Of bugs and Angry Birds

Some preschools stand out from the crowd by offering novel curriculum such as outdoor learning and robotics

In a garden where vegetables are grown, children at Little Village preschool recently harvested brinjals.

Guided by their teachers, the preschoolers looked at different ways to cook the vegetable, which was planted by last year's graduating kindergartners. They settled on brinjal fries, which they cooked under supervision at school.

A strong focus on outdoor education is what sets Little Village apart from most preschools.

Principal Sheena Ang, 27, says: "We spend at least an hour a day outside. Apart from the activities planned by teachers that take place outdoors, the children also spend a large amount of time engaging in free and unstructured play."

"Such play, we believe, is important because it boosts problemsolving skills, creativity and self- awareness, as well as agility, balance and coordination."

Housed in four pre-war bungalows in Grange Road, Little Village's 4,512 sq m compound has papaya, lime and other fruit trees.

Getting in touch with nature and knowing about ants, millipedes and other bugs stimulates their curiosity.

MS CHONG EE RONG, whose sons' preschool advocates outdoor play

Last year, the kindergartners made in-house papaya jam. They sold jars of it at a school fund-raiser for the Nepal earthquake last April, raising $1,350. The children had been following the news in class and asked if they could help, says Ms Ang. With their teachers' guidance, they decided to raise funds for the quake victims.

Little Village, which has about 130 children on its enrolment, is not your average preschool. But do not call it a niche preschool.

Despite the unfamiliar sheen of some niche programmes at preschools, all establishments are expected to meet educational goals.

Although preschool education is not nationalised, unlike primary and secondary school education, the Early Childhood Development Agency, a government body that oversees preschool education, "requires childcare centres and kindergartens to provide programmes that develop children holistically", says an agency spokesman. Besides numeracy and literacy skills, this includes addressing children's social and emotional development.

Preschools should also have an "appropriate curriculum and assessment framework", such as the Nurturing Early Learners Curriculum, a set of kindergarten resources developed by the Ministry of Education. They are recommended to adhere to the curriculum.

All preschools are required to register with the agency.

Given the competitiveness of the preschool sector - there are about 1,750 preschools - more preschools touting specific areas of excellence to distinguish themselves from the others can be expected, experts say.

There are those offering languages other than English and Chinese; those focusing on the arts; those with religious education; and those inspired by animation characters.

Dr Sirene Lim, a senior lecturer at SIM University who specialises in early childhood education, says: "The kindergarten and childcare landscape has, for a few decades, offered an array of approaches to cater to families' preferences."

Dr Christine Chen, president of the Association for Early Childhood Educators (Singapore), says: "In general, the trend is towards diversity. Schools are talking about differentiation of learning. They are responding to market needs and serving children and their families better."

Besides taking into account factors such as location and cost, niche specialisations can be deal- clinchers for parents scouting for a suitable preschool.

That was the case for marketing communications consultant Chong Ee Rong, 40. Her elder son Evan, six, graduated from Little Village last year and her younger son William, three, is enrolled there.

Ms Chong says: "How much outdoor time they have in preschool is important because we have only a balcony in our flat. Getting in touch with nature and knowing about ants, millipedes and other bugs stimulates their curiosity."

Some niche preschools find it challenging to get parents to be "early adopters", says Mr Kong Yew Kiin, 37, business development director at Dreamkids Kindergarten.

About a year ago, he started the preschool in East Coast Road with his wife, its principal Dawn Choy, 35, and other business partners. They began with about 10 children and there are now about 30 enrolled in the preschool, which is open to those aged 18 months to six years old. Three of the couple's four children attend the school.

Mr Kong also runs several enrichment centres and Ms Choy has an early childhood education degree.

"We wanted to set up a preschool that is unconventional," says Mr Kong. This includes the use of smartphones in class. The children use mobile devices to scan QR codes printed on cards for activities such as adding the number of cupcakes shown on a card.

Mr Kong says: "We need to teach our kids to be masters of, not slaves to, technology. We want to prepare them well for the future."

At Dreamkids Kindergarten, the use of smartphones, tablets and Smart Boards, which are interactive white boards, is limited to between half an hour and two hours a week.

The centre has also partnered Finnish computer game developer Rovio Entertainment in an early childhood education programme called the Angry Birds Playground, named after Rovio's famous video game franchise. It merges aspects of Finnish education, which consistently ranks highly in global educational league tables, and Singapore education.

Later this year, there are plans to let the kindergartners try being cashiers at a supermarket or work as librarians, as part of the preschool's emphasis on experiential learning.

Such experiences do not come cheap for parents.

At Dreamkids Kindergarten, which has half- and full-day programmes, monthly fees are between $900 and $1,800. At Little Village, basic monthly fees are about $1,600 for a full-day programme.

The median amount for fees for a full-day childcare programme in Singapore was $900 last year, figures from the Early Childhood Development Agency show. Government subsidies are available.

In contrast, fees are kept relatively low at a laboratory preschool at Temasek Polytechnic, despite its non-mainstream approach.

Largely funded by the Education Ministry, Preschool Learning Academy @ Temasek Polytechnic, orPlay@TP, uses robotic toys, coding and circuitry as part of its curriculum. This PlayMaker Programme was introduced in collaboration with the Infocomm Development Authority (IDA) last year.

Here, the children decorate cards by pasting "stickers" to make strips of lights powered by a battery. They also programme "tech toys" by scanning bar codes with simple instructions which direct the robots to perform a sequence of actions, such as moving forward.

Mr Ang Teck Hua, director of the Centre for Child Study at Temasek Polytechnic, which oversees Play@TP, says: "We did not set out to be a niche preschool."

This is because preschool teachers who have their training at Play@TP can "replicate good practices" in other mainstream preschools, he says. With subsidies by the Education Ministry and polytechnic, Singaporeans pay $230 a month in school fees, adds Mr Ang, 50.

Eventually, some niche programmes may become mainstream at preschools in Singapore.

The Yuhua PAP Community Foundation centre introduced PlayMaker technology toys last year. It is the first of 160 preschool centres where the IDA programme will be rolled out.

Housewife Saanthiyah Vairappan feels her elder daughter Dhanalatchmi, six, was given opportunities to "develop her creativity" at Play@TP, which the Primary 1 pupil attended last year. While Dhanalatchmi is interested in tech toys, Madam Saanthiyah, 33, says she prefers her daughter and two-year-old son to play with traditional toys such as Lego.

For parents navigating a thicket of preschool options, educational psychologist Lily Wong notes that marketing plays a role in a competitive market.

"Parents should visit the school to see if it is practising what it says it is teaching," says Dr Wong, executive director of Advent Links-SAUC Education Centre, which trains early childhood teachers.

Not all parents are after the novel though. Public servant Lynette Lee, 36, whose two-year-old twins started nursery in January, says: "Niche preschools tend to be expensive. At their age, I just want them to learn to make friends in school."

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Sunday Times on March 20, 2016, with the headline 'Of bugs and Angry Birds'. Print Edition | Subscribe