Alden Boon

Stories by Children Founder Chen Yuanhui on Awakening a Child’s Divinity and Wisdom


Drawing on her experience as a former Head of Aesthetics Education in Singapore’s Ministry of Education, Chen Yuanhui today runs Stories by Children, a heart-based learning environment where young authors aged between five and twelve years old can indulge their artistic flair freely. The pedagogy she uses is inspired by the Reggio Emilia Approach®. She sees all children as equally divine as adults, and aims to help them find their true selves through the use of art.

Yuanhui, what sparked your interest in therapeutic arts?

Arts as a healing modality was a calling. I was nineteen, waiting to enter university, when I saw the biographical comedy-drama film ‘Patch Adams’ starring Robin Williams. It was a movie where Patch’s life was documented, from his early struggles with mental illness to his vocation as a doctor as well as his humanisation of the doctor-patient relationship through clowning, which is a medium for therapeutic art.

In the movie, there was a scene that struck me. Before he went to medical school, Patch admitted himself into a psychiatric ward. There was another elderly patient, Arthur Mendelson, who was somewhat eccentric but cerebral and intellectual. He held up Patch’s hand, and asked him: ‘How many do you see?’ Patch replied: ‘There are four fingers.’ And Arthur urged him to look at him and not focus on the problem. He said: ‘How many do you see? Look beyond the fingers, how many do you see?’ Patch eventually replied: ‘Eight.’

Arthur then said: ‘See what everyone else chooses not to see, out of fear or conformity or laziness. See the world anew, each day.’ This scene really got to me. What people show you may not really be what is inside them. People come in layers, like an onion, and what they show you is only one of the layers. A person who is struggling will have protection and coping mechanisms. What I want to do in life is to touch people at their authentic cores. There is a holy space within our hearts where the blueprints of our highest expressions lie. Sometimes, so numbed we are with surviving life that our hearts’ callings become something distant, even far fetched or unbelievable. For some of us, we dare not show up as ourselves, because of fear — a fear of what others would think, a fear of ‘how could I make a livelihood’. And then there are the many ‘what ifs’ — ‘what if I fail?’. But really, what are these fears, and where did they come from? It comes from a fear of deviation from socially acceptable norms and standards for success.

Through harnessing therapeutic art, what I hope is to awaken in children that inner divinity, that inner light. And in so doing, help children find their authenticity.

That is a noble goal, yet one that borders on grandiosity.

It may be noble, but not at all grandiose. It is a basic right to being human, and as our society slowly evolves, more of such ‘deviations’ and ‘authentic expressions’ are becoming increasingly socially acceptable.

You left the Ministry of Education in 2016, then the National Institute of Education officially in 2020, after a sixteen-year tenure. Did you experience an onset of mid-career malaise?

I’m an artist in my soul and as an artist, I’m somebody who values freedom. I’m less motivated by career progression, power and money. When I had a stint in the ministry’s headquarters, I worked with many senior officers, the bosses of my bosses, and I was not inspired by the destination of my so-called career trajectory. Don’t get me wrong — I am not making them out to be ‘wrong’, or sheep of a system. Our children need to go to schools; they need teachers and principals. So many of my former colleagues are warm-hearted, passionate educators who have found their callings.

It was just a personal choice that staying in the system was not somewhere I would like to be in. I’ve given this consideration from many perspectives and concluded that given my personality and my strengths, I can better benefit the system as an outsider, where I have some freedom and autonomy to articulate and execute my visions, which cannot be tested in the mainstream classroom due to its inherent constraints.

Chen Yuanhui Art Therapy Singapore Children Education MOE Teacher-0652

The school system is also evolving, but slowly. As a child and a student, I was quite the ‘responsible good girl’. This good girl grew up to become someone who didn’t want to let her parents down, then a good civil servant who didn’t want to let her reporting officers down. Now, don’t get me wrong, there are pros to being a good girl. What I am saying is that a good girl can be guided by her authentic core instead of living life based solely on external standards and the relentless pursuit of external validation. If the latter was the case, the true self becomes hidden. Being a ‘good girl’ or a ‘good boy’ with no awareness of the true self traps us in many ways.

How did the system trap the artist in you?

Art as a subject was approached from a systemic angle, and frameworks after frameworks were pushed to achieve key learning outcomes that the ministry valued, and determined (for good reasons) as important for the nation’s survival. It is a very practical approach to a nation’s survival and I’m not here to question that. Also, due to the high teacher-student ratio and the multiple learning outcomes educators must meet across so many subject disciplines and areas, it is nearly impossible for them to cultivate the individual and authentic expression of a child.

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Alden Boon
Alden Boon is a Quarter-finalist in PAGE International Screenwriting Awards. When he's not busy writing, he pretends he is Gandalf.