Monday, 15th July 2024

Monday, 15th July 2024

In this school’s green sanctuary, a sense of community blooms

11 Jan 2024

How do you turn a patch of grass into the heart of a school? At Tampines Secondary School, a Geography and Maths teacher together with the CCE team carved out a green sanctuary, where teachers and students got more than just their fill of nature.

By Sabrina Lee

The name Tampines has its roots in the Tempinis trees that once thrived in its soil. When Mrs Preeti Sheri joined Tampines Secondary School in 2016, the school’s name sparked an idea.

“Every school has a certain way of creating memories,” says the Head of Department for Character and Citizenship Education (CCE). “As a Geographer, I wanted to turn the school’s green spaces into lush gardens bustling with biodiversity.”

Instead of having a pre-defined idea of how an eco-garden should look like, Mrs Sheri says that the process of cultivating the school’s green spaces was more nuanced: “We shared with staff and school leaders that a seemingly ‘unstructured’ garden is intentional. It serves as a lesson for our students, teaching them to appreciate the organic and natural elements of life.”

In those early days, only a handful of trees adorned the school grounds.

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Before the garden was diversified, it contained a limited variety of flora such as Filicium decipiens, Averrhoa bilimbi and Cratoxylum cochinchinense.

Green ambitions

Mrs Sheri’s goal, as the head of CCE, was to cultivate optimism through biodiversity. Starting an eco-garden, she believed, could be the perfect canvas for this vision. “It’s not just about (creating) a picturesque garden; it’s about embracing the process of learning and overcoming challenges,” she explains.

She knew she could not do this alone. And so, when Mr John Lim, a Mathematics teacher, joined the CCE committee in 2022, things took shape.

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The team leading the Tampinesian Sustainability Culture. (From left to right) Mrs Preeti, Mr Nallu Dhinakharan, Mdm Norfatihah Hanim Norazlan, Mr Lim, and Mr Benjamin Low Yick Loong having fun during Earth Week 2023.

As Mrs Sheri shared her vision with Mr Lim and the CCE team, Mr Lim’s personal investment in the garden deepened. “We wanted to create an environment within the school that is nurturing and allows everyone to thrive and contribute to a caring community,” he says.

Mr Lim played a key role in transforming the eco-garden into a sustainable sanctuary, working closely with Community in Bloom Ambassador, Mr Tian How Ming. 

Choosing a central quadrangle surrounded by blocks of classrooms, Mrs Sheri and Mr Lim began the transformation: “As students walked to their classes, a quick glance downward offered them a view to appreciate.”

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A top-down view of the garden.

The metamorphosis begins

They initially started with four butterfly host plant plots, such as Cynanchum ovalifolium, drawing in a diverse range of butterfly species. Later, they expanded with plots dedicated to growing edible greens, such as herbs, spices, and vegetables.

“We also provided smaller planter boxes for students to experiment with soil and learn seed-to-plant growth,” says Mr Lim. Under his guidance, students grew vegetables such as chye sim and herbs like basil. “The aim was to explore being self-sufficient with food.”

At the same time, the students picked up useful gardening tips. “I discovered that farmers would remove the flowers from certain basil species before they fully mature. This is to prevent the leaves from becoming bitter,” shares Secondary 4E1 student, Faisal Basil Bin Mohammad Daniyal.

Mrs Sheri explains why they deliberately chose not to use aeroponics or hydroponics: “When we involve our students in planting seeds, they experience a cathartic connection with the soil.

Our focus isn’t on harvesting; it is about learning, embracing mistakes, and enjoying our connection with nature and each other.” 

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Student volunteers spent six hours scraping off rust and later painting it gold, one of the colours of the school crest.

Apart from plants, a weathered and rusted circular swing was sourced from an online reseller and relocated to the garden. Students restored it by removing rust and painting it gold.

With time, the vegetables, butterflies, and swing brought joy to the school community. 

Bringing learning to life

The garden’s diverse ecosystem provided learning experiences for the students.  For example, when they noticed that the birds were eating the caterpillars in the garden, the students participated in the Adopt-a-Butterfly programme by taking the caterpillars home.

By caring for these insects, the students provided them with the opportunity to undergo metamorphosis.

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Students have taken to sharing photos of the butterflies with their peers and teachers.

Students were provided instructions on how to care for the caterpillars, including cleaning up the droppings (called frass) daily to reduce the release of ammonia, which is harmful to the caterpillars. 

When the caterpillars transform into butterflies, students release them back into the garden. Mr Lim says, “This practice teaches the valuable lesson that everything from nature should eventually return to nature.”

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Tailors at work: The most intriguing quirk about the common tailorbird is that it creates its nest by sewing leaves together with its beak.

In the eco-garden, students also discovered a tailorbird’s nest and had the opportunity to interact closely with the fledglings.

Mr Lim intends to incorporate a bird bath and a pond in the eco-garden, generating enthusiasm among the students, “They will take on the task of excavating the pond themselves,” he shares.

Cultivating more than just produce

From removing snails concealed beneath planter boxes to nurturing butterflies, the students absorbed lessons at every turn. 

“In the long run, they’ll realise that achieving something involves dedication, planning, and acquiring the skills to sustain it,” says Mr Lim.

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The students’ efforts bear fruit as they harvest the garden’s vegetables for a noble cause.

The fruits of their labour benefit the wider community too. For example, once they harvest the chye sim, they pack and donate it to the elderly through the Kampung Senang Charity and Education Foundation. This eco-conscious charity supports beneficiaries in adopting healthier living by promoting a plant-based diet.

“One of the most important things I’ve learnt is the value of hard work. Seeing my plant grow, harvested and given to people in need gives me a sense of joy and fulfilment,” says Secondary 2 student, Steffi Tan.

The heart of the school

Amid the shared contributions and impact on students, the eco-garden has become more than just a green space.

“I love spending time observing the garden’s natural beauty,” says Secondary 4 student, Kum Hao Wen. He shares that the experience reminds him about the importance of patience in his learning journey. “Progress happens step by step; there are no shortcuts – just like how plants sprout from tiny seeds and gradually blossom.”

Mrs Sheri remembers a student with autism spectrum disorder who has graduated and used to love chasing butterflies in the garden. “She told me it was calming for her,” she says, adding that it is truly heartening to see students, especially those with special needs or who feel lonely, seeking refuge in the green space.

The school staff has also reaped the benefits of the eco-garden. They would gather herbs and spices to cook their favourite dishes. Teachers also use the plants and flowers from the garden in their Food and Consumer Education lessons. 

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Mdm Warda and Mdm Norfatihah Hanim Norazlan savouring kuih seri muka made from blue pea flower.

In a gesture of gratitude, one teacher, Mdm Warda Mohamed Shariff, made kueh with blue pea flowers from the garden and gifted it to Mrs Sheri. Mdm Warda initially remarked, “I took it from your garden,” to which Mrs Sheri responded, “It’s not my garden, it’s everyone’s garden.”

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Principal Lan Mingjun and head prefect Peh Chor Keat Ryan on Tree Planting Day 2022.