SINGAPORE - When Mrs Hilwah Brown watched daughter Yasmin Aurora, then six, perform at her Kindergarten 2 graduation concert last year in front of over 300 people, she became emotional.
"I felt very proud that my girl could perform on stage. The concert boosted the kids' confidence level," says Mrs Brown, 44, who runs a maid agency and has an elder daughter aged 10.
She was impressed that her daughter memorised the script for her lead role in a Willy Wonka inspired English segment and was able to sing Mandarin songs even though she is not Chinese.
As her youngest child and only son, Harris, six, prepares to graduate from the same MapleBear pre-school this year, Mrs Brown admits that his first school milestone is a bittersweet one.
"I cannot be there to witness my boy receiving the graduation certificate from the principal," she says. "Harris wants mummy and daddy to be there to clap for him and take pictures, so he is a bit sad."
Across the island, pre-schools have been coming up with creative ways to make the year-end ceremonies safe yet meaningful for the more than 34,000 children graduating from K2 during the pandemic.
Gone are the grand, auditorium-scale events that almost resembled pop concerts, with their elaborate sets and throngs of eager family members jostling for yet another photo of their precious little ones.
Following guidelines set by the Early Childhood Development Agency (ECDA), this year's ceremonies will be held at class-level with no visitors, no mixing of classes and safe distancing even during performances.
Brass and wind instruments are not allowed, while microphones, costumes and props cannot be shared. Graduation photos must be taken individually and each child's gown must be laundered before it can be reused.
An ECDA spokesman explains: "As pre-school premises are generally smaller and more compact compared with other premises, there will be more impact on families in the event of any transmission within the pre-school."
Despite the many restrictions, childcare centres are rising to the challenge.
"Graduation this year may not look the same. But with a little creativity, we can honour our children's accomplishments and focus on celebrating," says Mr Ng Yi Xian, executive director of the EtonHouse group.
It will have a live-stream feed for the 200 pupils graduating in December from its EtonHouse pre-schools, with live and pre-recorded segments. Parents are invited to share speeches virtually during the ceremony, Mr Ng adds.
Its K2 pupils will also showcase their graduation projects: including one on their EtonHouse memories and staging a Mandarin play titled The Resilient Seed.
Over at its E-Bridge Pre-School, which offers affordable child care under the Anchor Operator Scheme, teachers involved 560 K2 children in the planning of their graduation productions, which will be recorded for parents and at some centres, broadcast live.
Kinderland, which used to hold its K2 concerts at venues such as the National University of Singapore's University Cultural Centre with an audience of more than 1,000 people, is determined to make sure "our children get the best chance to still have as much normalcy and as many experiences despite the pandemic", says Dr Carol Loy, its director of Curriculum and Professional Development.
Over 200 graduating pupils will showcase values such as teamwork and friendship with performances such as playing musical instruments in a group and dancing during its virtual ceremony.
Similarly, MapleBear Singapore aims to continue its tradition of glitzy productions with a concert inspired by the musicals Annie and Oliver Twist, titled The Sun Will Come Out Tomorrow. CEO Patricia Koh says that the school "will continue to make it special" for its 350 graduates.
A number of pre-schools are getting parents involved in the graduation experience as well.
Some centres under MY World Preschool, which has almost 900 K2 kids across 40 centres, are encouraging their pupils to give a speech at home, which their parents will record. At other centres, parents can record well wishes for their kids, which will be shared as a surprise segment during the ceremony, says Dr May See, its senior general manager.
At least one pre-school chain has adjusted its ceremony with the economic situation in mind. Star Learners Group, which has about 630 K2 pupils across its 41 centres, will live-stream its concerts for free, and will forgo make-up and costumes.
"We understand that these are difficult times and hope not to place any additional financial stress on our parents," explains cluster principal Audrey Chen. Its centres will still proceed with individual graduation photos and digitally stitch them together for the class collages.
Inclusive pre-school Kindle Garden will give its 20 graduating children a collage of class photos and a video montage at no charge, says its principal, Ms Sandy Koh.
The centre, which organised a free overnight camp and adventure walk for its K2 pupils last year, scrapped plans for a physical event this year but is considering holding a virtual session for its graduation ceremony after receiving feedback from parents.
Meanwhile, photo studios report a spike in the number of inquiries from parents about K2 graduation pictures this year. Photographer Melody Lin, who runs Oh Dear Studio, says she has "at least double or thrice the amount of interest and number of actual shoots" this year as parents look for something more than "static" school visuals.
Mr Daniel Kuan, lead photographer at Pixel Workz Photography, has seen a 40 per cent increase in the number of inquiries for such studio shoots, but has had to turn them down as it lacks a physical studio and conducts shoots in schools instead.
All the pre-schools interviewed say parents have taken the changes in their stride.
Sales consultant Teo Tian You, 36, says that apart from "slight disappointment we can't see it live, we are still trying to make my daughter feel like it's a big event".
Rui Ling, five-and-a-half, is still excited about her rehearsals even though her E-Bridge centre is giving parents a recording of the proceedings. Last year, she and her family watched her older brother Shen Jie's concert live at an auditorium. He is now seven.
"Perhaps the kids are still too young to see the difference between doing it externally and doing a scaled-down version," says Mr Teo, who has two other children aged three and seven months.
As educators wrap up an extraordinary year, they marvel at the tenacity and grit their young charges have shown throughout every complication.
"Even though it was a challenge to choreograph concert items with safe distancing measures in mind, the children enjoyed the process and were very cooperative during their regular practices," says Ms Chen of Star Learners.
Dr See of MY World Preschool adds: "We couldn't be prouder of the children graduating this year as they have shown themselves to be extremely resilient."
Make the most of your child's K2 concert
The conditions may not be ideal, but parents can still make sure that their child's Kindergarten 2 concert has "meaningful closure", says Mrs Dianne Seet, principal of The Ascension Kindergarten, which has 145 graduates this year.
She suggests the following tips for both live-streamed and recorded ceremonies.
Technical preparation is key: Make sure you have a strong Wi-Fi signal and that your device has a large enough screen so you can spot your child, who may be wearing a mask or face shield. Avoid using more than one device in the room to avoid audio feedback.
Before the event: Give your child a hug and share words of encouragement. Let your kid know that you will be supporting him or her as you watch the proceedings.
After the ceremony: Receive them with joy and ask them how they felt. Teach them to reflect on it without judging them - no matter how the experience went, there is something to learn.
Make it family time: Arrange to watch the ceremony as a family and affirm your child on how he or she has grown.
Reflect with your child: K2 children are mature enough to reflect on their experiences, so use this opportunity to talk about how they displayed values like perseverance and resilience while they were preparing for the graduation. These life skills will serve your kid well as he or she enters primary school.