A couple of weeks ago, my husband and I, with baby Alex in tow, visited a number of pre-school centers that cater to children from toddler/play group age (18 months to 3 years old) to kindergarten level. You may be thinking ‘isn’t this a little too early considering that Alex is only 5 months old?’ Actually we weren’t the earliest. There were parents who even put their babies on the wait-list of preferred pre-schools before their arrival. They act fast because this is the year of the dragon when there will a bumper crop of babies.
Registration for the toddler class or play group starts only a few months before the new year begins. But for the dragon babies, registration will start about half a year earlier which is some time next June or July. I first checked out the list of pre-schools available near our house via the Child care service website, set up by the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports, to see what are available near our house. We were not sure what would consider a good pre-school. I did search online for recommendations but found almost all parents prefer the private brand-name schools for various reasons, like better teachers, small teacher to children ratio or curriculum. Many parents believe their children will have a heads up in these pre-schools which prepare them for entry into primary schools (or elementary schools). My husband doesn’t think parents should outsource all teachings to third party. What kids learn in pre-schools can mostly be taught at home, where they get one-to-one attention from their care-givers. It is very important for the toddler to have much human interaction which is vital for language and emotional development at this age (provided the care-givers can provide the attention, which is as simple as talking to the child). In fact my husband’s initial thoughts were that pre-schools were for the kids to learn socializing skill, and so the more kids there are the more chances for socializing.
In Singapore, the pre-schools are dominated by those set up by the charitable foundation of the ruling party, PAP Community Foundation (PCF) and the union linked to the government (NTUC). The child care centers run by PCF are called Sparkletots and the those run by NTUC are called My First Skool. Anyway the first thing on the list of child care centers that struck me was the huge fee differences between certain private centers and the rest. Mindchamps Pre-school is charging full day child care at more than S$1700 a month compared to one Sparkletots center at about S$449 a month. (Strangely the different Sparkletots centers have different fees but they are between S$449 and S$650, I suspect it has got to do with the location. The more convenient it is, the higher the fee.)
I realize that the so-called brand name pre-schools, which are known for their child development and enrichment curriculum, are charging S$1200 a month and above. Mindchamps Preschool is one, and there are the Montessori schools and Pat’s Schoolhouse. My husband was incredulous when he learned of what Mindchamps are charging. What so great about their pre-schools that they charge more than double that of Sparkletots? They’ve better be churning out geniuses for that kind of fee. My husband looked at their website and didn’t think the enrichment curriculum was that big a deal. In fact he believed that a stay-at-home parent can provide the same stimulation to the child. The only thing missing is interaction with other kids, and this is where the pre-school environment is useful. So he was skeptical about paying high fees for Alex to socialize. He felt these pre-schools are for parents who can’t spend time with their kids or just want to outsource the responsibility. Still our curiosity was piqued. My husband thought we should check out some of these pre-schools to find out for ourselves how they compare, particularly the expensive ones, if they justify their high fees.
The first pre-school we visited was NurtureStars at Safra Tampines (a partnership between Kinderland and Safra). The monthly fee is about S$970, which is in the mid-range. When I first saw the center, I was honestly underwhelmed. The office and classrooms look like they need refurbishment. If a mid-range pre-school is like this, I can’t imagine what the cheaper ones are like. We met up with the center supervisor, and upon sitting down in her office, she pointed to baby Alex and said, ‘you should remove the pacifier, it’s not good for him.’ I explained that I was trying to wean it off, and my husband took it out off Alex’s mouth.
I did all the talking, asking questions on teacher to student ratio, how the teacher deals with a kid who is more advanced in say reading, and also
to see the playgroup class, the curriculum, and the menu. The supervisor thinks that just because a child is advanced in a skill like reading doesn’t mean he or she can be promoted to a higher class since the child might not be able to cope in other areas. She believes that the child should learn together with other kids in the same class. We were brought into a playgroup class, where there were 10 kids in uniform with 2 teachers. The kids were having a break before going for outdoor activities. Some of the kids were curious about Alex and came forward to my husband who was holding him. One teacher was cuddling a child and the other was busy herding the others, telling them to drink their water. There was a kiddy song playing from a player. But the CD was stuck in a repetitive mode and the herding teacher had to restart it.
I was shown the curriculum which didn’t strike me as anything special. I was told that kids at this age are just having fun and no real learning is conducted since they don’t even know their ABCs. In fact even at the kindergarten level, there’re a couple of kids who may not know their ABCs well because the knowledge is not reinforced at home. The kids have an outdoor session a day, at the playground or the soccer field. I was a little taken aback when I saw the menu, the kids are given cakes during tea time, cocoa puff for breakfast and stir-fried noodle for lunch, etc, basically sugar, salt and refined flour. It doesn’t seem healthy to me. It turns out the pre-school center outsources the meals as there is no kitchen in house.
After the visit, my husband said no to NurtureStars. He thinks the supervisor is a nazi, and the teachers at the play group seem more like baby-sitters. He was also put off by the paltry facilities for a mid-range pre-school.
The next pre-school we visited was MindChamps at Tampines. As mentioned, Mindchamps charge an arm and a leg (at more than S$1700 a month), and so we had to go see for ourselves how they justify their fees. The center had an open house a couple of Saturdays ago and so we went for the viewing. When we arrived, we were greeted by a teacher who immediately took a liking for Alex. She offered to hold him and even introduced him to the other staff. Alex also took to her pretty well.
We were taken to the gym room for a talk given by a child care specialist on prepping the child for pre-school. There were a few kids playing with wooden blocks on the soft mat. Alex was curious with what they were doing, but not for long because it was time for his nap and he started to get cranky. We had to take him out of the room. One of the teachers offered to show us the facilities, but I had to rock Alex to sleep. So this time it was my husband who did the talking. I noticed that there were a lot of displays of the children’s works along the corridor. There were also descriptions of activities and they seem pretty interesting and stimulating to me. Not only that, Mindchamps also have pretty good facilities including a gym room where even the play group kids get their physical activity once a day. On top of that, there were other activities to train their motor skills and brain development.
I have to say both my husband and I are impressed with what Mindchamps have to offer. My husband likes how the teachers show interests in young kids. The one who showed us around doesn’t speak excellent English but her enthusiasm more than make up for it. The facilities are pretty good, and we like they have a gym, which can’t be replicated at home. My husband pointed out that on a wall in the gym were words spelled backward, which can be read by looking at the mirror on the opposite wall; he thought this is pretty interesting and stimulating for kids. This is something which we didn’t find in the previous center, a stimulating environment that gets kids to figure things out. The Mindchamps’ curriculum has additional programs such as cookery, music etc, though with effort, this can still be done at home. The thing that is less than stellar is the menu, which is also catered, and contained much refined flour. My husband suspects the food is probably standardized for pre-schools. I understand the Ministry of health have guidelines on the nutritional requirements of the food, but I think the guidelines are of lower standard than what I have in mind.
The other brand-name pre-school we visited was Pat’s School House at Siglap. Google map’s direction led us to the back door; the center is located in a 2-storey private house in a residential area. I must admit my first impression wasn’t very good as I wondered about their facilities compared to MindChamps. We were brought to the front of the house to meet the supervisor, and alongside the house was parked a row of kiddie cars. In front of the house was a bunch of kids playing relays led by a teacher.
The supervisor is a gregarious and very confident lady, who is pregnant with her second child. She first showed us the ground floor, where the nursery classes are conducted, and after which we were brought up to the second floor where the kindergarten classes are. Unlike many other pre-schools, Pat’s School house offers only half day (afternoon) program for play group or toddler level.
I must say we are rather impressed with this Pat’s School House and the supervisor, in fact I like it more than MindChamps. There is an international group of kids here, and they look like they’re having a lot of fun. My husband observed that they look happy too, and the teachers seemed to be doing a good job engaging them. Each class has 2 teachers, one speaking English and the other in Mandarin. The fact that this is a house makes the setting pretty homey and conducive. The kids do not wear uniform unlike other pre-schools. The supervisor commented that these kids would have 10 years of uniform wearing when they begin primary schools. (Actually 12 years: 6 years in primary schools, 4 years in secondary level and 2 years in pre-university level.) Even though there is no gym, there is a sand pit and water play area at the back of the house, plus there is a small playground in front and there are the kiddie cars. We like the curriculum here as well, and it’s also geared towards stimulating the child’s mind.
I like the supervisor a lot; she understands child development and we can see the camaraderie she has with the kids. One little girl saw us and asked the supervisor if Alex was her baby, at which she laughed and clarified, ‘no, my baby is still inside my tummy, and is a girl.’ I found out from her that children at 3 years old are not learning writing yet as their motor skills are not fully developed; instead they learn to trace out the words in both English and Mandarin. She also told us that they strive to understand each child that comes into the center, in order to help the child develop. They have even accepted autistic children. As for advanced kids, she told me that there are different areas of advancements and very rarely does a child excel in all areas. Even if a child is advanced in reading, he or she may have difficulty in social skill, the pre-school will then work with the child and parents to help the child in this area of development.
The school has a kitchen, and so it is able to amend the menu as necessary. Still I notice there are some servings made from refined flour, though there is also healthy oatmeal which is an improvement from other schools. The supervisor told me that she is slowly adding in healthy food into the menu. It turns out the menu is partly dictated by what kids eat. She explained that when she tried to introduce wholemeal bread, the Asian kids refused to eat them. She had to resort to providing each child one slice of white bread and one slice of wholemeal bread. Half the time she ended up having to throw the wholemeal bread away, but slowly it’s gaining acceptance. Same for oatmeal, only the Caucasian kids take it, the Asian kids just don’t like it. I now realize the pre-schools have to serve food made from refined flour because that’s what the kids eat at home. When parents don’t set a good example in eating healthy food, their kids follow.
We also visited MindChamps at East Coast, which is located in a small 2-storey shop building. Compared to the one at Tampines, we have a negative impression of this place. We were late and I kept getting calls from them if we were going to turn up. I didn’t get that from Pat’s school house despite being late too. When the supervisor was told that we have visited the Tampines school, her interest level fell. Unlike Pat’s school house supervisor who encouraged me to look at more pre-school centers so that I can make a good comparison.
My husband also observed that the kids at the East Coast school seemed like robots. But to be honest, we didn’t observe any classes at the Tampines school which we have to do so. The play area at the back of the East Coast school is located next to a road that serves as a loading point for supplies to the restaurant next door. When we were there, a truck had stopped outside with its engine still running. Imagine the exhaust fumes the kids breathe in! We also find the classrooms rather stuffy, not very comfortable.
I had arranged to visit a Sparkletots center at Tampines. But when we were there, we didn’t get to see the pre-school classes, instead we looked at the infant care facility because we have to put Alex in infant care from next month when I return to work. It was an unexpected decision but I’ll leave that for another post. When I arrived at the center, I walked into what looked like a nursery or kindergarten group. The teacher was looking at the kids, and she looked a little lost. I presumed she might have asked them some question, and they in turn were staring back at her. My husband and I have some reservations about the pre-school at Sparkletots. Still to be fair to them, we should go observe the classes to see if the kids are happy there.
My husband has changed his mind about the purpose of pre-school and is now leaning towards MindChamps Tampines; he feels it is the most holistic center he has seen so far. It has the facilities particularly a gym, enrichment programs including a quarterly field trip (which explains the high fee) and enthusiastic teachers, and it is located at a convenient location. But we will also have to observe some classes to make an informed choice. I, on the other hand, like Pat’s School house better, but location is a problem as it’s not going to be easy for me to take Alex there. Pre-school will be prepping a child to enter primary school, when he or she is expected to know how to read, write and count by then, so we’ll have to choose the center carefully.
A Singaporean child is entitled to child care subsidy from the Ministry of Community, Youth and Sports. For those who have working moms, the subsidy is S$300 per month, and for those non-working moms, it’s S$150 per month for full day care. Pre-school falls under child care service.
S$1 = US$0.82