SINGAPORE: Growing up, 14-year-old Nur Eynarah used to watch as her brother came home from football practice and matches covered in mud.
“They played on a normal field, and if it was raining, he used to come back very dirty and muddy,” said the Secondary 2 student at Woodlands Secondary School. “The normal fields are very muddy, and if it’s raining ... I don’t like getting dirty.”
Despite her interest in sports, Eynarah was reluctant to join her school’s girls’ football team because of that. But she had a change of heart when she found out that the field she would play on was made of synthetic turf – which meant she would be less likely to return home from games or practice dirty and covered in mud.
Woodlands Secondary is one of 142 schools in Singapore to have benefitted from the Education Ministry’s Synthetic Turf Programme. The programme, which has been implemented since 2006, hopes to give schools more flexibility to schedule PE lessons, field sports and games without having to worry about over-use affecting the condition of the field.
And cleaner students are indeed another benefit, according to Woodlands Secondary’s head of PE Mohamed Razif.
“We use the field not just for football training, but for PE lessons as well, and students would have to return to class right after that,” he said. “So when we only had the natural field, the students would get muddy on rainy days, which was quite a big disadvantage.”
SYNTHETIC FIELDS MORE COST-EFFECTIVE IN THE LONG RUN: MOE
But cleanliness aside, MOE said these fields are more cost-effective in the long run compared to natural turf. The ministry told Channel NewsAsia that each synthetic turf field costs an estimated S$200,000 to S$500,000 to install, depending on size.
It is also cheaper to maintain - costing about S$3,000 per year. At Meridian Junior College (MJC), maintenance takes place about four times a year. It involves topping up the rubber infill granules, and brushing the artificial grass with a tractor - a process which takes about three to four hours, according to MJC’s head of PE and CCA Seah Joo Yee.
In contrast, the process of maintaining a natural field could take much longer, according to Woodlands Secondary’s Mr Razif.
“When we had our normal field, we would have to request that the maintenance be done during the holidays, because it could take about a month or so,” he said. “They would have to put in more soil, and wait for the grass to grow, and even then, it doesn’t always turn out that well because of the rain.”
MOE said synthetic turf fields allow "schools with heavy field usage and niche field sports to schedule more outdoor field activities and develop competitive field sports.”
The Synthetic Turf Programme is being rolled out to schools in phases, and schools can opt in based on their usage needs. According to Budget 2018's revenue and expenditure estimates, the total project cost of the Synthetic Turf Programme is about S$83.5 million, of which slightly over S$42 million has been spent so far.
Schools which already have a synthetic field include Dunman High School, Bukit Panjang Government High School and Riverside Secondary School. An additional 10 schools will be getting a synthetic turf by 2019, said MOE.
BENEFITS OUTWEIGH THE DRAWBACKS, SAY SCHOOLS
Apart from maintenance, schools with such fields also highlighted another benefit: That the conditions of the synthetic field remains the same regardless of what the weather conditions are.
“It wasn’t as conducive to play on natural grass, because some areas were balding from repetitive use, and after it rains, the grass comes out when you kick it,” said MJC’s Ms Seah. “(The synthetic grass) is softer, and there’s less impact on the students’ knees and ankles when they run.”
For serious football players like JC2 student and captain of MJC’s football team Nathanael Chin, the synthetic field also makes his gameplay more consistent.
“When I play on a natural field, the ground condition can vary according to the weather,” he explained. “When it gets hot, the conditions are very hard and bumpy, and when it rains, it gets soft and muddy.”
“All this will affect the way I pass the ball, run or move in the field.”
Both teachers admitted there are drawbacks. For example, field events such as discus and javelin could no longer be done on the field, for fear of spoiling it. But this, said MJC’s Ms Seah, is “not much of a concern”, as the focus in the PE syllabus for schools has shifted away from such events.
The rubber infill from the field also, according to Woodlands Secondary’s Mr Razif, “follows the students everywhere” after they use the field. “We always tell them to clear the black granules from their shoes before going for class,” he said.
Nonetheless, both teachers stressed that the benefits far outweigh any drawbacks.
Furthermore, Nathanael noted that it is becoming increasingly uncommon to find fields with natural turf.
“I used to play outside leisurely, and I’d have to travel around different fields to use their facilities,” he said. “Most of them are synthetic fields, whether it’s located in a school or in a stadium.”
“Having the field here in the school also helps our students when they go out and play,” added Ms Seah.
“It’s easier for them to adapt, and in fact, there is no transition for them at all.”