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The day I was stumped by a kindergarten question

The dogged focus on academics can obscure what is important in childhood, but a difficult question from a K2 worksheet challenges my belief in letting kids play freely

I am spraying bug repellent on my children at a playground when a ping comes.

"Try this," my friend A has texted, alongside a picture of five hot-air balloons, each imprinted with three different numbers. "Which is the odd one out?"

I stare at the screen.

"This one," my husband breaks the silence finally, pointing over my shoulder. "The numbers on the other balloons add to 100, but the numbers on this one total 70."

"Very clever," A says. I tell her it is my husband's answer, not mine. (Evidently, that A-star I received for PSLE maths is not counting for much, more than 20 years later.)

Then comes A's punchline: "By the way, this question is from a Kindergarten 2 worksheet."

"Whoa," I say as I turn to my husband. "Are they expected to add to 100 in K2?"

My twin son and daughter were mixing up 40 and 14 just a few months before entering K1 this year.

"The standard is so different now," moans another friend when I forward her the picture. "Are we that out of touch?"

I probably am. My eyes widened dramatically at recent gatherings, when parents of older kids talked about how kids are progressing way faster academically, well, compared to "our time".

Multiplication and math models at Primary 1, and fractions at Primary 2 - I recall having learnt these in Primary 3. Number bonds? I should learn that concept. And make a mental note to Google "heuristics" some time.

Calm down, A says. She clarifies that the question is from an enrichment class, which I suppose pitches questions at a higher level and may not reflect the "pace" of other pre-schools.

I am not sure I am comforted. I wonder if my children are doing all right.

Often, I see myself - idealistic as it sounds - as champion of their playtime. At this stage, I believe in free play, which experts say develops children's imagination, creativity, agility, emotional and social skills.

I am determined for them to have warm memories of an enjoyable childhood. They will eventually plunge into a competitive environment. No point over-scheduling them with classes now.

It might even be good to be occasionally bored, as boredom allows children space to discover their personal talents and interests.

But of late, I admit that my philosophy on free play is increasingly being challenged, after encountering anecdotes of the rigorous academic environment today.

Recently, I learnt of a child who attends two kindergartens (one in the morning, another in the afternoon), a top-notch academic enrichment centre in the evening, and has private home tuition on some nights.

It sounds extreme, and perhaps her family has reasons for this, but it got me wondering for a second if I am too slack.

Reading news of Singapore students topping the Programme for International Student Assessment world rankings for maths, science and reading, I am delighted that we are part of a first-class education system.

Secretly, though, I feel slightly worried, too. Will my children make the cut if we don't start now?

In parenthood, the results seem intangible, at least in the earlier days. Sometimes, it is easier to determine how we are progressing by looking at academic grades.

But that road is a slippery slope and the dogged focus on academics alone, to me, can obscure what is truly important.

For my husband and me, empathy, humility, hard work and perseverance are among highly prized values in our three children. And we have a long way to go on these fronts.

Like many parents today, our inner debate about enrichment classes - academic or otherwise, and whether we shortchange our children by not registering them - will likely continue.

We are now sitting by a bench at the playground.

"Stop," our son says, telling the other children to halt the spinning merry-go-round. I wonder if he is being bossy.

It turns out he is helping another child, standing at the fringe, to get aboard. "I'll push," he says.

We stroll past a lotus pond by the lush hillock. "Dragonfly," my elder daughter says, pointing to the flitting crimson insect.

My two-year-old daughter counts the blooming flowers happily.

"See? Numeracy, science, negotiating with others, climbing - surely all that today is part of education," my husband says with a twinkle in his eye as we walk home with a sweaty brood.

Or perhaps, I tell him, that is what childhood is all about.

Denise Lim, a freelance columnist, was formerly a communications specialist with a financial institution.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on April 02, 2017, with the headline 'The day I was stumped by a kindergarten question'. Print Edition | Subscribe