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(Photo by Tan Yihan)

Rainforest school doesn’t teach by the book

by Tan Yi Han

The little girl clenched her jaws as she pinched her teacher with all her strength. Yet the teacher remained calm and spoke to her in an angelic voice: it hurts a lot when you do this. Eventually, the girl relaxed and cooperated when the teacher asked her again to finish her food.

At Rainforest Treehouse Wonderland, which provides preschool and primary education, you will not hear teachers screaming, scolding or threatening the children.

"We want the children to face the world with love and calmness, not fear," explained Xiao Xiao, Founder of Rainforest Treehouse Wonderland.

"Looking back at my childhood, I have so many happy memories. I set up this school so that my and other children can enjoy a happy childhood too," she added.

Over three weeks in July, I had the opportunity to volunteer at the school and observe the unconventional education system there.

Inspired by the Waldorf education system, the school aims to develop each child in a holistic manner, and at a natural pace appropriate to the child’s age and ability.

Nestled on the forested slope of Gunung Pulai, Malaysia, the school also provides an opportunity for the children to connect with nature on a daily basis.

Every day, the children would go up the mountain to the hall. It is a climb that would leave most adults breathless. But for the children, it becomes a training ground for them to develop their willpower and motor skills (movement and actions of their muscles). The steps are uneven and sometimes the younger children will slip and fall on their bottoms. But as I await the cry that usually follows a fall, all I see is the child get up and continue walking as though nothing has happened.

At the preschool level, lots of time is devoted to play. Play may seem like a frivolous affair. But seeing the preschool kids transform a row of chairs into a bus, or an wooden block into a mobile phone, allowed me to see how play allows children to develop their creativity.

One of the interesting practices I observed at the school was how they help children develop positive behaviours. Whenever a child throws out food or toys, the teacher would simply ask the child to clean up after himself or to retrieve the toy. In this way, the children develop a sense of responsibility for their actions.

The teachers also set an example for the children through their own behaviour. Having grown up in an education system where teachers tend to be strict and stern, I was surprised to see Ah Cong (Cheah Chee Cong), the primary school teacher, joking and playing with his students.

I was even more surprised, however, when I saw how the children copy the teachers’ calm and loving style. In one remarkable incident, a 6 year old boy was playing with sticks stuck in the sand, when a 3 year old preschooler pulled out his stick and threw it away. Instead of getting into a raging fit, the older boy hugged the younger one and gently told him not to throw his sticks away.

Teachers also seek to form a close bond with the children so that the students will be open in sharing their troubles with their teacher. Teachers seek to understand each child's capabilities and personality, as well as the best way to handle each of them. To maintain this strong bond and understanding, Ah Cong intends to follow the same set of students through the 6 years of primary education.

Recognising that young children should not be rushed into learning complicated concepts like written language and mathematics, academic teaching only starts in primary school. But even then, the students are not forced to study, study, study. Because there is no standardised curriculum that the student has to follow, the teacher teaches each student at the pace he or she is able to manage.

There is also no need for exams, because the teacher already understands each student’s academic capability through their daily interactions. Without exams, students do not end up studying for the sake of exams or suffer from low confidence due to poor exam results.

In fact, Ah Cong aims to inculcate a mindset of “nothing is impossible” by setting challenges for them. Ah Cong described this example: One day, he asked the students if they would be able to recite the alphabet backwards from Z to A. All the students said it was impossible. But within two months, they had all achieved it. When reminded that they had initially thought it was impossible, they just grinned. When Ah Cong set a new challenge of memorising the sequence of a shuffled deck of poker cards, they all said they could do it!

Rainforest Treehouse Wonderland has attracted parents who see the value of their natural education. Desiree Chia, mother of one of the preschoolers, shared with me: “When I was young, I lived among forests and rivers. I grew up to be carefree, courageous and optimistic. When my siblings and I got together, we were always laughing. That's why I want my daughter to grow up surrounded by nature too.”

Xiao Xiao and Ah Cong recognise that many parents still remain skeptical, with concerns such as the safety of the climb and the ability of the students to compete academically when they progress to secondary school. Nonetheless, their belief remains strong that they are giving the children a life-changing gift. “Education should be about helping people discover their own nature, seeing themselves as creators, not followers,” declared Ah Cong.

For myself, my time at Rainforest Treehouse Wonderland has helped me to realise how my childhood experiences have shaped me today. While I cannot go back in time to change my childhood, I have been inspired to face the world with a little less fear, a little more love.

To learn more about Rainforest Treehouse Wonderland, you can visit their facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/Rainforest-Treehouse-Wonderland-1742419409351283/