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Saturday, December 22, 2012

Of Flying Cows & Skipping Stones

The little boy stared in wide-eyed astonishment as the warm liquid gushed out from under the belly of the large creature. The two-year-old involuntarily twitched his eyebrows, as if to indicate a reaction of disbelief. All doubt was however completely dispelled when the action was repeated in front of him yet again. His eyes now registered a sense of amazement; although this was a look that also recorded some semblance of understanding. My older son Z had just witnessed his first cow-milking experience. And while he was not yet prepared to be personally engaged in the encounter itself, his actions were a far cry from his earlier response - which was to shy away from the herd of cows, and to cower away from the huge yet gentle creatures.

This incident took place no more than two weeks ago in the lovely land of Taiwan, in a place uniquely called the Flying Cow Ranch. Nestled in the luscious countryside county of Miaoli, the ranch is home to numerous cows, sheep, goats, rabbits and other gentle farm animals. It is considered "fashionable" for many Taiwanese city-dwellers to head to ranches in the territory to experience good old-fashioned country life. And I personally understood the draw of the countryside. Apart from its sweet polution-free fresh air and crisp fields of grasslands, there were the animals - creatures that city-dwellers from a not-so-faraway country like Singapore might never see in their entire life!

And it was also the first time that Z had seen the animals he had only previously read about in books or played with as toys. During our three-day farmstay, our son not only witnessed his first cow-milking experience, he also fed rabbits by throwing vegetable leaves to them, and even allowed goats to eat from his own hands! It was really wonderful to see how much the experience had changed him - although he had initially been afraid of the goats, by the second day he was actually allowing them to eat from his hands.

As an educator, it has thrilled me to see how much my son has been learning from his adventures in the great outdoors. I had written about renowned author Charlotte Mason and her ideas about outdoor experiential learning in my previous posts, and it suffices here to say that having personally applied her ideas, I am all the more convinced that outdoor learning is the way to go.
 
In addition to his learning about animals, my son Z also learnt another valuable lesson during our two-week trip in Taiwan. This took place at a lovely stream near the scenic Liyu Lake in the northeastern county of Hualien. I will always remember the mental picture of my two-year-old seated in the icy waters, splashing at his Daddy with wild abandonment; totally oblivious to the clumps of black sand that were all over his face and hair. This was indeed a stark contrast to my son's initial reluctance to even step foot into the water.

The owner of the minsu we were staying in had kindly taken us to a location off the beaten path in order for us to fish. Excited at being so close to nature, I immediately kicked off my shoes and waded into the icy waters of the stream. Z, who was watching my actions, held out his hand and I knew he also wanted to come with me. However, the moment I removed his shoes and socks and carried him in, my son jerked back violently and refused to enter. It was only about half an hour later, after I had carried him for a substantial distance along the stream, that he finally decided that it was safe to enter the water. And from then on there was no turning back; and we enjoyed a precious father-son moment splashing water at each other in a land so very different from the one we call home.

Our Taiwan trip has been especially special in these two ways. Firstly it has provided my son with valuable learning opportunities from the great outdoors, from a classroom that is far superior to any that the greatest technological advances can provide. Secondly it has provided many special moments for father-son bonding, from the experiences near Liyu Lake, to other equally special moments - such as the time when Z took my hand and led me for an almost one-hour walk up and down the hilly contours of the old Lintianshan logging village.

I remember a time almost ten years ago when I was not yet married. I had then travelled with a group of close friends to Fraser's Hill in Malaysia. Back then, the group of us guys sat near a waterfall and attempted the delicate art of skipping stones - to fling the stone at such an angle so as to allow it to hit the water surface more than once. I remember then that I did the job very poorly, and that most of my stones merely landed with a thud in the water instead of flying elegantly through the air. I had told myself then that I would perfect the art and one day teach my son how to skip stones like his father.

That day I again attempted to skip stones in the Hualien stream. Just like before, my stones landed with a clumsy thud in the water. I know now that I will probably never be skilled in this delicate art. But I know I will always want to be there for my two sons, to help them experience the things that I love; to teach them how to play like boys and how to live like men. I want to be there with my sons when they ascend the highest mountains in their lives; and I also want to be there for them when they descend into the deepest valleys.

The greatest honour and joy for a father is to have your son hold out his hand, and to ask you to guide him as he travels the long journey of life.

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