Taking care where to site childcare centres

Ms Chua Sin Oon and Mr Alex Ong from the Early Childhood Development Agency checking if a void deck is suitable for a childcare centre. For instance, there must be a playground within walking distance, and children should not have to cross any roads
Ms Chua Sin Oon and Mr Alex Ong from the Early Childhood Development Agency checking if a void deck is suitable for a childcare centre. For instance, there must be a playground within walking distance, and children should not have to cross any roads or carparks to get to it. -- ST PHOTO: NG SOR LUAN

Finding the right space to build 200 new childcare centres is no child's play. Priscilla Goy finds out how officers from the Early Childhood Development Agency tackle the challenge, as the Government ramps up efforts to ease the childcare crunch.

With a map of Sengkang estate, Ms Chua Sin Oon walks around the void deck of a new block of flats in Fernvale Ridge, taking notes on her clipboard as she scans the surroundings.

Convenient drop-off points. Check.

Playground within walking distance. Check.

Ms Chua, 35, scrutinises each site she visits like a seasoned property agent. However, she is not shopping for flats, but suitable locations to site new childcare centres.

She is a sector planning officer from the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), which is spearheading the Government's efforts to meet the growing demand for childcare services.

The aim is to build 200 new centres by 2017 which will provide 20,000 childcare places - enough for one in two children, up from one in three currently.

This year alone, at least 45 centres are expected to be built islandwide - the bulk of them in areas with high demand like Sengkang and Woodlands.

The task of finding suitable locations to house these centres falls on Ms Chua and six other officers in the infrastructure and productivity team - one of four departments in ECDA's sector planning division.

The Straits Times followed Ms Chua last week when she conducted a "walk-the-ground assessment" of the void deck at Fernvale Ridge, where residents had moved in about half a year ago.

She had a long checklist of what to look out for when evaluating the site.

For example, it must be near a playground where children can safely take part in outdoor activities. Ms Chua said: "Children should not need to cross any roads or carparks to get to the playground."

She also noted that the void deck does not have stone tables, bicycle racks, or too many pipes and cables - which is good because it offers sufficient space for pre-school activities.

The process of setting up a new centre - from planning to the opening of a centre - takes about a year. It starts with identifying the areas within an estate which need more childcare centres.

To do this, officers make use of software which shows the locations of existing centres, and demographic data such as the number of children of pre-school age.

In Fernvale Ridge and the adjacent Fernvale Palms, for instance, there are about 50 children of pre-school age. But the nearest centre - a few blocks away at Fernvale Court - is privately-run and has limited vacancies.

In newer estates like Sengkang, gauging demand for childcare places is easier because of the higher proportion of younger families living there. But this proves more challenging in mature estates.

Mr Alex Ong, ECDA assistant director for infrastructure and productivity, said: "For older estates, there may be fewer children below the age of seven. But there could still be high demand for childcare services."

This could be due to working couples preferring to send their children to centres near their parents' homes, which may be located in mature estates.

Once officers like Ms Chua have identified a suitable location, they will work with the Housing Board to evaluate if it is feasible to set up a childcare centre there.

This process also involves other stakeholders, such as grassroots advisers and town councils.

At times, different agencies may vie for the same site and competing needs have to be worked out.

"We'll discuss - do the other agencies have alternatives, or do we have alternatives? We'll try to come to an agreement," said Mr Ong. "It also depends on which is the greater need in that area."

The problem of finding sites is worsened by the lack of large void decks, many of which are already housing childcare centres.

"In the previous five-year masterplan (in 2008), we already built about 200 centres, so quite a number of void decks have been taken up," said Mr Ong.

To get around the problem, more centres have been sited in "innovative" places in recent years, such as in multi-storey carparks.

Increasingly, the high demand for childcare facilities is factored in by the HDB when it plans new Build-to-Order projects.

But beyond the "hardware" of assessing sites and finding locations, Ms Chua said one of the greatest challenges in her job is getting the support of residents.

"There were some cases where we had strong objections from residents," she said, adding that some residents were concerned about noise or traffic congestion caused by parents picking up their children from the childcare centres.

But Ms Chua is undaunted by these challenges.

"As a parent myself, there is a sense of achievement and satisfaction when I see centres being developed to provide childcare services to other parents."

goyshiyi@sph.com.sg

For a list of upcoming centres, parents may go to www.childcarelink.gov.sg/ccls/home/CCLS_HomeUpcomingCentreDetail.jsp

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