What I learnt after spending the day backyard bound with OBS instructors

Sometimes the best things in life are right in front of you.

Amanda Tan

Skills include buying the same jeans in different colours.

Published: 4 November 2021, 11:05 PM

As I tuned in to a cross-sharing session by the Outward Bound Singapore (OBS) instructors, I was surprised to see how a mini expedition could result in such fruitful discussions and reflections. 

“The more you float, the further you’ll go.” Those were words I wish I had heard when I was 15.

Pulau Ubin

On a sunny Thursday morning (Sep 23), I found myself on the shores of Pulau Ubin, captivated by president Dr Shawn Lum and Nature Society Singapore (NSS) volunteer Mr Lester Tan.

As nature lovers and experts, the two share a deep affinity with the environment — Dr Lum with plants, Mr Tan with birds. 

Alongside 18© OBS instructors, I attentively followed them around the island as they pointed out various fun facts about the extensive flora and fauna of Pulau Ubin.

However, as the birds were harder to spot, Dr Lum took over for the first half of the expedition. I can’t remember the last time I saw someone so full of life and energy.

It was amusing to see Dr Lum jump into the waters with such spontaneity. He exited with a handful of plant roots and excitedly waved them in front of us.

“You can use these to make charcoal!” exclaimed Dr Lum.

As Dr Lum was explaining to us the origin of the roots, he suddenly pointed to the dense vegetation behind us. 

“Rubber trees!”

And in that split second, he could recognise that Pulau Ubin used to be a plantation.

“Rubber is a plant that doesn’t occur naturally. These trees are native to places like Brazil. I think some time during World War II, these trees were abandoned.”

Dr Lum’s intense zest and intelligence caught many of the instructors off guard. He was able to immediately identify that Pulau Ubin was an abandoned plantation, a fact that one would only find out upon reading history books.

He went on to highlight to the instructors that this is one such story they can tell to their participants. He reinforced that the objective of the walk was to help them remember stories, not names.

Make it into your own experience and interest and turn it into magic for your students.”

As we ventured further into the forest, we encountered more plants with complicated names. The instructors helped each other with the spelling of the different names, and it was heartwarming to see everyone relying on each other. Funnily enough, it reminded me of my own secondary school days when I would go on field trips with my friends.




With the help of binoculars, we were also able to spot the birds perched on the trees. At some point, catching a glimpse of the fleeting creatures turned into a game amongst the instructors. All of them, wide-eyed and eager to be the first to spot and identify the birds.

However, Mr Tan noted that while the instructors might find searching for birds fun, it wouldn’t be the same for the 15-year-olds, given their short attention span.

Coney Island

The following day (Sep 24), we gathered at the Outward Bound Singapore (Reception and Activity Centre) for a short theory session by NSS, led by project officer Ms Sung Mei Yee. During the crash course, Ms Sung helped the instructors to identify the different birds based on their distinct characteristics such as the colour of their eyes, the way they call and even the way they walk.

After a mini quiz, the instructors were set and ready to start on their trek to Coney Island.


Despite the sweltering heat, everyone was feeling excited. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/AMANDA TAN


Along the way, the instructors were quick to locate the birds. You could really see their eyes light up whenever they managed to do so. They would quickly tell one another to spot the birds with their binoculars.


At first glance, all the birds looked the same but on closer look, we realised that they have distinct traits that differ, just like us, humans. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/AMANDA TAN


Throughout the trek, Mr Tan, who was assigned to our group, also helped us understand more about the birds’ migration patterns.

The most mind-blowing part of the trek was the way Mr Tan could easily identify and differentiate the birds from each other without the use of his binoculars. You could really see how passionate Mr Tan is and how deeply he cares for these animals.


Appreciating and respecting nature is the bare minimum we can do. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/AMANDA TAN


Previously, when the instructors would run their courses, they would barely touch on the plants and animals. As the instructors only had basic knowledge on the flora and fauna at Pulau Ubin, they could only mention the names in passing before moving on to something else, leaving the kids to forget the information as fast as it came.


Instructors recalling the different birds they saw in the forest and their distinct traits. PHOTO CREDIT: YOUTHOPIA/AMANDA TAN


Instructor Desiree voiced out her concerns regarding the way students tend to hyperfocus on completing handouts instead of observing the world around them. She emphasised that as instructors, it is their duty to help cultivate open awareness so as to make outdoor experiences more enjoyable and impactful.

A method some instructors have agreed on integrating into their coursework is metaphorical transfer. For instance, the Tembusu tree, despite being slow-growing, has the ability to thrive in poorly drained soil. Using this analogy, instructors can better convey the message of how “the place you grow up in doesn’t define you, but rather how you learn to adapt to your environment”. 

This method will not only achieve the courses’ objective of helping the students develop their confidence but it will also ensure that the kids have a heart for the environment as they’ll now be able to relate to and identify with these plants and animals. 

As the bulk of OBS participants are 15-year-olds, most of them will be going through a period of emotional turmoil and self-discovery. It is hence pivotal for the OBS experience to be geared towards equipping the kids with the necessary soft skills and emotional reassurance that what they are going through is simply a rite of passage.

Essentially, to deliver meaningful outdoor education experiences, the instructors have to learn how to frame their activities such that it will fully engage the students. 

“It’s our job to generate that interest. We are the ones who have to plant those seeds,” remarked Instructor Kenneth Goh.

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