The search for a preschool begins with you. Ask yourself these questions before you start.
Choosing the right preschool need not be a dreaded task as long as you go into the process prepared. To achieve that, have a solid idea of what you want your child to gain from the school. Early childhood educators take you through the factors to consider.
1. Is she ready for preschool?
“Although most preschools will start accepting children from the age of 2½ years, it doesn’t magically mean that your child is ready when she reaches that age,” says Ninna Kuchit Krewinkel, executive principal and curriculum specialist from Apricot Academy.
Think about where your child is emotionally, physically and socially, she suggests. Is she ready to attend a structured educational programme? If she doesn’t need childcare, you may want to ease her into preschool with a playgroup programme rather than a kindergarten.
Nicco Lim, 32, a stay at home mum, decided to enrol her three-year-old son in a trial playgroup before he starts kindergarten this year. “Sending him to the three-hour playgroup class seems to be a better idea than just having him play with toys, Youtube-ing on the iPad all alone most of the time,” she says. “It’s also good for him to learn how to socialize now, as it will prep him for what’s to come in kindergarten.”
2. What are my expectations?
In Singapore, preschool education encompasses up to four years of a child’s life, spanning Nursery One to Kindergarten Two. These are prime learning years when your child will pass through many significant developmental milestones, says Fiona Walker, CEO and principal of schools at Julia Gabriel Education.
“Be sure of what you want most for her during these years. Does the school share the same priorities as you? Then you’ll have a better idea of whether its philosophy and approach to education compliments your own.” School is an extension of the home in many ways, adds Fiona. Thus, with this in mind, ask yourself what you hope she achieves by the time she graduates to primary school.
Is academic achievement during these years as important as her overall development? Would you prefer a school that adopts a play-based approach to learning? Do you want her to be exposed to specific subjects or activities? Does the school offer what you’re looking for – such as Mandarin or music – as part of the curriculum?
Knowing his child well helped James Rigg, 38, a vendor and contracts manager at a bank, make the decision to put his daughter, Emily, who’s three, into a childcare centre.
“Around the time of Emily’s first birthday, my wife and I realised that Emily wanted to spend more time with other children, so we felt a child day care was what she needed. We chose one based on feedback from other parents and after visiting a few centres ourselves,” shares James.
3. What skills do I want my child to acquire?
Look for a well-balanced curriculum where children are given the opportunity to learn under different settings, says Joy Yeo, a preschool teacher at Lorna Whiston Preschool @ Winchester.
There should still be a blend of instructional learning and freedom of exploration and play. Activities that are planned should instil a love of learning and spike a child’s interest in a subject, she adds. Since your kid is going to a local primary school, you’ll need a preschool that offers a good pre-primary preparatory programme, too.
As Emily is an only child, James felt the day care he was putting her in should be about providing a warm and friendly environment in which to play and interact with other children, and in which her natural curiosity to learn and explore is nurtured.
“We want to encourage and support her in her own learning – that is, at her own pace. She’s only three years old, and we feel it’s far too soon to be worrying about her academic development.”
4. How important is location?
“Usually, parents will rely on ‘word of mouth’ experiences or recommendations from others who have encounters with particular preschools. While this is by far the most helpful way of narrowing down your choices, there are many other pertinent areas that you have to consider that are tailored to and better suited to your family’s needs,” advises Sarinah Yaacob, centre supervisor for Josiah Montessori Kinder-care.
Think about how the preschool will fit into your daily life. Do you need one that’s close to your home or workplace? Is it important for it to offer childcare services as well? If yes, then a kindergarten is out.
Location topped Nicco’s checklist when she was looking for a preschool. “We don’t own a car, and public transport can be unpredictable – sometimes unreliable, especially during peak hours. So having Kaile at a preschool near our home (and his grandparents’ place) is more convenient and saves time,” she shares. Plus, if there was an emergency and both parents were not around, his grandparents could quickly lend a hand.
5. What does the mission statement tell me?
It should represent the school’s commitment to the children, says Joy. “It gives (parents) an easy snapshot of what the school most strongly believes in and will strive to achieve.” When you pay the school a visit, observe to see if everything corresponds to the mission statement, she suggests.
6. Should I visit a few centres before making a choice?
“Many schools have similar-sounding philosophies, so it’s important to visit each school on your shortlist to see if it’s right for your child and you,” says Fiona.
Visiting a variety of centres enables you to compare environments, resources, activities and practices. You need to experience the school to gain a sense of whether it’s a friendly and nurturing environment – a place where you feel comfortable leaving your child, she adds.
Fiona says: “If you’re happy with your first impression, then make an appointment to meet the principal. This provides you with an opportunity to gauge the school’s leadership approach and to ask further questions that concern the daily life of your child at school, such as health and safety, as well as the curriculum.”
7. Does the curriculum allow my child to explore topics in detail and in multiple ways?
Research has proven that play-based integrated programmes provide hands-on and meaningful experiences for 21st century kids, share the experts from Etonhouse. The preschools and infant toddler centres of Reggio Emilia in Northern Italy inspire its “Inquire Think Learn” curriculum.
Sarinah agrees that a good curriculum should be well planned and interlaced with structured and unstructured work, and play time. Lessons have to be varied, allowing lots of hands-on activities and exploration, so as to pique the child’s natural curiosity.
At Apricot Academy, for instance, kids are put into cooperative learning groups, which foster group interdependence, develop social skills and more, shares Ninna. “Cooperative learning helps children to learn necessary social skills that will stay with them for life.”
8. Will a multicultural environment benefit my child?
The learning environment should mirror the increasingly globalised world, say the experts from Etonhouse. It has children from 61 nationalities in its centres, which allows them to spontaneously learn about different cultures and traditions.
Over at Josiah Montessori, pupils are taught the importance of embracing cultural diversity through celebrations of major festivals, shares Sarinah.
9. Are enrichment classes necessary?
Some preschools provide such courses within their curriculum, so parents can free up their weekends for bonding time, adds Sarinah. Check whether these are included in the basic fee or cost extra. The alternative is to enrol your child in external classes.
“Enrichment means different things to different people,” says James. “But to us, the word has sinister undertones of over-forceful parenting that’s focused on academic achievement rather than play and having a childhood.
“Having said that, we’ve enrolled Emily in optional science classes because we recognised she has a curiosity about the world around her, and feel that these stimulate her curiosity further. She also goes to a gymnastics class on the weekend, which provides a safe environment for her to jump around and play, while at the same time develop her motor skills. Both activities have had a noticeable effect on her physical and mental development.”
10. Is it necessary to put my child in a bilingual environment now?
If you’re enrolling her at a local primary school, she’ll have to learn Mother Tongue. Many preschools offer bilingual programmes in, say, Mandarin or Malay. Find out how such a school conducts this. For example, Etonhouse has an integrated learning environment where classrooms are equipped at all times with teachers who speak both English and Mandarin. This immersive environment helps children to think and understand concepts in two different languages, and communicate effectively in them, say its experts.
11. I like the curriculum, but are the school fees within my budget?
“Parents do realise the importance of investing in their child’s education, especially in the early years, as this decision will have a direct effect on her future learning,” shares Sarinah.
But how much to invest depends purely on your financial capacity or willingness to set aside funds for it. She points out that quality care comes with a price, as the school needs more staff to maintain a low teacher-to-pupil ratio, better-quality materials, teaching aids and so on.
By Anita Yee, Young Parenting Pre-school Guide