Never too young to start on the arts

Arts activities for children are on the rise with more parents and the Government convinced that exposure to the arts is important to kids' development

Hitch a ride with the Lohs and you may catch seven-year-old Marc and five-year-old Samuel belting out tunes from the musical Les Miserables.

Her sons, says Mrs Bernissa Loh, 34, are currently "obsessed" with the well-loved musical, based on French writer Victor Hugo's novel that follows former convict Jean Valjean as he tries to make a new life for himself and evade the clutches of the persistent Inspector Javert.

Her husband Matthew, 38, assistant director of human resource at Tan Tock Seng Hospital, is himself an avid fan.

Mrs Loh, the business development manager for GymKids (Singapore), a children's physical development programme, says of the two boys: "They know the lyrics to their favourite songs and never fail to get us to play the songs in the car.

"Together, they'll belt out the songs, one as Jean Valjean, the other as Inspector Javert. Marc can even write out the lyrics of Stars, his favourite song."

It all started with The Very Hungry Caterpillar.

This generation of parents doesn't see the arts as something you can't make money from. People now appreciate it for its benefits to well-being, to imagination.

MS ALLISON WONG, group principal of Nafa Arts Kindergarten


Marc had his first brush with the arts at age three, watching with wide eyes a staging of the popular children's book, presented by ACT 3 International. That set the stage for a deep, burning interest in the performing arts.

He has been picking away at the electric guitar for 11/2 years and both boys are now enthusiastic students at the ACT 3 Drama Academy.

They will be performing in an upcoming production presented by ACT 3 International, The Missing Mouse, which follows an elephant wandering around a museum as he looks for his missing friend.

"I've learnt not to underestimate what young children are capable of. They can surprise you in the most unexpected situation - like when they perform in front of a large audience without any fear," says Mrs Loh, who was four when her mother took her to her first show, an ACT 3 production. "No child is too young to be exposed to the arts and what it does to his self-esteem and self-confidence is amazing."

She is among the fast-growing ranks of parents here who are looking to whet their children's appetites for the arts early in life.

And they are in luck.

Arts for the pint-sized crowd is booming. There are special spaces devoted to children, entire programmes designed with them in mind and productions to tickle their fancy.

The arts scene for kids has taken flight in recent years, buoyed by rising demand from parents and growing commitment from the Government, arts groups and schools to nurture in children a love for the arts.

In its Performing Arts Masterplan in 2014, the National Arts Council shone the spotlight on children.

Artists, it said, should capture the imaginations of children and youth - "the future audience, supporters and even patrons for the sector".

Among the arts council's plans was a dedicated Children's Arts Centre. This is expected to be up and running at the Goodman Arts Centre by the end of this year.

Meanwhile, the arts has, to the pleasure of parents and practitioners, been seeping into schools - an acknowledgement that it is crucial in a student's growth.

Nominated Member of Parliament Kok Heng Leun, artistic director of Chinese theatre troupe Drama Box, in his maiden speech in Parliament, spoke about the need to make arts part of school life.

Mr Kok, 50, tells The Straits Times: "The education system here has been about preparing our children to be an employable being. I'm not saying it's not important, but it's just one aspect."

Children need culture, too, he says. It "makes us human".

"We're also facing a fast- changing society. Most subjects teach us what has been discovered and how to apply what has been discovered," he says. "But only through arts, we learn how to imagine and deal with the unknown future."

A slew of quality arts education programmes has made its way into schools, with a surge in government funds that make professionally run programmes more accessible.

In 2012, the Government pledged under the Arts and Culture Education Masterplan to spend up to $40 million on arts education over five years.

And recently, the Ministry of Culture, Community and Youth, during the debate on its budget, announced plans to bring arts and culture to more pre-schoolers.

The National Arts Council and the Early Childhood Development Agency will this year expand the pre-school arts education programme to 55 centres, up from 19.

This programme exposes children to the arts through performances and lets them try various art forms, including dance and visual arts. They are also taken on trips to arts venues such as museums and artists' studios.

And a new pre-school in Edgefield Plain in Punggol, run by NTUC My First Skool, will focus largely on the arts when it opens next month. Artists and pre-school teachers will work together to develop and teach the curriculum.

Creative activities, says the National Arts Council's director of arts and youth Kenneth Kwok, form some of the best building blocks for a child's development.

Working with clay or mimicking a dance movement strengthens motor skills, while having fun with colours, sounds and stories ignites the imagination and capacity for expression.

"Best of all, because the learning takes place through exploration and play, children have the safe space to discover new ways of seeing the world, helping them develop the curious and critical mind needed for the 21st century," he says.

And parents are more eager than ever to give their children a headstart when it comes to the arts.

The Nanyang Academy of Fine Arts (Nafa) Arts Kindergarten had only 60 students when it started at Nafa's main campus in Bencoolen Street in 2004.

In 2005, it moved to its own premises in East Coast Road. Demand continued to soar and in 2014, a second centre was started in Derbyshire Road near Novena.

The East Coast branch is now at full capacity, with 300 students. Its waiting list goes up to three years.

The kindergarten offers pupils in-depth fine arts lessons on top of the usual subjects such as English and mathematics. Each day, an hour is devoted solely to the arts, out of the four that kids spend in the centre.

This ranges from dance classes where they do ballet, music classes spent jamming on the keyboard and art classes where students learn about artists such as Vincent Van Gogh and conceptualise and work on their own art pieces.

Ms Allison Wong, 48, the group principal of Nafa Arts Kindergarten, says parents want their children to excel beyond numbers and literacy.

"It's a paradigm shift," she says. "This generation of parents doesn't see the arts as something you can't make money from. People now appreciate it for its benefits to well-being, to imagination."

Sales supervisor Jeremy Koh, 45, says his son Caleb, who is in Primary 2, has gone to museums and watched theatre productions with his school - an experience worlds apart from his own.

"My parents were the type of people who thought the arts were a luxury. They told me, study hard, get good grades first. If you want to play soccer, can. But dance or drama or music? No way," he says with a laugh. "They were like, what are you going to be? You want to be a rock star? You want to be an actor? How to pay for anything?"

His first theatre experience came at the age of 35 - a Wild Rice staging of Stella Kon's Emily Of Emerald Hill.

He has been hooked since and now watches about four plays a year with his son, who is especially fond of Wild Rice's annual pantomimes.

Last year, Caleb asked to be sent to art classes on weekends.

"He's interested in set design now. The arts gives you a world that's colourful and imaginative. I want that for him," he says. "I don't want him thinking just of grades and numbers. I want to tell him it's okay to be anything you want to be."

He adds: "I'm trying to make sure his world is not just a screen. When the actors are right there - no barriers between them and my son - and when they engage the audience and pull them into the show, I can see him absorbed in a totally different way than he is with my iPad."

Arts groups and institutions are not just coasting by on this increased appetite and funding for the arts for the young. They have been going all out to court children and parents with kid-friendly fare.

Arts institutions have also carved out spaces for tots.

In February, The Esplanade opened Pips' Playbox, a children's activity area which hosts activities such as storytelling. The space houses a cosy reading corner that offers children's books by Singapore writers and a craft-activity space.

This is on top of the centre's other children's programmes, such as its annual Octoburst festival for children.

In 2006, the Esplanade introduced its Feed Your Imagination series of arts education programmes, created in collaboration with Singapore artists and arts groups for primary and secondary school students.

The following year, it filled what it recognised as a gap in its art programmes for very young children and launched the Playtime series of original theatre productions for kids aged two to four.

Ms Chua Lik Ling, its head of programme management for children and youth, says one of the national arts centre's key considerations is getting Singapore practitioners involved, "particularly in creating and presenting work that reflect our stories, cultures and social context".

Meanwhile, theatremakers are also bent on innovating, creating original material and breathing some Asian flavour into a theatre scene long dominated by international productions.

Paper Monkey Theatre, for instance, has a focus on Asian traditions and puppetry.

Its artistic director Benjamin Ho, 48, says: "I really want to share our rich Asian culture and heritage with our youths, who are slowly adopting Western culture as their own. They're forgetting their roots and that's a pity."

Clerk S. Puvaneswary, 48, whose nine-year-old son recently picked up pottery, agrees.

"It's important to have more and more kids' shows that are made in Singapore, or Singapore artists making artwork for children. I want an arts scene for my son that is not just imports from abroad," she says.

"I want my son to have some idols from Singapore, to look at these faces and names from Singapore and think to himself, 'Oh, he grew up here just like me. If he can make such beautiful art, I can too.'"

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 03, 2016, with the headline 'Starting young on the arts'. Print Edition | Subscribe