A good pre-school provides quality human interactions

When families want to enrol their pre-schooler (who is four to six years old) in a childcare centre or kindergarten, many will consider location, cost, availability and perhaps brand-name and popularity. Some may also look for pre-schools which match their own cultural and religious values.

While these are valid considerations, a good programme should cater to a child's temperament, needs and interests through a dynamic curriculum and a responsive and respectful environment.

Young children thrive in environments that provide high-quality human interactions and engaging learning encounters with a stable group of teachers.

While an award-winning architecture is not a pre-requisite, it could be a bonus if the school's design included input from the educators who would eventually function in that space. Purpose-built pre-schools enhance learning, but designs need not be extravagant.

Singapore has a national curriculum framework even though the early childhood education sector is mostly private.

In 2012, the Ministry of Education (MOE) produced a revised version of Nurturing Early Learners: A Curriculum Framework For Kindergartens In Singapore. For infant-toddler programmes, the then Ministry of Community Development, Youth and Sports published the Early Years Development Framework.

While not mandatory, both documents list developmentally appropriate expectations for young children. For instance, they do not promote the use of academic worksheets or rote learning.

Instead, they emphasise the need to support young children as active, playful, curious and competent learners and communicators.

There is also a parents' guide for Nurturing Early Learners available on the MOE website.

To further support centres' ongoing improvement beyond basic licensing requirements, there is a voluntary accreditation process - the Singapore Pre-school Quality Accreditation Framework.

It encourages centres to regularly self-appraise using a locally designed Quality Rating Scale, which examines seven aspects of pre-school education: leadership; planning and administration; staff management; resources; curriculum; pedagogy; and health, hygiene and safety.

Quality care and learning in pre-schools are contingent upon having all these aspects examined.

Here is an abbreviated view of what quality pre-school curriculum and teaching could look like.

Dynamic curriculum

All pre-school programmes should have a written form of curricular document that states clearly the broad learning goals for all children as they progress from year to year.

It includes principles for organising time, space, children and materials. And it includes activity ideas that teachers can carry out to meet different goals and objectives.

A high-quality pre-school programme should have a "living", dynamic curriculum that is planned on an ongoing basis to tailor to the needs of the enrolled children. Such a tailored curriculum considers children's cultural backgrounds, prior knowledge, their evolving interests and specific needs.

Most importantly, activities should intentionally support children's holistic development in areas such as communication, creativity, perception, problem-solving, reasoning, self-regulation, emotional security, social skills, and large/fine motor and sensory development.

Curriculum should support older pre-schoolers' social and emotional transition to primary school. For instance, children read stories and talk about going to a bigger school and meeting new friends and teachers, they learn to tell the time and organise their things, they learn to count a small amount of money, and they visit a primary school.

WHAT A DYNAMIC CURRICULUM COULD LOOK LIKE

• The curriculum documents have goals that address all of children's developmental domains instead of rote learning for primary school subjects.

• Teachers modify activity plans as well as create activities by observing children's progress and interests as learners. The purpose is to help children connect to what they already know.

• Engaging activities help children inquire about the physical and social world and help them grow to be responsible citizens. They learn to ask: "How does this work? Could it work a different way? What can I/we do to…?"

• There is a good balance between learning indoors and outdoors, via adult-led and child-led activities.

• Children learn to use their senses, take care of their physical needs and develop healthy habits.

• They have opportunities to speak, listen, read, draw/write, count, reason, create and experiment in a meaningful manner through real-world exploration and play-based inquiry.

• Inexpensive, open-ended materials and familiar tools encourage children to construct ideas, re-purpose everyday objects, experiment and extend what they already know.

• The programme schedule and organisation of space are sensitive to the developmental needs and variations among young children. For instance, young children should not spend much time waiting for something to happen, be in a large group and/or be writing for a long period of time.

• Children are supported to enhance their play and learning - they are given time to build and construct, develop original stories, and be "in the flow" when creating imaginative play scenarios or artwork.

Respectful and responsive environment

Curricular plans aside, relationship- building is key to young children's learning and development. Teaching in pre-school is really about supporting children as they communicate and relate with other children and adults. Everything that goes on in a pre-school should be focused on the social and interactive needs of the individual child and enhancing child-adult and child-child interactions.

WHAT THIS COULD LOOK LIKE

• The atmosphere in the centre is warm, respectful and inviting to children and their families.

• There are photographs of children/families on display, along with children's works. Respect for individuality is evident in the children's artwork (that is, not template art).

• Children's mark-making ("scribbles") and invented spelling are seen as essential to their development as writers and communicators.

• Children are encouraged to play and work together, and to share.

• Children learn to help one another.

• Children are supported to use their words in conflict resolution, to describe their feelings, encourage others, solve problems and cooperate with their peers.

• Teachers are calm and composed, and do not shout at children. They model to children the ways in which they should treat others.

• Teachers observe every child's progress to cater to individual needs and temperament. They support individual children to become self-regulated, social and considerate of others.

• Teachers and families encourage one another and exchange observations of children's capabilities and progress, as well as realistic expectations.

Parents should visit pre-schools to have a better sense of what the teachers and principal are trying to achieve before deciding if their child would be comfortable with the philosophy and practices of a particular pre-school. After all, time spent in a programme is very significant in the day of a child's life.

To learn more, explore the resources for parents on the Early Childhood Development Agency website (www.ecda.gov.sg), including an online version of its Beanstalk quarterly magazine.

• The writer is a senior lecturer at SIM University, and specialises in early childhood education.

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on May 02, 2016, with the headline 'A good pre-school provides quality human interactions'. Print Edition | Subscribe