Showing kids beauty of nature

Showing kids beauty of nature
Ryan Liew (far left), 9, went on an outing to rescue and research horseshoe crabs at the mudflats at Kranji, organised by Nature Society, in February this year, a day after he fractured his elbow. Also pictured are his brothers Alastair, 11 (centre, in blue and orange), and Jake (right), 7.

When Ms Susie Yeo took her daughter to a garden on one occasion last year, five-year-old Eng Geok ended up with an insect bite that led to a swelling on her leg.

"She was very upset about it," says Ms Yeo, 45, an administrative executive, of her only child.

"During my childhood, we had family picnics and swam at the seaside. Now my daughter gets in a bad mood when it's too hot outside.

My husband and I are trying to get her interested in the outdoors, by going to the park, for instance. Sometimes, she'll run around for a while, then say it's hot."

Growing up in the urban jungle that is Singapore, many children - not surprisingly - are distinctly uncomfortable in the outdoors.

Ms Karen Ho, 38, says her elder daughter, aged three, is squeamish about grass and soil, saying it is "dirty".

"She was quite resistant to playing with sand. At 10 months old, we took her to the seaside and dipped her in the sea and sand as she couldn't walk then. She clung to my legs and asked to be carried.

"A few months ago, on a playdate, she swopped her sandals with her friend's rain boots and scooped the sand with a shovel as she did not want to touch the sand with her hands and feet," says Ms Ho.

For outdoor family outings, the adjunct polytechnic lecturer and private tutor sometimes takes along portable fans and mosquito repellent patches for her two children.

If some families' more positive experiences with nature are anything to go by, it may be merely a matter of introducing children to the outdoors as early as possible.

Ms Gail Ng, 39, says she and her teacher husband, Mr Leong Chun Keong, 40, take their two daughters, Esther, five, and Bridget, four, to the park downstairs from their Ang Mo Kio flat almost every day after picking them up from childcare. Weekends are often spent outdoors, at places such as East Coast Park and Sentosa.

"My two girls really like the outdoors, they'll try and delay going home from the park or beach. They play and ride scooters at the park; Esther will cycle as well. They like to go barefoot on the grass, they love the beach as well," says Ms Ng, an administrator at a charity.

"We introduced them to sand when they were about eight months old and you could tell from their expressions that they were uncomfortable. But by the time they were a year old, they liked it, though Bridget would ask me to shake the sand out from her shoes afterwards.

"They like being out in the sun. They won't say that it's too hot, though they sometimes complain that they are hot and sweating when they're back in the car and the air con hasn't kicked in yet."

She adds that her daughters probably owe their enjoyment of nature to the proximity of a park near their home and her husband's encouragement of outdoor activities such as horse-riding for the girls.

Mr Kerry Pereira, an outreach officer at the Nature Society (Singapore), says his work has influenced his appreciation of nature as a parent. He and his wife, housewife Sarah Martens, took their 17-month-old daughter, Siena, out and about in nature when she was just four months old.

"We took her to Bukit Batok Nature Park, near where we live. Studies have shown that being outdoors is very good for a child's development. I also wanted to inculcate in my daughter the idea that Singapore has so much wildlife that not many people know about, like the straw-headed bulbul, whose conservation status is vulnerable, and the critically endangered Sunda pangolin," says Mr Pereira, 34, who recently took Siena to the green spaces of the Rail Corridor.

He adds: "In my opinion, a forested area such as Bukit Batok Nature Park is more enriching than a manicured garden or park. You can see a lot more things in a forest, especially birds such as the racket- tailed drongo and forest wagtail.

"As Siena got older, she took more of an interest in the butterflies, birds and long- tailed macaques that she saw. When she started to talk, at between 12 and 14 months, one of her first words was 'bird'."

Dermatologist Hazel Oon, a member of the Nature Society (Singapore), says spending time in nature is a way for her and her endocrinologist husband, Dr Stanley Liew, to bond with their three sons.

The family added wilderness spaces to their family outings, including those to the Botanic Gardens and to the beach after their middle child Ryan, now aged nine, broke his left elbow about two years ago.

Forced to be sedentary because of the injury, Ryan started reading nature books about insects and this interest led the family to explore nature in the raw in places such as Bukit Brown, Sungei Buloh Wetland Reserve, the Pasir Ris mangrove swamps, the Rail Corridor as well as Lazarus, St John's and Kusu islands, says Dr Oon.

"Ryan and his brothers, Alastair, 11, and Jake, seven, are now junior members of the Nature Society and look forward to their outings.

They have been chased by kampung dogs, tailed by macaques and even stung by jellyfish.

She says that Ryan insisted on going for a horseshoe crab event organised by the society in February this year, despite having fractured his elbow for the second time the day before.

"Singapore is so urbanised that you really have to look out for these pockets of nature that the children can escape to. The kids are sad that places such as old cemeteries Bukit Brown and Bidadari are being developed."

Housewife Nicole Jegathesan, 50, says being out in nature is restorative and has helped her autistic eldest child Seth, 16.

"We live in an HDB estate, five minutes away from Tampines Central Park. Seth has quite severe autism and he also has a sleeping disorder linked to his condition. When we take him out to the park, he sleeps better. That's how our daily routine of going to the park in the evening started, since he was diagnosed at 2½ years old," says Mrs Jegathesan, who has two other children, Jude, 12, and Sonia, nine.

"Being in nature has been excellent for Seth, who suffers from sensory dysfunction. At one point, he was ultra-sensitive, he couldn't hold a spoon as it was painful for him to grip things. He disliked hugs and the feel of food."

She says the solace and comfort that she found in nature - cultivated during her childhood in a kampung in Changi where she and her five siblings ran barefoot and climbed trees - helped her to recover from depression when she was 19 years old.

Now, she and her teacher husband John, 52, take all three children to nature spots including Chek Jawa and Sungei Buloh during the school holidays. That the family even go swimming in the open sea off Changi now is a testimony to the fact that a love of nature can be cultivated.

Mrs Jegathesan says: "Four years ago, we tried to introduce Seth to open-sea swimming. We failed - he screamed his head off and ran away. Slowly, we tried piggybacking him into the sea, inching farther into the water each time and stopping when he showed signs of distress. He would be terrified by the roar of the planes at Changi, screaming and crying. It took a year but he started floating in the open sea.

"He used to have very poor fine motor skills, but being in nature has strengthened and toned his muscles. Last year, we bought him a three-wheeler bike for the handicapped and he also goes horse-riding with Jude.

"Seth has also grown more adaptable. Routine and familiarity are very important to many autistic children. He used to have to use the same plate and cup for all his meals for years. For a long time, we didn't travel because he had to have his meals at home. But for the first time last year, we travelled to Bandung in Indonesia."

The family's daily evening trips to the park take place even during examination time as Mrs Jegathesan says the playtime calms and relaxes her children.

Her middle child, Jude, concurs, saying: "It's good because it makes you feel less stressed."

venessal@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Nov 2, 2014.
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