"I love you" is all it took for the founder of Forest School to start on his journey

26th Jan 2021

"I love you" is all it took for the founder of Forest School to start on his journey

20th Dec 2020
This is the last part of the 3-part series of our conversation with Darren Quek, the founder of the very first Forest School in Singapore. If you miss out part 1, make sure you check out why Darren said "Our goal is for forest school to be obsolete". In part 2, Darren talked about the flaws of Forest School and why he believes in: "We will accept every single child in the world, but We will scrutinize the parents"

This last section is honestly my favourite as it brings together part 1 and 2 and illustrates why and how Darren went on this Forest School journey. It is full of personal anecdotes that got me reflecting.

What is Forest School?
We have been talking about Forest School but what is FS? Give me an elevator pitch of what is forest school, and how it started.
So, the origin of our school in the world is recognized as a Swedish pedagogy, a way of living that started in 1957. Of course, their methodology and everything leads back further. But the practice of it is called Skogsmulle in Sweden. It involves a lot of storytelling of Swedish mythology, understanding of nature, being outdoors learning a lot of things in nature, in the forest. So, that was the original Forest School setting.

But in my journey learning about forests school when I went to many of these other countries, I realized, actually, yes forest school if you were to look at it in this core element, it has been around since the existence of mankind, probably because that's how we learn. That's how we learn naturally; in sync with the natural environment. But, different culture and different countries, name it differently. If you will trace back even further, Academy, in Greek, actually means your learning in the garden. If you read the word kindergarten, which is what everybody's going through now, it means children in the garden, as well. So, a lot of learning is actually rooted in the outdoor.
What was your Forest School journey like?
I mean, initially when the Journey just started, I still remember my own mentor who shared with me: always start small and look to do it small first. And that's where the impact will be at. And so, when I first started, yeah we started really quite small, just a few people, a few families together. The first class only had six kids, four families. And that was how we started. We just kept it rolling. And over time, there was a vision to have more forest school in Singapore, and it was really clear for us at the initial phase that we didn't want to be the one, in a sense, be the umbrella conglomerate you know managing everybody. So, we were looking for more forest school actually to start. That was our dream, and our initial target. My initial target was to have 66 forest school in Singapore in total
Darren started Forest school at a very small scale, with only a few kids on the first programme
66? Why this number?
Actually, I do not know why. It just floated in my mind, a mystical sense of 66. Let's hit 66. And once you hit that, I feel that probably that will be a tipping point for our society. For Singapore at least, and there will be a change going on. A major change going on from that point on. So, I think that was the initial phase of looking at especially like now that we have twelve and probably next year there will be 20 of them coming out. There are a lot, really a lot of people looking to start; whether getting certification, training with us, talking to us, to see that there's just a lot of interest to start their own, and realizing that there is no copyrighting of forest school. There's no trademarking of forest school, it's just not the way. I mean nature, you can't trademark nature. You can't copyright it. So, you also don't feel like it's right for us to do forest school in this manner and we kind of let it loose.
The I love you story
Now, if you were in my shoes, what is one question you would like to ask yourself?
I would like to ask myself when will this journey end? laughter

Okay, so, I mean if I were to ask myself a question that I would like the public to hear of. It will be "Why did I do it? Why did I choose to do this?"

I think stories of a personal account is usually the most powerful message people receive. So, I will say, my education journey started when I was 17. I was tasked to be one to one with a particular boy, who has his brain fried by fever. He was nine years old, I think. It was in an enrichment class. Computer enrichment class in primary school. I was just a 17-year-old young chap, and my boss said: "you go pair up with this kid" and I was like " Hmm, I'm not trained. You know the typical Singaporean mindset and I do have it. I'm not trained, I'm not certified, I'm not therapy… I'm not trained in special needs. Am I supposed to handle him? Am I the right person you know." All the self-doubt at 17 year old you know.

And I sat with him for three consecutive days in this class. And I taught him how to use a mouse, which took him about 20 minutes to learn. I saw him slamming the keyboard because he was angry. Learning was difficult for him. Everything cognitively is not functioning as well. Though he has a teacher. And I think they call it the teaching assistant who pair with these children of this category. But I was just there for three days lah, for about three hours a day, kind of thing. At the end of the 3rd day, this was my tipping point.

He told me:

"I love you."

I was shocked. My hair stands and still now my hair stands. His name was john. So, john said I love you, and I just froze there and I just thought to myself. I remember at 17-year-old, I reflected very deeply and asked myself, a person who's medically considered cognitively not functioning and not intellectually able to function and all that and yet he can express emotions of this depth, that so many of us living our life can't express this to another individual. What are we then? Where am I in education? What are we doing in our life, in society and education? So, then I think that embarked me on the journey towards education and actually seek to bring this element back into children's life.
Which element?
The element of this kind of expression. Such an authentic expression that is so rare to find. So, if you look at forest school, you can see the elements inside, where we allow kids to be themselves. So, the authenticity, the practice or the space to be able to say things like this. And that is the space I hope to create and I hope I did create it. So, that was the moment where, 17 years old, I said:

"I'm gonna be in education. I'm never gonna retire because I always feel I'll be part of this journey all the way to my grave."

So it's not a job to me anymore, it becomes… when people say calling, not really calling but it becomes a lifestyle because I want to be in this lifestyle of education, of working with individuals and all that. So, that's it. That's the rationale, that's the true rationale that started. After that, the rest you can read on my website. A lot of other stories but that was the tipping point that kicked me off. I love you. That was it. I was blown apart.
That was amazing. In just three days.
You know the last day when he did the I love you to me. He was like asking me, "are you gonna come back tomorrow" Then I'm like "No, today's last day of the enrichment." Then he turns to me and said "I love you" Wah, did I hear wrongly? Then I'm like, I love you too. Yeah. Then, I left that session, to me like ingrained my heart and mind for the rest of my life I cannot forget. I still cannot forget. The whole scene in me is unforgettable.
The freedom story
Do you have any small quotation from parents or children that reinforces why Forest School is important?
Small quotation? I have a story, one from my eight-year-old girl.

So, before I started officially forest school Singapore, I practiced a bit of the Forest School ways in various other endeavours like enrichment programs or camps outside. So, I did this camp, this like five days camp during the holidays with an occupational therapist. We did it together. And this camp was an inclusive camp so kids with typical and atypical both joined. And during this camp, I still remember I proposed to my partner and the team:

"Let's do a session in the camp, whereby we bring the kids to the botanical garden for three to four hours, and we have nothing planned for them; forest school lah. And nothing planned for them and they just go there do whatever they want. And we just watch."

I remember I had to argue with my partner, the team for many hours, for four to five hours about this idea because they cannot conceive how is it possible that you don't do anything. Why is there no lesson plan, no objective or outcome? They cannot fathom that. I told them to let's try this, you know, give it a shot and then we see how the kids respond. So, in the sense that was technically Singapore's first trial of something like that.

And finally, they relented and let me do it. So, they were all in very watchful eyes. And we did that session. We brought them to the botanic garden. They played in a typical Forest School mode. Now everybody knows but last time people don't know. Typical Forest School mode, they do their own things everywhere as long as they are safe, you can see them, you can hear them, you know.

After that when they came back, the feedback. So, this is the one, the one feedback that really struck me and also motivated me to continue forest school. It was from this 8-year-old girl. I think, her name was Angela, or something. And she said in her sharing during the debrief

"This is the first time in my life, I felt free, I felt freedom."

And that really like got me thinking and got the rest of the team, as well as my partner, thinking like, wow, eight years old, and it's the first time she felt freedom? What's going on with the past eight years in their life? You know what I mean like? Then, we will also be thinking like what are we giving our kids throughout their lives to for them to actually only come here then they feel freedom? Means, what happens to the rest of their life, there was no freedom?

So, it really struck me. We, as educators can reflect on what we do as well. Are we giving these kinds of space to our children so that they can express themselves or are we leading them to the point where they get into depression?
Freedom is what Darren hopes Forest School can provide to young children
Last message
It's a really powerful anecdote. Do you have any last message before we end?
So, my last message for everyone will be this: I think what we do in Forest School is to help bring people to a space between the Earth and the stars. And if you think about it, what we do in Forest schools, especially out there with nature as our main teacher. There's a lot of connection with the nature, connection with the forest, with the natural environment, and that connection brings us to a depth of realization and awareness. So, the same depth and realization and awareness will bring us to a space, a very mystical space actually. Mindfulness people call it or things like that but Mystical Space in the sense where you actually feel you're between different realms of Space. It's not necessary here not necessary there but you know where you are. You are real.
Wow, have you been practicing this line? Laughter. It sounds poetic. Thank you again Darren for spending time with us and sharing your perspectives and insights on Forest School way of doing things. I, for sure, appreciate the various perspectives and I'm sure that our readers will as well.
No mention, it was a pleasure to share about Forest School
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