Pre-schoolers take on the world

Bryna Sim The Straits Times AsiaOne 1 Jun 15;

SINGAPORE - Pre-schoolers are never too young for any activity, it seems. Pre-schools in Singapore have been offering unusual activities for kindergarteners in recent years.

These include overseas exchange programmes, visits to soup kitchens and old folks' homes, plant cultivation, meditation, film-making and wire sculpturing.

Pre-school operators say it is never too early to expose kids to such activities which can teach them about other cultures, independence, values and skills.

Activities that involve overseas travel are usually add-ons to the core curriculum, which means parents pay extra for them, on top of the school fees. For example, Genius Hive's Taiwan trip costs $1,400 for a child and $1,400 for the accompanying parent.

Creative O's local soup kitchen visits also entail a transport fee of about $7 a child for each trip. There are no additional costs for visits to old folks' homes though.

Other activities at pre-schools, such as wire work and meditation, are part of the curriculum.

Beyond day camps and stay-in camps, at least one pre-school operator organises a three-day, two-night, Outward Bound-style camp every year.

Creative O Preschoolers' Bay takes Kindergarten 2 children to St John's Island on a camping trip every September, sans parents. The children pack their bags themselves and once there, they learn to cook, prepare a barbecue and play challenging outdoor games.

Principal Tan Beng Luan says the camp is meant to put the children in a new environment, away from their usual comforts. She adds: "They get to learn life skills such as planning, problem-solving, co-operation and responsibility."

Eight children aged five and six from Genius Hive Pre-school are now in Taiwan for the school's inaugural overseas adventure trip.

They will attend classes there with kids in three local schools, visit a farm and spend time at Baby Boss theme park, which allows them to role-play adult jobs.

Centre manager Kimberly Quek says: "Children learn and remember best when they can see, touch, hear, feel and taste. We believe this overseas trip will provide numerous learning opportunities for them."

Besides experiencing a different culture, the kids are also expected to come up with personal learning objectives for the trip, encouraging goal-setting and ownership.

The Little Skool-House International, a brand under NTUC First Campus, has been organising overseas trips to a rural part of Taiwan since 2009. The kids learn how to grow crops such as sugarcane and sweet potatoes, prepare simple meals and experience rural life there.

Several pre-school operators, including Busy Bees and Metropolitan YMCA's MY World Preschool, encourage their pre-schoolers to help the less fortunate and develop social awareness and compassion. These can come in the form of visits to old folks' homes or packing goodie bags for the needy.

Children at Creative O Preschoolers' Bay are taught to go one step further. Beyond monthly visits to three different charity homes, they are also responsible for planning the entertainment - songs, drama, dance or games - and snacks for the elderly.

Ms Tan says the children are "very serious" about this task and will discuss and rehearse before the visits.

"Adults should not underestimate children," she adds. "The children make good suggestions about what snacks or games are suitable for the elderly from their observations on earlier visits."

Since March this year, the pre-school has taken on a new community service project - helping out at Willing Hearts soup kitchen, which distributes free meals to the needy. The children do simple tasks, including pasting consume-by stickers on the lunch boxes and handing them out at distribution centres.

In doing so, they learn to be kind and helpful, and are "engaging in the process" of contributing to the community, says Ms Tan. She adds that at the soup kitchen, the children see how volunteers help to prepare ingredients, cook and pack the food. "It's very meaningful for them to see the effort that goes into producing these meals."

Other pre-schools seek to nurture character in different ways.

Kindergarten 1 children at NTUC's My First Skool centres are taught the value of responsibility by caring for a plant for an entire year.

When a plant dies along the way, the teacher will discuss with the child the reasons for its death, emphasising the importance of being a good care-giver and encouraging him to grow a new plant. Says Dr Connie Lum, head of Chinese Language Curriculum at NTUC First Campus: "Pre-school is an ideal time to instill core values as the children are able to understand that their behaviour has an impact on others."

Buddhism-inspired preschool My Little Gems has a concentration programme, which is based on Buddhist meditation techniques. At least twice a day for up to 15 minutes, the children meditate by focusing on their breathing and surroundings.

Principal Ben Lim says that in sustaining attention on an object of focus and in being mindful of themselves and their surroundings, the children learn to manage their emotions and exercise self-control.

Apart from ballet and gymnastics, some pre-schools also offer yoga, film-making and wire sculpturing as ways to enhance a child's gross and fine motor skills.

Children at EtonHouse pre-schools have in recent years been exploring wire work. EtonHouse Bilingual Pre-School principal Ng Shu Ping says this helps them strengthen their fine motor skills, as well as understand the material's properties.

Parents whom SundayLife! spoke to are supportive of these various activities.

Mr Tan Ming Kang, 42, whose five-year-old son Octavius Trajan is on Genius Hive Pre-school's trip in Taiwan with his mother, believes the trip will do his son much good.

"He will be exposed to a different environment and gain insight into how things work in a different place," says the consultant in an IT firm.