on why Darren chose to start FS (which I feel is very inspiring for anybody who wants to impact change in the world)

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